Efraim Zuroff, history’s lonely defender

Well, true, the Good Book says “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet” (Amos, himself a prophet), but the Mishnah adds, on a more optimistic note: “Who is wise? The one who sees into the future!” (Avoth).

The “post facto history” of the Holocaust has long been divided into the immediately ensuing years of reticence, followed up by the rise of Holocaust awareness, studies, commemoration and consciousness, due as ever to successful pioneers, including historian Raul Hilberg, author Elie Wiesel, and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

My prediction? On the record, right here in The Times of Israel: A hundred years hence, that “post facto history” will read something like this:

The great turning point came in the last decade of the 20th century, when former Soviet states in Eastern Europe began to redefine World War II as the story of ‘two equal genocides,’ Nazi and Soviet, and within a few decades had persuaded enough North American, European and Israeli fellow-travelers to agree to the new history in which the Holocaust disappears as a unique event, without denial of a single death.

Along with freedom from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact bloc, came freedom to invest state funds in history-changing when others weren’t particularly on the watch. But why? Elementary…

Those countries that provided thousands of local murderers who did most of the killing in their countries (efficiently enough for the Nazis to deport foreign Jews there for killing, and to export these killers abroad), are not happy with their history. This is particularly true of the three Baltic states where the rate of Holocaust murder was around 95%, the highest in Europe, and where war-related “historicized anti-Semitism” remains strong (“the Jews always support the Communists”). It proved exceptionally attractive to declare that “Nazi and Soviet crimes are equal.” Or to put it differently, that there were really Two Holocausts, or as the movement has become known: Double Genocide. There are other potential benefits, for example, the belief that if today’s Russia (where Putin’s misrule indeed elicits fears from us all) can be labeled as the successor to a Nazi-Germany-like state that has never made reparations, there’s a big new stick out there to be wielded.

Only one person saw this coming and has tenaciously and uncompromisingly stood up, usually alone, for the last quarter century. He is Dr. Efraim Zuroff, most famous as the last great Nazi-hunter, which he is.

But Brooklyn born Zuroff is also a professional historian who did his doctorate in Holocaust Studies, and has published widely. It is almost as if the majesty of historical justice played its own part too. In Wiesenthal’s day, when there were scores of middle-aged Nazis around to be found and put on trial and convicted, it required a Wiesenthal.

But from the time of the great historic turn of events, the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement by states on their way to NATO and the European Union, some of which would be investing heavily in Double Genocide, the times called for someone else. Someone who understood the very real but hard-to-demonstrate link between justice for Nazi war criminals and the plots underway to change the actual history not only locally, but for everyone.

In a famous op-ed (“Justice from the Lithuanians”), back in March of 1990, the month when Lithuania boldly declared independence from the Soviet Union, Zuroff called for both cooperation in bringing to trial war criminals (specifying the danger that renewal of independence would be abused for criminals to escape justice) and “ending the international cover-up of the tragic fate of Lithuanian Jewry.”

The United States resolutely continued its long-ongoing proceedings to strip suspected war criminals of their falsely acquired US citizenship, but now there were independent countries to which they could actually be deported. Over fifteen returned to Lithuania. But Lithuanian prosecutors began to drag their feet. Zuroff, observing the hero’s welcome these deportees were getting, exposed what was going on: a double game of showing the west play-acts of prosecution, while facilitating the heroization of the same people for local nationalist consumption. To this day, not a single Nazi war criminal has been punished by so much as a symbolic fine or a minute of jail time. Most cases were stretched out until the suspect was too old, too frail or too dead to be tried, and two who were finally convicted were sent home scot-free.

Then there were the “rehabilitations.” Lithuania’s authorities began rehabilitating dozens of Holocaust killers who had been convicted by the Soviets. This time, thanks to Zuroff and a courageous local Jewish lawyer who came to his aid, that saga was the subject of eight New York Times articles (one on the front page) in 1991-1992.

Having lived in Eastern Europe for over a dozen years, I can only laugh when people ask of Zuroff and the Wiesenthal Center: “Hey, what’s the rate of convictions and punishments of those alleged aging war criminals you’ve identified?” It’s somewhat hilarious because an aging Nazi war criminal in the Baltics has as much statistical chance of being killed by a terrorist as he does of getting punished by a local court.

You see, just about all the local Nazi war criminals and accomplices and collaborators in this part of the world were by definition some kind of “anti-Soviet activist.” (It was the Soviets opposing Hitler in this part of the world, where there were no American or British forces.) In Estonia and Latvia, there are city-center events honoring those countries’ Waffen SS units! Here in Lithuania, the government has invested in events to honor the “Lithuanian Activist Front” affiliated butchers who killed and maimed Jews in some forty locations before the first German units even arrived. Earlier this year, the prime minister and culture minister signed off on funds to repatriate from Putnam, Connecticut the remains of the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister, and rebury him with full honors amidst an array of glittering memorial events. This was the Nazi puppet prime minister who actually signed papers confirming the German orders for all the Jews of Kaunas (Kovno) to be removed from their homes into a ghetto in 1941.

