When Efraim Zuroff went abroad this summer, he visited about 25 sites of mass murder. “That’s how I have a holiday, apparently,” he says, only half joking, as we sit down in his office in West Jerusalem.
Zuroff is the world’s top Nazi hunter. He is also one of the last. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been tracking and helping to prosecute war criminals who have evaded justice for decades. In the process, he has helped bring about legislation for the prosecution of former Nazis in countries including Canada, Australia and the UK.
The years of work are visible at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre – Zuroff’s HQ – named after the Austrian holocaust survivor-turned-Nazi hunter who died in 2005. Surfaces are littered with handwritten envelopes postmarked from across Europe and folders stuffed full of documents. On entering, the first thing you see is a 1945 front page from the New York Post, bearing the headline “NAZIS OUT”.
And yet Zuroff is hardly the cloaked sleuth one might imagine. He is tall and jovial, was born in New York in 1948 and, despite having lived in Israel since 1970, still speaks with a broad Brooklyn drawl. A small basketball hoop near his desk betrays an early ambition to become a star player.
“It’s not a job, it’s a mission,” he says of Nazi hunting, describing an occupation that is “riddled with frustration”. Zuroff began his career at the US department of justice at a time when, ironically, the Americans were actively employing former Nazis for their military expertise under a programme known as “Operation Paperclip”.
“Basically, it was a mad chase to get as many of these people as possible, lest they fell into the hands of the Russians,” Zuroff says. The Soviets had a mirror programme in operation.
In the 1980s, together with the All Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group, Zuroff began lobbying the British government to legislate to enable the prosecution of former Nazis. It wasn’t easy. He uncovered 17 Latvian and Lithuanian suspects residing in Britain, but as he notes in his 2009 book, Operation Last Chance, upon meeting the then home secretary, Douglas Hurd, in 1986, “it was clear there was a lack of willingness to address the issue”.
As pressure on the government increased, some British newspapers openly announced their objection. In the book Zuroff quotes a 1986 leader column in the Times arguing that “it is wise and humane to let the matters rest”. The Telegraph denounced Nazi-hunting as “a new and frankly distasteful blood sport”.
“It took four and a half years to get that law passed,” Zuroff says. “In that time, many people died, and some of the best cases could not be brought to justice. It was a real tragedy in all respects.” Between 1991 and now, only one former Nazi residing in the UK has been tried and convicted.
“If you allow people who have committed terrible crimes to live in your midst without taking legal action against them, you’re basically saying it doesn’t matter,” Zuroff says.
One recent case involved a 90-year-old former SS guard from Denmark. “Very often people say: ‘So many years have passed, the suspects themselves are probably sorry.’ But here’s the bad news: I’ve never encountered a single Nazi war criminal who expressed regret or remorse in the cases that I’ve dealt with.”
His latest project deals with the subject of Holocaust distortion – as well as war crimes – in Lithuania, a country with a personal dimension for Zuroff, whose great-uncle Efraim Zar was killed there during the war.
Zuroff has teamed up with the Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite, who contacted him after discovering that members of her own family participated in Nazi executions. Together, they are working on a book about the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust. “It could be the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Zuroff says.
It was this that brought him to the killing fields of Europe in August – a visit that still haunts him. “At the end of the trip . . . all of a sudden, I started crying, terribly,” he says. “I said to [Ruta], ‘Listen: I can’t take it. I have the feeling I’m betraying these people. I’m leaving them in the pits.”
The theme of the book, he says, is “passing the torch” to Ruta and future generations in order to trigger a social reckoning within Lithuanian society. In the meantime, Nazi hunting continues. “You have to understand,” Zuroff says, as our meeting draws to a close: “of all the practical tasks related to the Shoah only one is time-dependent – prosecution.” But it is prosecution that has the greatest impact in terms of helping a society face its past.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide