Turning up the heat

  • 2002-07-18
  • Steven C. Johnson
Efraim Zuroff is, quite simply, a man with a mission. That mission is bringing Nazi war criminals to trial and educating people about the Holocaust in the countries where it happened. It has earned him plenty of enmity in the Baltic countries. Now, he is offering cash rewards to Balts who step forward and provide information that leads to the conviction of a Nazi war criminal. Steven C. Johnson talked to him while he was in Riga.

The first time he traveled to Riga, Zuroff received a quick introduction from the KGB. It was 1985 and Zuroff, on the payroll of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, a division of the U.S. Justice Department, was in town to meet "refusniks," the name given to Soviet Jews who were denied the right to emigrate to Israel.

"I was ambushed and interrogated in the Hotel Latvija," he says, chuckling to himself. "They warned me that they were watching me, they knew I was not a tourist, that I should behave myself. Frankly, I'd love to see my KGB file."

Nearly 20 years later, the Soviet Union and its secret police are gone, but the reception Zuroff receives when he visits the independent Baltic states is, he says, often just as chilly.

As director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, he has become the world's foremost Nazi hunter. In the Baltics, he has been instrumental in pushing what he calls "reluctant governments" to investigate and prosecute suspected Nazi war criminals.

Born in Brooklyn, Zuroff, 54, became interested in Jewish issues in the 1960s and moved to Israel to study the history of the Holocaust. After meeting Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal in the mid-1980s, he signed on to his Jewish education center as the man in charge of hunting down war criminals.

Some say he has been single-handedly responsible for getting the Holocaust, whitewashed by Soviet authorities as fascist aggression against civilians with no mention of Jews, to penetrate public consciousness in the Baltic states.

He played a large role in pushing criminal cases against Lithuanians Aleksandras Lileikis and Kazys Gimzauskas and Latvian Konrads Kalejs, all accused of helping the Nazis deport to death camps or kill Jews during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation of the Baltics.

Gimzauskas was convicted but deemed medically unfit for punishment, while Lileikis and Kalejs both died before their respective cases ended, Lileikis in Lithuania while fighting prosecution on health grounds, Kalejs in Australia, fighting a Latvian extradition request.

Historians say that between 1941 and 1944, some 220,000 Lithuanian Jews, 70,000 Latvian Jews and some 1,000 Estonian Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Baltic collaborators.

A new initiative that offers $10,000 rewards to anyone who provides information that leads to the prosecution of Nazi suspects, is designed to ferret out those Balts who the Simon Wiesenthal Center believes have eluded justice.

Zuroff said he believed "several dozen" Baltic Nazi suspects have eluded justice. Among the center's top candidates for prosecution are Estonian Harry Mannil, accused of taking part in the massacre of at least 100 Jews, and Lithuanian Algimantas Dailide, who prosecutors in Vilnius say helped round up Jews for death camps.

Mannil lives in Venezeula and denies the charges, while Dailide is fighting deportation in U.S. courts.

The focus of the campaign, which will start in late August, are surviving Nazi collaborators in the Baltics who were punished by Soviet authorities.

"These people have nothing to fear about being brought to trial again," Zuroff said. "They may come forward, testify, and we'll give them a reward."

In addition to tracking down potential war criminals, Zuroff says the purpose of the campaign is to help the three Baltic countries come to terms with their roles in the Holocaust.

"Although it may be hard for some in the government to believe, the purpose of this campaign is not to embarrass Latvia, it is to help Latvia," he said at a news conference in Riga.

The same, he says, holds true for Lithuania and Estonia.

The following are excerpts of a conversation with Zuroff in Riga.

Your new project is called Operation Last Chance. How close to the end are you?

It takes a long time to prosecute. The longer it takes, the greater the chance these people will die of old age or be unable to stand trial. In some countries, like Lithuania, they like criminals like that. Those who can't stand trial and can't be punished. That's the best criminal. It helps them get into NATO. They claim they are crusaders in prosecuting Nazi war criminals in the Baltics, but they're not taking it seriously.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's most recent report says there are 110 Lithuanians under investigation and that 100 new cases were started.

