“I am the only Jew in the world who prays for the health of Nazi war criminals,” says Dr. Efraim Zuroff.
For the past 35 years, Zuroff, director of the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, has sought to bring Nazi war criminals to justice all over the world.
On Wednesday night, Dec. 6, at 7:30, the New York-born Zuroff, 69, will speak at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville, about his life as a Nazi hunter. His talk will take place at the synagogue’s Rosen Arts Center/Mintzes Theatre.
Jmore recently caught up with Zuroff, a 2008 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and prolific author who lives in Jerusalem.
Jmore: Why is it important to continue bringing elderly Nazi war criminals to justice?
Zuroff: The Holocaust is not just a Jewish issue; it is a human issue. But I get asked that question all the time, so I respond with seven reasons.
One, the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Two, old age should not afford protection to people who committed these heinous crimes. Three, we owe it to the victims to try to find killers of these innocent men, women and children, and hold them accountable. Four, we are sending a powerful message: “If you commit these crimes, you will be held accountable even many years later.” Despite people saying, “Never again,” there have been tragedies that are similar in scope again and again. I’m talking about Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and many others.
Part of the problem is that so few people were held accountable for the Holocaust that people contemplating joining a movement that includes the mass murder of others will ask themselves, “Is there any chance I’ll pay for it?” Society has to find a way to punish these people, to maximize justice, for the Holocaust and for these other mass killings.
Five, these trials are a fight against Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion. The good news is that in the Western world, there is no mainstream normative organization that denies the Holocaust. There have been individual Holocaust deniers. The most dangerous was David Irving, but he was defeated in a London courtroom. There is a problem of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world, in the Arab world. In some cases, the lies come from the government itself, including the government of Iran.
Six, individual criminal law recognizes individual criminal liability and rejects the law of superior-orders defense. “I was only acting on orders” is not a viable defense.
Seven, my last point, because these people have reached old age, some people say they deserve a degree of sympathy. The fact of the matter is when these people were at the peak of their strength, they spent their time killing innocent people of all ages, including those who are older than the killers are today. I’ve never encountered a war criminal who showed any remorse.
What country best illustrates the need for your work?
Lithuania. It still hasn’t faced its past participation in the Holocaust. Under Nazi occupation, there were 220,000 Jews in Lithuania, but 212,000 Jews were murdered during the war, many killed by Lithuanians without Nazi participation. So Lithuanians are not dying to face this. Today, there are 4,000 Jews in Lithuania.
Lithuanians don’t deny the Shoah took place, but they won’t acknowledge the participation in it of their political leadership, their religious leadership and local people. Instead, they claim they, too, were victims of the Nazis, then of the Communists.
I co-authored a book with [acclaimed Lithuanian novelist] Ruta Vanagaite, “Our People: Journey with the Enemy.” She is a Lithuanian who is not Jewish and whose family was involved in killing Jews. She went on a mission of discovery with me to 40 places of mass murder. We interviewed eyewitnesses to the killing, discussed motivations, all the factors that contributed to the murders. Published in Lithuanian and Polish, the book was a best-seller, which surprised everyone because it was about the Holocaust.
Lithuanians have been unwilling to face and acknowledge complicity. Now, not the government but some people are beginning to change. The sooner Lithuania faces the Holocaust honestly, the sooner the healing will start.
Why should non-Jews join Jews in standing up to neo-Nazis?
It’s very simple. The killing always begins with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews. We are the canaries in the coal mines. We were the primary target of the Nazis, but many millions of non-Jews also lost their lives.
Tremendous terror against innocent people often starts with Jews, and others don’t pay attention. It started against Israel, it started by blowing up planes. Today, look at the Islamists in Europe, in Madrid, in London, in France. The Jews were the initial targets, but now it’s spreading all over.
What’s causing the proliferation of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States?
Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and Western Europe are very different. In Western Europe, the anti-Semitism is not against individual Jews. That is no longer acceptable, so it has morphed into anti-Zionism. The anti-Semites are singling out Israel for alleged human-rights violations when many other countries are violating human rights in far more extreme ways. There are three groups that are the new anti-Semites — the Muslim immigrants to Europe, the extreme left and the extreme right, all attacking Israel.
In Eastern Europe, there is classic anti-Semitism against the Jews. Many Eastern European countries have excellent relations with Israel. They love Israel, but they hate their own Jews. Yet it’s nowhere near the scope and severity of the problem we’re facing in Western Europe.
In the U.S., some Muslims immigrants and the extreme left and extreme right are seeking to delegitimize the state of Israel. The human rights violations that are going on in China, the Arab countries and elsewhere, they’re a bad joke that’s not discussed by these people. The [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement is one way they seek to delegitimize Israel.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Efraim Zuroff
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