On the eve of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day in Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has released its latest list of the “Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals” and the primary findings of its twelfth annual report on the “Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals.” This report chronicles the efforts all over the world during the previous year to facilitate the punishment of the perpetrators of Nazi crimes and assess and give grades to all the countries that are actively involved – or should be – in bringing these criminals to justice.
In one sense, the “Most Wanted” title of the list is a misnomer because it does not enumerate the most infamous Nazi war criminals who have never been apprehended. Rather it names those whose whereabouts are known to the authorities, some of whom are already in various stages of investigation and prosecution, and who we hope to see convicted in the foreseeable future. In that respect, it is a list of realistic candidates for punishment, not a wish list of Nazis who can be brought to justice in our fantasies. Thus, arch criminals like Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller do not appear. Given the fact that he was born in 1900, there is no hope of apprehending him, regardless of the enormous scope of his crimes. His case was “lost” many years ago. We do list (in a special category) notorious Holocaust perpetrators like Eichmann’s chief lieutenant Alois Brunner and Mauthausen sadist Dr. Aribert Heim, even though it is almost certain that they are no longer alive, because the Center tried very hard to find them and to this date there is no physical proof of their death. (In that respect, it would be wonderful if, as a result of the revolt in Syria, it would be possible to find Brunner, or more likely his remains, but that does not appear likely.)
The 10 men on the list are basically the most important Nazi war criminals who have already been found, men of middle or lower ranks whose inclusion and place on the list are based on three criteria: command responsibility, whether they personally committed murder and the scope of the crime that they committed, i.e. the number of persons negatively affected by their actions. Believe it or not, there were many candidates for inclusion. And in fact, the number of potential cases of Nazi war criminals who are still alive is far larger than most people imagine. In that respect, the wonders of modern medicine have many beneficiaries, including people who certainly do not deserve longevity, although there is much to be said for ruining their “golden years.” Or perhaps those without a conscience live longer, since they almost certainly suffer less stress: In my experience, I have never encountered a Holocaust perpetrator who expressed any regret or remorse whatsoever.
The men on the list represent a cross section of nationalities, not only Germans and Austrians, and fulfilled different roles in the implementation of the Final Solution and other crimes. The common denominator is active participation in the persecution and murder of innocent civilians, primarily Jews, doomed to destruction by the Nazis who classified them as “enemies of the Reich,” or in one case were victims of a reprisal against innocent villagers in the fighting in Italy.
None of them adopted false identities after the war. Not being among the most prominent Nazi war criminals, they never dreamed they would be prosecuted by the Allies, but the east Europeans among them all escaped to Anglo-Saxon democracies, as they feared Communist postwar justice, which was far more inclusive than that meted out by the Allies. Thus among the 10 men on the list, five initially fled to the United States and three escaped to Canada. To the Americans’ credit, all of those who immigrated to the US were stripped of their American citizenship and ordered deported, whereas, with one exception, that was not the case in Canada. The civil proceedings launched in the US and Canada have been very helpful in paving the way for subsequent criminal trials of these suspects in Europe, which we hope will take place in the coming months.
No doubt, there will be those who are skeptical of the continued pursuit of Nazi war criminals, now all elderly. Others might point to the fact that the people on the list were not the most important perpetrators of Holocaust crimes. The truth remains, however, that the passage of time does not, in any way, diminish the guilt of the murderers, nor should old age afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes. And regardless of the arguments raised by the skeptics, our generation still has an obligation to the Nazis’ victims to make a serious effort to find and punish those who turned them – innocent men, women, and children – into victims. If the criminals in question had been the ones who murdered the skeptics’ grandmother or parent or uncle, I have no doubt that the importance of pursuing these criminals would suddenly be seen in a very different light.
Yom Hashoa is a good time to remember not only the victims, but also those who murdered them and remain alive and can be brought to justice. The Most Wanted list and the global investigation report are a timely reminder that there is still important work to be done in this regard as well.