They didn't do any of that themselves. We brought all of that to them, and they have done very little about any of them. They simply open up investigations and then do nothing.

Have the Baltics' recent attempts to prosecute people like Lileikis, Gimzauskas, Kalejs .....

A Kalejs trial never took place.

Yes, but the charges and attempt to extradite him, did it help reform official attitudes that cases against Nazi war criminals should be pursued, or have they actually had a negative effect by turning public opinion against the process?

Well, I think there are many Lithuanians, for example, who think their government is brilliant. In other words, they made the right noises and ended up doing nothing. They think the government fooled the West. And now they'll get into NATO and the EU.

But the fact remains that not a single Lithuanian Nazi war criminal has sat for a minute in a Lithuanian jail since independence. Lileikis arrived in June of 1996 and was only indicted in 1998. Gimzauskas arrived in 1993 and only indicted in 1997. And Gimzauskas, when he arrived, was healthy and coherent.

In terms of Kalejs, when I came here two years ago, I handed over to President (Vaira) Vike-Freiberga a list of seven Arajs Kommando veterans still alive and I said, "Listen, who do you think has the better chance of being able to get these people to testify? Efraim Zuroff with the yarmulke on his head or the president of Latvia? She understood, of course. But this is precisely the problem. It shouldn't be me standing in Dome Square and yelling. It should be the Latvian officials and the Lithuanian officials and the Estonian officials.

But don't they appear more willing to do this now than they did several years ago?

Well, they long ago realized they have to say the right things. Take a look at (Algirdas) Brazauskas' speech at the Knesset in Israel in 1995. We will prosecute Nazi war criminals consistently, he said. But they didn't really do a thing.

With no political will, nothing will ever happen. Why wasn't there a Lithuanian or Latvian prosecutor who made it his mission to bring these people to justice? For a very good reason: Because it wasn't popular. It was far easier to crusade to bring communist criminals to justice, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's important, too. But so is this.

How many suspects do you think are out there, and why do you think they are still there?

This project will help us find out about people we don't know about. Look, although some historians say some 300-500 people were involved in the Holocaust in Latvia, for instance, the figures are much higher. There were people helping to round up Jews all over - Cesis, Daugavpils, Riga, Tukums - need I go on? Maybe they didn't pull the trigger, but they were part of the problem.

And this is why it's so important that trials be held. This will let people learn. If Konrads Kalejs had been put on trial in Riga, he would have been tried before a Latvian judge, in a Latvian court beneath the Latvian flag, and he would have been able to defend himself in Latvian. And if conducted the way it should be, it would have been the best history lesson ever, better than any textbook.

I read that Simon Wiesenthal himself said last year that, as far as he was concerned, all the major Nazi war criminals had been punished or had died and that there was nothing more to do.

Yes, he said that, but some people personify these types of things too much. He is 93 years old and, sure, he's not in any shape to be running around the world chasing Nazis. I understand that. But that does not mean the job is done.

How did it all start for you - the process that has led to your becoming perhaps the best known Nazi hunter in the world?

Listen, it would be a very dramatic story if I told you my parents were Holocaust survivors, and I lost my family in the camps. Not true. Didn't happen, thank God. Most of my family left Europe before the war. My grandparents come from Lithuania and Ukraine. My parents were born in the United States.

When I met Simon Wiesenthal for the first time, (while writing a doctoral thesis on the history of the Holocaust), I got focused on the justice aspect of the Holocaust. I convinced the center to open an office in Israel and make (hunting Nazi war criminals) a major project. We helped convince many Western governments to pass special laws to prosecute them.

Were Western governments as recalcitrant then as those in Eastern Europe appear today?

There was not a single government, of its own volition, that wanted to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Every single government had to be shamed into it.

How do you feel when you get one of these suspects on trial?

I'm a Jew, I live my life as a Jew, and this is the one way I have to be able to do something against the evil of the Holocaust. I can't bring back to life a single Jew killed. I wish I could, but I can't. So in this way, at least I can do something against the evil.

If more of the murderers of the Holocaust had been brought to justice, maybe Bosnia wouldn't have happened, maybe Cambodia wouldn't have happened, maybe Rwanda wouldn't have happened. That's the message I'm sending.