This interview first was published at INN, and posted here in its entirety with the full permission of the author.
Efraim Zuroff: “no government would openly oppose the project, but the energies and resources invested by the prosecutors are a much more accurate barometer of local sentiments.”
Hunting Nazi Criminals – Operation: Last Chance
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Efraim Zuroff
“In 2002, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Israel (SWC) and the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, Florida launched ‘Operation: Last Chance’ (OLC) to help facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, primarily in post-Communist Europe. By the end of 2011, it has yielded the names of over 600 suspects in 32 countries. Of these, the names of 102 have been submitted to local prosecutors, of which 46 are from Lithuania, 14 from Latvia and 6 from Germany.
“There are six levels of success in trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice: exposing the criminal in the media, having an official governmental investigation opened against the suspect, an indictment, arrest warrant, or extradition request issued against him, a trial of the suspect, a conviction in court and ultimately the punishment of the suspect.”
Holocaust historian Dr.Efraim Zuroff, is the Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Israel, and is widely known as “the last Nazi hunter.” He has spent much of his professional life searching for Nazi war criminals and the evidence needed to convict them, as well as lobbying often recalcitrant governments to undertake their prosecution. Zuroff has published several books, the most recent of which Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice 1 presents the background to the project and in-depth accounts of its five most important cases.
He says: “The educational aspects of the program were designed to sensitize people to the history of the Holocaust and focus public attention on the questions that people in these countries should be asking themselves. The responses in the various countries ranged from full support and admiration to staunch opposition. One specific public reaction fairly prevalent in post-Communist Eastern Europe was to attack OLC because it focused only on Nazi crimes and not on Communist crimes, and used what some considered to be ‘Soviet’ methods, i.e. the use of paid informers.
“Much of the OLC’s success depends primarily on whether the local government has the political will to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators and there is a local constituency that supports the project.
“OLC was initiated in the Baltics because we believed that the potential to find informants there was especially high. In these countries however, there was no political will to prosecute and virtually no local support. The only people who were supportive were individuals who are ahead of their time. They understood that this issue is critical for the future of their countries.
“Also the quality of information received has varied from country to country. Almost all those who have contacted the call centers have been non-Jews. In Austria, my estimate is that of the more than one hundred calls we received 90 to 95 percent were anti-Semitic.”
Zuroff observes: “Each government is a different case, depending on their attitude to the efforts to prosecute such criminals. In Germany for example, OLC does not encounter any official obstruction or opposition. In Eastern Europe, the local governments are hardly thrilled with the prospect of our succeeding in finding unprosecuted local Nazi war criminals or collaborators. The dominant issue is however, the attitude of local prosecutors, which is usually a reflection of the local government’s outlook. In short: no government would openly oppose the project, but the energies and resources invested by the prosecutors are a much more accurate barometer of local sentiments.
“OLC even faced one legal challenge based on data protection laws in Hungary, concerning the ‘export’ overseas of information about Hungarian citizens. It remained solely a threat which never resulted in legal action. In fact, OLC was most successful in practical terms in Hungary, despite initial doubts about our chances of success there due to the nature of the crimes committed by Hungarian Nazi war criminals and collaborators. This as opposed to those committed in the Baltics for example, where the number of locals who actively participated in mass murder was unusually high.”
Zuroff mentions that in 2011, ‘Operation Last Chance II’ has been started. “It focuses primarily on death camp guards and Einsatzgruppen personnel. They can – in the wake of the Demjanjuk conviction in May 2011 in Munich – now be successfully prosecuted for accessory to murder even without proof of a specific crime with a specific victim.”
Zuroff sums up the achievements of Operation Last Chance: “It did help identify those responsible for terrible crimes committed during the Shoah. Beyond that, it focused significant attention on the very important role played by the Nazis’ local helpers. Their assistance in implementing the Final Solution was critical, especially in Eastern Europe where it included participation in mass murder. In view of the very limited resources invested in OLC, the results achieved have been relatively significant.”