What Efraim Zuroff has done in the twenty-first century is make it clear that even if there will be no more convictions in courts, never again will a Nazi war criminal, of whatever age, feel confident of ending his life as an honored member of the community whose past is a secret. The knowledge that “Zuroff is on the case” changes that for all time, and that is the main point, the moral and ethical victory. Not the rate of convictions or punishments that was a proper measure a half century ago in the heyday of Simon Wiesenthal.

Fast forward to 2012. The same Israeli Foreign Ministry and US State Department that for years quietly worked with Zuroff on the prosecution of war criminals have in recent years turned on him, and on the sacred and interlinked cause of defending the narrative of what happened against the ultranationalist revisionists. The massive Allied sacrifice and victory to bring down Hitler and Nazi Germany is being rubbished as some minor detail in the study of two “equal totalitarian regimes.” The “equality” was proclaimed by the infamous 2008 Prague Declaration (signed by one Jew too, the right-wing nationalist “court Jew” in the Lithuanian parliament).

When I first settled in Vilnius, in 1999, it was a shock that the words “Efraim Zuroff” were known by all and had been turned into an anti-Semitic stereotype that makes Shylock look meek. The support from Israel’s foreign ministry and the US State Department that was stalwart for so many years, pathetically crumbled in recent years as the result of cave-ins by both to an endless train of lavish conferences, junkets, PR, commissions, symposia and shenanigans of various sorts. But there are deeper geostrategic reasons: The US owes the Baltics (for Iraq and Afghanistan, and some say, secret CIA prisons); Israel owes them for much-needed diplomatic support in international organizations like the UN and the EU.

But can you really sell history and get away with it? Should you?

In 2011, it came to the point where the American embassy in Vilnius offered a Canadian-based summer literary seminar a grant on condition that Zuroff be disinvited (he was). In 2012, the embassy issued a shamefully ambiguous statement about the reburial of the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister. Where is American leadership on the simple difference between right and wrong? Thankfully, American honor was redeemed by a strong letter from three US congressmen, who proudly quote Zuroff on the moral abandon inherent in an EU and NATO state honoring Nazi collaborators.

As for Israel, one of the most shocking events occurred just recently. The far-right Lithuanian nationalist establishment announced triumphantly last summer that Yad Vashem (apparently under pressure from the Israeli foreign ministry) was rejoining (and thereby giving legitimacy to) its Orwellian “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.” This same commission publicly supports the 2008 Prague Declaration that declares Nazism and Communism are to be treated “the same” and has still to condemn Lithuania’s prosecutors’ campaign against Holocaust survivors (yes, Lithuania alone has been trying to prosecute Jewish survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance; one of them, Dr. Rachel Margolis just celebrated her 91st birthday in Rehovot; another, Dr. Yitzhak Arad, was the director of Yad Vashem and is a veteran of Israel’s war of independence).

To Israel’s great credit, its own fearless band of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, led by the inimitable Tel Aviv attorney, Joe Melamed, rapidly issued a statement that started with these lines: “We, survivors of the Lithuanian Holocaust and veterans of the resistance against Nazi Germany, advanced in years but determined as ever to honor and protect the dignity, history and memory of victims and survivors, will continue with our last breath to unequivocally oppose historical obfuscation and distortion by apologists for the perpetrators and collaborators, particularly as pursued by the Lithuanian government, which has invested significant financial and political capital, in distorting the true history of the Holocaust.”

Last March, a band of Joe Melamed’s survivors organized a picket line outside Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama, when a bamboozled group of South African / Israeli businessmen held a “gala” banquet to honor the incumbent Lithuanian foreign minister, known for his anti-Semitic slurs and Holocaust distortion.

Of the many Holocaust educators and researchers in Israel, exactly one turned out to join the survivors with a picket sign: Efraim Zuroff. Of the related Yiddish culture organizations, only Daniel Galay’s Leivick House turned out.

It is not easy to be the dauntless advocate for the long-gone victims, the aging few survivors, and a historical narrative that can be sold down the river by politicians. Thank heavens there is still someone out there who can’t be bought.

It is time for folks in Israel, too, to know that Efraim Zuroff, who made aliyah decades ago, is on the case.


About the Author
Dovid Katz is the author of major works on Yiddish linguistics and Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) culture, and in recent years, on Holocaust obfuscation in Eastern Europe. A native of New York City, he led Yiddish studies at Oxford for many years, and after a stint at Yale, settled in Vilnius, where he was professor of Judaic studies at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2010. He now edits the Web journal Defending History.com. His personal website is DovidKatz.net.