For the world’s last remaining Nazi hunters, the next few years could be very busy indeed. After a thirty-year career, Dr Efraim Zuroff should be thinking about his pension plan and golf club membership, but he’s gearing up for some of the busiest years in his career.
“I’m basically the last person doing this now,” he says. “And I don’t have much time left.”
Time is not Zuroff’s only problem. He has dealt for years with difficult governments, fought extradition, families in denial, but particularly as his targets become older and frailer, it becomes more difficult for governments to justify wheeling elderly, frail men into courtroom for crimes, albeit heinous ones, committed many decades ago.
The debate was reignited this week, after the arrest of 93-year-old Hans Lipschis, accused of being complicit in a mass murder at Auschwitz.
John Demjanjuk, a convicted Nazi war criminal, was a wizened old man of 89 with terminal bone marrow disease and chronic kidney disease, who had to be carried into court on a stretcher for his 2009 trial.
It’s a question that’s often put to Zuroff, about forgiveness and remorse, pity and redemption, but he remains defiant. “I called it misplaced sympathy syndrome,” he said.
“They are the last people on earth who deserve sympathy. You should not look at them and see a frail person. You should see someone, who, at the height of their strength and physical prowess, devoted that strength to murdering men, women and children.”
“In 30 years of doing this, I never ever met a Nazi who showed any remorse, whatsoever. Not one.”
Zuroff , who authored a book called Operation Last Chance in 2011, was not the first Nazi hunter, he heads the Simon Wiesenthal centre in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, but his predecessor was a Holocaust survivor himself. Wiesenthal declared a decade ago that there were no more prominent Nazis left to catch, and died in 2005.
But Zuroff has since become all the more zealous in his pursuits. In a previous interview with the Times of Israel he jokingly described himself as the “only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazis.”
Contrary to Wiesenthal, he believes there is much more work to be done. “No one knows how many Nazi war criminals are still alive, but the number is far greater than what people suspect.”
Every year, Zuroff diligently compiles a detailed ‘Most Wanted’ list, not a list of the world’s worst Nazis, but those he thinks he can catch in the next year.
This year, top of the bill is Ladislaus Csizsik-Csatary, a senior Hungarian police officer, who allegedly helped organize the deportation to Auschwitz of approximately 15,700 Jews in Slovakia. He is currently under house arrest in Budapest, awaiting extradition to Slovakia.
The reward offered by the Wiesenthal Centre for information leading to the arrest and conviction of former Nazis and Nazi collaborators has increased substantially in recent years, now £16,400.
Ordinary collaborators are not the target, targeting them is “totally impractical or redundant”. The Nazi hunters look for those in high command, or those who “murdered, or sent people to be murdered.”
He has had difficulty in the past, even with European countries, who would prefer to see many of the elderly Nazis die quietly. Most countries are not co-operative. Very few are. No Western country will say in public ‘We don’t give a shit about the Nazis.’
“But in practice, they won’t. They’ll die soon and spare the country the embarrassment of having one of their own on trial. So they wait it out. So they ignore us, we’re a pain in the ass."
He adds: “Two countries, Norway and Sweden had a statute of limitations and cannot therefore prosecute Nazis. Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, has never been found, and if we find him tomorrow, living in Oslo or Stockholm, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
In countries less “friendly” to his cause, many Nazis have lived out their old age. “Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s right-hand lieutenant, lived in Syria. We assume he is dead, he would be 101, but we have no proof. Aribert Heim, who was a doctor who conducted experiments in death camps, known as ‘Dr Death’, reportedly died in Egypt in 1992.”
Families will often fight tooth and nail to prevent extradition or prosecution of their loved ones, Zuroff says, many of the finding it understandably difficult to accept that their loving fathers or frail grandparents could commit acts of brutality.
He gives the example of Charles Zentai, a Hungarian police officer who is accused of murdering an 18-year-old Jewish boy who he saw on a street corner not wearing a yellow star.
“I met three out of his four kids in Perth, Australia, who were fighting his extradition. And they said to me, ‘he was a good Dad’. We don’t doubt he was a good Dad. These were totally normal people. They didn’t murder anyone before the Holocaust, or after it. They are not born-killers.”
When the last Nazi dies, Zuroff will still be in demand for his expertise finding war criminals, and has already advised the government of Rwanda. But he’s entirely Nazi-focused for the foreseeable future. “The other tragedies have more time.”