‘They’re old but they’re still guilty’: last Nazi hunter in a race against time

<span>Photograph: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

He describes himself as “the only Jew who prays for the good health of Nazis”. As the last Nazi hunter tracking down the last surviving Nazis from the Holocaust, Efraim Zuroff is in a race against time.

Those who took part in the systematic murder of six million Jews in Europe are now over the age of 90, and almost all are frail or sick. Zuroff himself is 72 – born three years after the end of the war – and has been hunting former Nazis for more than 40 years. He is as committed to the task as ever.

Currently his energies are focused on a Lithuanian woman, now probably 97, living in an English-speaking country, who as a teenager was seen smashing the heads of Jewish babies who were her neighbours. Three months ago, Zuroff had a positive lead but the Covid pandemic has frustrated further inquiries for now. “She could die at any moment. It’s an occupational hazard,” Zuroff tells the Observer in a Zoom call from Jerusalem.

In his four decades as a Nazi hunter, Zuroff has submitted the names of more than 3,000 suspects to 20 countries. Many states are slow to pursue legal action, he says; death has allowed suspects to escape justice as evidence gathers dust in prosecutors’ offices.

But there have been notable successes. Asked what was his biggest catch, Zuroff cites Dinko Šakić, who became commandant of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia at the age of 22 and was responsible for the murder of 2,000 people. After the war, he moved to Argentina, where he lived for 50 years before being brought to trial in 1998. Zuroff was there to see Šakić laugh as he was found guilty and jailed for 20 years.

Croatian concentration camp commander Dinko &#x000160;aki&#x000107;
Croatian concentration camp commander Dinko Šakić on trial in Zagreb in 1998. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

Sixty years ago on Sunday, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution, opened in Jerusalem. The world watched the televised proceedings, including testimonies of camp survivors.

“In essence, it was a trial not just of Eichmann but of the Holocaust. For the first time, survivors were given the stage,” says Zuroff. He was a boy of 12, living in Brooklyn, New York City, at the time. “I remember it very well, we watched it on television.”

Even though his great-uncle had been murdered in Lithuania during the war, he describes the Eichmann trial as “my first encounter with the Holocaust”. He moved to Israel, studied history, and in 1986 became director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the celebrated Nazi hunter who died in 2005.

“When you get a result, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” he says. He has devised a scale of success from one to six, with one being public exposure – “sometimes this is the most painful thing, when their families have no idea what they did” – and six being a jail sentence. “There are not many cases where you get a six.”

His work has three main elements: locating former Nazis, gathering evidence to build a case, and political lobbying to create the will to see justice done. In recent years, social media has helped him find witnesses. Ten years ago, he relaunched Operation Last Chance with a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of former Nazis and collaborators.

Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Final Solution, was put on trial in Jerusalem 60 years ago. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

His current focus is on collaborators from the Baltic states. “Lithuania had the highest percentage of Holocaust victims – 220,000 Jews lived in Lithuania, and 212,000 were murdered. In the provinces, in the countryside, the death rate was almost 98-99%. A lot of the killing was done by locals, neighbours murdered neighbours. So those who survived knew who the killers were.”

Any suggestion that it’s time to draw a line in the sand, given the age and frailty of his prey is robustly dismissed. Barely drawing breath, he says: “One, the passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers. Two, old age should not afford protection for people who committed such heinous crimes. Three, we owe an obligation to the victims and their families to hold these people accountable.

“Four, it sends a powerful message that if you commit such crimes you will be held accountable even many years later. Five, the trials and testimonies serve an important function in the fight against Holocaust denial and distortion. Six, these people were not frail when they committed their crimes, they were in the peak of physical health and devoted all their energy to killing men, women and children. And, seven, in all the cases I dealt with, I never encountered a Nazi who expressed any remorse or regrets.”

Related: Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: 'No memorial can come anywhere near what happened'

Zuroff stresses the distinction between Holocaust denial and distortion. “Denial is those who say it didn’t happen. Distortion is those who admit the Holocaust took place but they try to change the narrative because they don’t want to admit the important role their own people had in the murders, alongside the Germans and in some cases instead of the Germans.” He cites Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as among countries in this category.

Since the start of this year, indictments have been filed in Germany against two people: Irmgard Furchner, 95, accused of complicity in the murder of 11,430 people; and “NN” – who is aged 100 – accused of complicity in the murder of 3,518 people.

Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “It is a source of real shame that six decades after the Eichmann trial, most perpetrators were able to grow old free from prosecution while their victims, including the 1.5 million children murdered, continue to be denied justice. Today, we must all be part of the legacy of these trials – we must know and defend the truth of the Holocaust.”