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Nazi hunter speaks in Rancho Santa Fe on the importance of putting Nazi war criminals on trial

Guest speaker Efraim Zuroff with Rabbi Levi Raskin. Photo/Jon Clark
Guest speaker Efraim Zuroff with Rabbi Levi Raskin. Photo/Jon Clark

By Joe Tash

Efraim Zuroff, perhaps the world’s foremost Nazi hunter, said he’s often asked why he continues to vigorously pursue Nazi war criminals nearly 70 years after the end of World War II.

“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers,” said Zuroff.  “Every one of the victims deserves that an effort be made to find their killers.”

Zuroff lectured about his career as a Nazi hunter and current efforts to track down elusive Nazi war criminals at a July 30 event sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Center of Rancho Santa Fe.  The lecture and reception were held at the home of Rancho Santa Fe residents Andrew and Diana Benedek.

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Even though the suspects are in their late ‘80s and ‘90s and many are in poor health,  Zuroff said it is still important to put them on trial for their alleged crimes, both as a means of recognizing the suffering of their victims and to counter deniers of the Holocaust, when Nazis and their collaborators in Europe systematically killed 6 million Jews, along with gypsies and political opponents.

“These are the last people on Earth who deserve sympathy,” said Zuroff.  “They showed no sympathy for their victims, innocent men, women and children.”

Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism and provides education about the Holocaust.

In late July, the group rolled out its latest effort to track down Nazi war criminals who have escaped trial and punishment.  “Wanted” posters were put up in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne as part of a campaign called “Late.  But not too late! Operation Last Chance II.”

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The campaign offers rewards of up to $33,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Nazi war criminals.

Zuroff, who signed copies of his book, “Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice,” after his talk, said he and his colleagues believe there are still several hundred former Nazis living who should be tried for their crimes.

“We need financial help and for people to work politically to try to put pressure on countries like Hungary,” he said.  (Last month, thanks in part to Zuroff’s efforts, Hungary charged 98-year-old Laszlo Csatary with Nazi war crimes.  He was placed under house arrest and is awaiting trail.)

During his talk, Zuroff said that over his 30-plus-year career as a Nazi hunter, the hardest part has not been to find the perpetrators, but to convince governments to put the suspects on trial.  Many countries lack the political will to carry out the trials, he said.

Some notorious Nazis eluded capture and died without ever being held accountable for their crimes, Zuroff said, giving the example of Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor infamous for conducting medical experiments on Jews in the concentration camps.

Mengele, dubbed “the Angel of Death” for his grisly experiments, escaped after the war to Brazil, where he died swimming in the ocean in 1979.  Zuroff said it was a tragedy that Mengele was not brought to justice.

One of the most important war criminals whom Zuroff helped catch was Dinko Sakic, commandant of the Jasenovac concentration camp in what is now Croatia.  Researchers believe as many as 100,000 Jews, gypsies, Serbs and other opponents of the fascist regime were murdered at Jasenovac between 1941 and 1945.

Sakic was tracked down to Argentina, where he had lived for 50 years.  He told an interviewer, “You don’t understand the problem with Jasenovac.  They didn’t let us finish the job,” according to Zuroff.

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At the time of Sakic’s arrest and trial in the late 1990s, he was considered a hero by some Croatians because of his nationalist stance, Zuroff said.  However, after being extradited to Croatia, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died in 2008.

Zuroff recalled a case in which he got a tip about a woman living in Vienna who had reportedly been a guard at a Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women in Germany, and at another camp in Poland.  Among her duties had been taking prisoners to the gas chambers, and guarding them so they couldn’t escape.

After a successful effort to convince Austrian authorities to open an investigation, Zuroff said, the woman died before she could be brought to trial.

“I’m the only Jew in the world who prays for the health of Nazi war criminals,” he said, at least the ones who are being brought to trial.

Rabbi Levi Raskin, of the Chabad Jewish Center of Rancho Santa Fe, said events such as the Zuroff lecture help raise awareness of important issues and also provide a social forum.

“Our message is that the way to make sure this [the Holocaust] doesn’t happen again is to do good,” Raskin said.


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