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Rosenbaum has been hunting Nazis since 1979, when, as a law student, he saw a newspaper advertisement announcing the creation of a Justice Department unit that would pursue Nazi war criminals living in the United States.
Thirty-four years later, in what he calls “a summer internship gone awry,” Rosenbaum is still at it — the longest-running investigator of human rights violators living in the United States in the Justice Department’s history. Five of the 10 names on Zuroff’s list are people who were discovered and prosecuted by Rosenbaum’s team.
What sounds like intrepid and adventurous work is actually based on paperwork — a lot of paperwork. In the 1980s, Rosenbaum’s agency, then known as the Office of Special Investigations, built a database of all the people who could reasonably be considered to have had Nazi involvement. This involved, Rosenbaum said, going over more than 70,000 names “in SS records and on Most Wanted lists” and comparing each of those names against immigration records in the United States.
“People that have read too many John le Carré novels think that the way these cases originate is that a survivor recognizes their oppressor on the street. That’s not the reality,” Rosenbaum explained. “I wish it were more like television.”
From a team that numbered 50 strong at its peak, in the 1980s, the number of HRSPS staffers devoted to rooting out Nazi war criminals is now down to 10. For years, the OSI was the only law enforcement agency to have its own team of historians on staff, as well as translators who spoke German, Polish, Hungarian and other languages.
Because the alleged crimes were not perpetrated on American soil, Rosenbaum and his team have no criminal jurisdiction to prosecute. They can only build a civil case for the suspect’s deportation to his country of origin, or to some other country with criminal jurisdiction. In Karkoc’s case there are three possible options: Ukraine, his country of origin; Poland, where he committed the majority of his crimes, and Germany, because he worked under the auspices of the Third Reich.
In the end, like Zuroff, with whom he has a “very good relationship,” Rosenbaum performs work that relies on the willingness of a foreign government to prosecute old men and women for crimes committed more than half a century ago.
“It’s very frustrating,” Rosenbaum admitted. “If you have a low frustration threshold, this is not the work you want to do. The vast majority of the people we have returned to Europe have not been prosecuted.” Formal conviction is rare, he noted.