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Given this reality, Zuroff has carved out a six-level scale of achievement for gauging his own success.
The first step is to expose the criminals publicly. “That is the most painful punishment for the criminals, because a lot of the time, their families have no idea what they did during the war,” Zuroff explained.
If an official investigation is launched, that is a second step. An indictment or extradition is a third. If a country is really determined, the case might go to trial. And in rare cases, the criminals are convicted and finally punished.
“It’s very hard to get to six,” Zuroff said. In part because of a lack of political will in many of the European countries where these people reside, but also because of the advanced age of the criminals in question.
“We’re running out of time,” Zuroff explained. “Do you know soccer? After 90 minutes are over, the referee decides how much time to add because of delays and injuries. You can win a game or lose a game in those extra minutes. So, we’re in injury time.”
In 2002 this urgency led Zuroff to help launch an initiative offering cash rewards for information leading to the indictment and/or conviction of Nazi war criminals. Operation Last Chance, a project dreamed up by Aryeh Rubin, a Florida-based investor, and run by Zuroff and his office, offers would-be tipsters up to $33,400 for such information. Csatary’s exposure and subsequent prosecution is a direct result of this campaign. A partial reward has been paid to his informant, with the rest pending on the verdict and eventual sentence he receives at trial.
From the 2002 launch of Operation Last Chance, until December 2011, the center received 635 tips about alleged Nazis. Of these, 105 suspects were subject to prosecutions by respective governments. During this period, Zuroff has given out a total of $10,000 in reward money to two information sources, one in Croatia, the other in Hungary. In December 2011, the second phase of the project, known as Operation Last Chance II, was launched in Germany, funded jointly by Rubin and U.S. investor Steven Mizel, with the promise of higher rewards for information.
According to Zuroff, while the United States has the political will to deport suspected Nazi war criminals, countries like Hungary and Lithuania have good reasons to stall actual prosecution efforts. In Eastern Europe, the role of local government collaborators included “active participation in mass murder,” Zuroff said. “The Nazis integrated the local population in the mechanisms.”
Beyond Zuroff and Rubin’s rewards program, the time, money and effort spent by the Justice Department and the Wiesenthal Center to pursue Nazi war criminals are considerable.
But, with almost all of the senior Nazi war criminals long captured or dead, those on the Most Wanted list today tend to have ranked relatively low in the Nazi war machine. There simply are no more Eichmanns or Mengeles. Alois Brunner one of Eichmann’s top aides, fled to Syria after World War II and formally remains on the list — but, born in 1912 and not seen since 2001, he is in a special section with an asterisk next to his name, because even Zuroff concedes that now he is almost surely dead.
These realities lead some to question this allocation of resources.
“I wouldn’t be so hung up about the age,” said Ruth Bettina Birn, a former colleague of Rosenbaum’s and former chief historian of the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of Canada’s Ministry of Justice. “But are there still people who are significant?….There is no one who is a decision maker.”
In 2008, when Csatary’s true identity was uncovered in Hungary, Holocaust historian Laszlo Karsai, a son of Holocaust survivors, made an additional argument that prosecuting these men has become a waste of resources and time. “Csatáry was a small fish,” he told the BBC. “The money spent hunting down people like him would be better spent fighting the propaganda of those who so energetically deny the Holocaust today.”
Zuroff counters that through their pursuit of these elderly men, he and other activists are also doing what Karsai demands. The ongoing investigations, he said, serve as an effective tool against Holocaust denial.
Beyond that, “the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killer,” Zuroff said. “Just because these people are old does not turn them into righteous gentiles. Our obligation is to the victims; [prosecution] sends a powerful message to those who perpetrate terrible crimes.”
Contact Anne Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org