So what, exactly, do you do?
I’m the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and director of its Israel Office. My main job is to find and bring to justice as many Nazi war criminals as possible, and in order to do this, we launched a project called Operation: Last Chance, which offers financial rewards for information leading to convictions.
How many Nazi war criminals are still alive?
No one knows, but it’s more than you might think and may run into the thousands. Most people don’t appreciate the scope of the Holocaust, because it actually took place in almost 20 countries and in each of those there were collaborators who helped the Nazis. Many of those people were young, and the progress of modern medicine is helping people live longer, including Nazi war criminals.
Were all Nazis war criminals?
No. A Nazi war criminal is someone who actively participated in the persecution and/or murder of innocent civilians under the aegis of Nazi Germany. How does the argument, “I was just doing my job” sit with you? Such a claim basically absolves anyone of any personal responsibility for his or her deeds, and if you look at World War II that way, there’s basically only one Nazi war criminal – Adolf Hitler – and everyone else is off the hook. That was not accepted at Nuremburg, and it should not be accepted today.
How do you hunt for them?
It’s the opposite of a modern murder investigation. In other words, police investigating a murder start from the crime and then try and find out who did it, but we can’t do that because we are so far from the event. We start with the suspect. If we find one who is alive and healthy enough to stand trial, we’ll try and find the evidence, which comes via documents, witnesses – all sorts of places. And concentration camp survivors usually have terrific memories, by the way – they remember what happened 60 years ago far better than what happened yesterday.
Have the suspects usually changed their identity?
It happens, but it’s not that common. Most Nazi war criminals think that there’s no chance in hell of anything ever happening to them and therefore they feel no need to undergo an identity change. But we quite often find that people are now living in a different country.
How many have you found?
Over the 28 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve been able to track down 2,900 suspects, but in many of the cases the suspects were already dead – that’s the occupational hazard of this job. The percentage of cases where we actually get to prosecute is quite small. I’ve been involved in about 30 cases that reached serious legal action. When you find a Nazi, do you steam in with a baton and make a house arrest? I have done that. I’ve gone to the homes of Nazi war criminals to confront them but more from a sense of trying to draw public attention to them and explain that their crimes are known and that we’re trying to make sure that they pay for it.
And are they remorseful when cornered?
No. I’ve never worked on a case in which a Nazi war criminal has expressed any regret whatsoever. So all those people out there who say: “Oh, why go after these people when they’re so old, they’re probably sorry for what they did,” – listen, they’re not sorry at all. And they never admit it either.
Do you get a buzz when you nail someone?
The biggest buzz you could imagine – because it’s such a frustrating job. When we finally win one, that gives us a lot of motivation, a lot of satisfaction and it helps us to continue under very difficult circumstances.
Who was the most evil Nazi you caught?
I think one of our most important cases was a man by the name of Dinko Sakic, who was the commander of a concentration camp in Croatia called Jasenovac. It was a terrible, terrible, concentration camp, known as the Auschwitz of the Balkans, and at least 90,000 people were murdered there. Croatia was a satellite state of Nazi Germany, which actively implemented a policy of mass murder – not only against Jews but also against Serbs and gypsies. We discovered him in Argentina, we helped bring him back to Croatia where he was tried and sentenced and he’s still in jail today. Let me tell you a story.
One of our problems sometimes is proving that a person bears responsibility for murder and certainly as a commander of Jasenovac concentration camp there was no question that Sakic bore responsibility. But in one specific case, which came to light during the trial, he actually committed murder himself. In April of 1944 two young Jewish inmates there tried to escape. Unfortunately, they were caught and brought back to camp by the Ustasa – the Croatian Fascists. All of the inmates were ordered to line up in the central square and Dinko Sakic, the commander, walked up and down the rows taking people out at random.
It was clear that these people would be hanged in reprisal for the escape attempts. One of the people that Sakic took out of the line was a doctor from Montenegro who said: “I’m from Montenegro and my code of honour does not allow me to be hung.” Sakic pulled out his revolver and shot him in the head. Now, at the end of the trial after Sakic was sentenced, I was walking out of the courtroom when a man stopped me and said he was the murdered doctor’s brother. He said, “I want to thank you. Without you, this never would have happened.” A big part of what we do is out of obligation to the victims and their families.
Is modern Germany keen to do its bit?
They’ve done a tremendous amount to atone for the crimes of World War II, but there’s not a lot of zeal into bringing war criminals to justice. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but I think they could be a little more energetic about it.
Could genocide on the scale of World War II happen again?
Definitely. And it’d be even worse today because of weapons of mass destruction. The hatred that spawns genocide exists right now. And you don’t have to look very far to find it when you have the President of Iran openly talking about destroying Israel. The intention is to physically destroy Israel, which means to mass-murder millions of people. That’s a cause for grave concern, and not just for Israel, for the entire world, because if you look at the history books you’ll see that the Jews were almost invariably the first victims of totalitarian regimes, but they were never the last. You once said that if three countries wanted to find someone, they could. So why can’t anyone find Bin Laden? The main difference between hunting Nazis and hunting Bin Laden is that the Nazis are almost invariably hiding in the same “universe” that those hunting them inhabit, whereas Bin Laden and the Americans are on two different planets. The only way to catch him is to infiltrate his inner circle and the chances of doing that are slim.
Agreed. So would you kill for your beliefs?
Good question. In theory I think that certain people deserve to be killed, but could I bring myself to do it? I suppose I could, because I know what evil is. I deal with it every day.