Meet the Nazi Hunter: Israel’s Efraim Zuroff Helps German Court Case

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Ints Kalnins / Reuters

Efraim Zuroff stands beside a poster showing Nazi war crimes as he attends a protest against the annual procession commemorating Latvian Waffen SS unit, also known as the Legionnaires, in Riga, on March 16, 2012.

Efraim Zuroff never aspired to become the world’s most prominent Nazi hunter. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, his dream was to be the first Orthodox Jew to play basketball in the NBA. That would have been a career, he says, packed with a lot more adrenaline than the one that fell into his lap. Around 1980, when he first began through a series of coincidences — “right place,” he says, “right time” — to track down Nazi war criminals for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish advocacy group based in Los Angeles, he quickly realized that the work is not nearly as exciting as the title of “Nazi hunter” makes it seem.

“People ask me what my job is like,” he says by phone from his book-cluttered office in Jerusalem, inflecting his vowels with a thick Brooklyn drawl. “And I say I’m one-third detective, one-third historian and one-third political lobbyist.” The lobbying aspect, over the years, has become the most important part of his work, as his more immediate adversaries these days are not so much the aging perpetrators of Nazi war crimes, but the bureaucrats and politicians who are dragging their feet in the pursuit of justice.

An unusually exciting moment for his campaign came on Wednesday, Jan. 8, even though the news he received that afternoon was mixed. In the German city of Cologne, a court filed charges that day against an 88-year-old former member of the Nazi SS in connection with a massacre that wiped out an entire French village in 1944. That was the good news for Zuroff. The bad news was that another German court, in the city of Hagen, dropped all charges that same day against a 92-year-old former Nazi. The potential witnesses in the Hagen case had all passed away, so the court did not have enough evidence to proceed with that trial for murder.

Still, the Cologne case was a major victory for Zuroff. At least in part, it seems to have resulted from one of his more recent — and more desperate — initiatives, part of what he calls the Operation Last Chance campaign. Launched in July, this campaign’s latest effort arranged for about 2,000 large posters to be plastered around three German cities — Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne — showing an eerie photograph of railroad tracks leading to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Over the photo, the caption reads in German, “Late, but not too late,” and offers a reward of 25,000 euros ($34,000) for information leading to the capture of Nazi war criminals who remain at large.

In the months that followed, Zuroff says, 285 people called the hotline listed on those posters, yielding a total of 111 suspects. Along with a colleague in Germany, Zuroff then conducted the meticulous work of trying to find evidence against these suspects in government archives and other open sources. The search yielded what Zuroff and his colleagues felt were four cases worthy of investigation, all of which they passed along to German prosecutors.

One involved a female guard from Auschwitz, another was a male guard at the Nazi death camp of Dachau, and a third was either a potential witness or a perpetrator of the massacre in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. (The fourth tip Zuroff passed to German authorities came from an artisan who had been hired to work inside a home filled with guns and Nazi memorabilia; even if the owner of the home was not a Nazi war criminal, Zuroff felt the arsenal was at least worth looking into.)

Because of a recent legal precedent, Zuroff felt that the tips involving former guards at concentration camps were particularly promising. In 2011, a German court convicted John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukrainian-American autoworker, of alleged war crimes. Based on the fact that Demjanjuk had worked during the Holocaust as a guard at the death camp near Sobibor, in Nazi-occupied Poland, the court found that he was an accessory to the murder of nearly 30,000 Jews at that camp. Before his appeals process ran its course, Demjanjuk died in prison, but his conviction “very substantially changed the legal landscape,” Zuroff says. “It showed that if you worked as a guard at a death camp, you’re automatically an accessory to murder.”

But the tip that German authorities seem to have wound up using from Operation Last Chance did not involve the former guards Zuroff had tracked down. The more useful tip appears to have been the one about the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. On June 10, 1944, Nazi troops from the Waffen-SS company slaughtered nearly all the residents of that village — more than 600 men, women and children. On Wednesday, the court in Cologne charged one of the alleged perpetrators (whose name is being withheld because of German privacy laws) with 25 counts of murder and hundreds of counts of accessory to murder.

The suspect’s lawyer, Rainer Pohlen, told the New York Times that the work of Zuroff and his colleagues at the Simon Wiesenthal Center “certainly had an effect” on that case being brought to trial. “I do believe that the German legal system looked the other way for decades after World War II. Much was swept under the rug,” Pohlen said. (He did not respond to TIME’s requests for further comment.)

Zuroff took that as a vindication of his efforts. Usually, he says, his interactions with German prosecutors “are mostly a one-way conversation.” He passes along tips and information, but the authorities do not tell him whether they are using any of them in any of their investigations. “Sometimes I think they wish we would go away,” he says. “They are a bureaucracy. They move slowly. And we are trying to expedite the process as much as possible.”

The main hurdle to his cooperation with German authorities, Zuroff says, is the so-called Datenschutz, or data-protection laws, which forbid government agencies from disseminating any personal information about German citizens, including the names of alleged Nazi war criminals. Ironically, those laws grew out of the German desire never to repeat the country’s totalitarian past, when the private information of citizens was used to target them for persecution. “But those laws are a double-edged sword,” says Zuroff. By keeping the lists of German war veterans out of the hands of private investigators like Zuroff, “these laws are helping Nazi war criminals hide,” he says.

The other challenge he faces is, of course, the passage of time. Even the youngest Nazi soldiers would now be well into their 80s, and according to Zuroff’s research, about 98% of them are already dead. If only he could access the German government’s lists of veterans who are still receiving state pensions, he would at least be able to tell which potential war criminals are still alive. “But God forbid!” he says. “The Datenschutz! The whole business of data protection is one of the holy concepts of the Federal Republic.”

So for now he is left to rely on other tactics in his search. In November, the Wiesenthal Center expanded its poster campaign to other German cities, including Munich, Dresden and Leipzig. But there were far fewer calls to the hotline that time around. Perhaps this was because everyone who wanted to come forward had already seen the posters and called, Zuroff says, or perhaps there are simply too few Nazis left to inform against. Once in a while, it crosses his mind that eventually he will have to call off his search, because all of his targets will have escaped justice, at least in this world. “But I would never announce that publicly,” he says with a laugh. “I would never want to bring joy to the heart of any Nazis by telling them, ‘Hey, guys, you’re off the hook.’” And so the hunt goes on.