Nazi Hunter Dedicates Career To Pursuing Justice
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
More than 65 years after World War II, many Nazis are living out their lives in quiet retirements. The crimes scenes are, for the most part, cold. But Eli Rosenbaum is hot on the trail. He and his team at the Justice Department are Nazi hunters. They track down Nazis who moved to the U.S. after the war, and deport them.
Rosenbaum grew up in a Jewish home, where his family didn't talk about the Holocaust. But one night when he was a child, he tuned the TV to a dramatic reenactment of the Auschwitz trial in Germany. "Suddenly I am seeing a woman testifying about being experimented on at a Nazi concentration camp," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And I recall being absolutely shocked."
Other than meeting the victims, Rosenbaum says the most memorable part of his work is questioning the suspects, an experience he calls "surreal." Siting in someone's home, or in the U.S. Attorney's office, "these people look close to harmless." Hearing them talk about the terrible things they did for the Nazi regime is unsettling, says Rosenbaum, "but one tends not to focus on the horror of it. You focus on getting the answers to the questions you're posing. But afterwards, that's usually when it hits you."
In the early part of his career, Rosenbaum felt guilty if he took a weekend day off. "We were, after all, told from very start that time was our enemy, that these people were already senior citizens, and that we would have to work as fast as we responsibly could." The time pressure, added to the tragic nature of the cases, became too much, and he left after three years.
But before long, he was back at the Justice Department, hunting Nazis. "The cases just don't let go of you," says Rosenbaum. Each of the victims breaks his heart, and impresses him with their courage. "You meet them and you say well, I have to pursue justice for them. It has to be done."
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ELI ROSENBAUM: The time pressures grow every year. Sometimes I say it's sort of like when we started, we were told, OK, run a four-minute mile and we did it. And then a few years later, they say, OK, you've got to run that mile but you've only got about three minutes, 45 seconds. So, each year we have to run faster.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
They have to run faster because many of the Nazis who perpetrated crimes during World War II are coming to the end of their lives. Eli Rosenbaum works at the Justice Department, where he leads a team of lawyers, historians and investigators whose sole task for decades was to find Nazi criminals living in the United States and then deport them. Sometimes they are prosecuted in their home country; sometimes they are not.
Seventy-five years ago this weekend, Nazis launched attacks against the Jews of Germany and Austria. That gruesome night of violence came to be known as Kristallnacht, which in German means the night of broken glass, and marks for many the beginning of the Holocaust. Eli Rosenbaum first started really thinking about the Holocaust when he was a kid. He was from a Jewish family in New York, but his parents didn't really talk about it, even though his dad fought in the war. Rosenbaum remembers one unforgettable car ride with his dad when the subject finally came up. Eli Rosenbaum is our Sunday Conversation.
ROSENBAUM: We were driving on the New York State Thruway in a blizzard talking about whatever it is we could think to talk about. And I liked to hear my dad's humorous stories about serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. And suddenly, out of the blue he mentioned to me that he had been sent to the Dachau concentration camp the day after its liberation. I think I said something like, wow, what did you see? And both of us are looking out the window at this blizzard we're driving through and I don't hear any response from my father. So, finally, I looked over and my dad's driving and his eyes have welled with tears. And his mouth is open as though he is trying to speak and he can't. And so there was silence in the car for some time and then we just changed the subject. Men of that generation were not supposed to be seen crying, and it was only time in my life, other than when my mom died, that I saw my father crying. And you don't forget that as a child.
MARTIN: Is there a particular case? I'm sure there are many. But can you share with us the story of one of these criminals that has stuck with you?
ROSENBAUM: As you say, there are many such cases. The World War II case is that of Alexandros Valeikas. He was the head of the Sogumus, the Lithuanian analog to the Gestapo. In the early '80s, when I was a young prosecutor, we got an indication that there was someone named Valeikas living in Massachusetts who had had this job. And we found one document. It was an order saying that the 52 Jews named below being held at my disposition in the Vilnius Hard Labor Prison are released to the unit assigned to shoot to death the Jews of Vilnius. There were some 50,000 Jews taken to pits and methodically murdered. The bottom of the order had the typed word Valeikas and then district chief. Our historians tried mightily to find something that Valeikas signed. They could not. Finally, there was nothing left to do but try to question Valeikas. And so on a cold morning, I found myself with an investigator parked in a car outside of his home. And we knocked on the door and he agreed to speak with us. He readily admitted that he had this job during the war. He insisted that he had discharged only routine functions. And when I asked him about what he did for the Germans against the Jews, he said absolutely nothing, the Germans did all of that themselves. Finally, there being really nothing else to do, I used the one arrow in my quiver, which was to take out that order and hand it to him and ask him then how does he explain this? He looked at it very calmly and he said I've never seen this before in words that would echo in my ears for nearly a decade. He said show me something that I signed. He had us. We had nothing. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed and we could get one of our brilliant staff historians into archives in Lithuania, there he found document after document signed by Valeikas. And the one that those of us who worked on this case will never forget is an order consigning Thuma Cafflin(ph), age 6, to be killed. We were able to marshal that evidence. The federal court in Boston agreed with us and Valeikas' U.S. citizenship was revoked. He ultimately ended up back in Lithuania and he was put on trial.
MARTIN: Where is he now?
ROSENBAUM: He's since passed away and the trial was never completed but he was at least put on trial.
MARTIN: What is it like to be in the same room, to do the work of questioning people who have been accused of these kinds of crimes?
ROSENBAUM: I would say other than meeting the victims, the most memorable part of the work is questioning the suspects. It's an almost surreal experience because by this point, these people look close to harmless. Sitting, you know, on a bright, sunny day in a comfortable room, maybe in someone's home or the U.S. Attorney's office, hearing someone talk about terrible, terrible things that they did or that they were a part of for the Nazi regime is, it's unsettling. But it's also a situation in which one tends not to focus on the - how shall I say - on the horror of it. You focus on getting the answers to the questions you're posing. But afterwards, that's usually when it hits you.
MARTIN: It's awfully heavy work. Has there ever been a time when you thought perhaps you would be keen for a job change?
ROSENBAUM: Yes. When I was in my first stint as a prosecutor the work did get to me. I remember I used to feel guilty if I took off a weekend day. I thought, well, because of that some war criminal's getting away. We were, after all, told from the very start that time was our biggest enemy, that these people were already senior citizens and that we would have to work as fast as we responsibly could. We were under time pressures that hardly any other prosecutors in the world could imagine. And the combination of those time pressures and the tragic nature of the cases was really too much. And so I left after three years to go to a big law firm in Manhattan and work for corporations, and that turned out not to be right for me. And I was invited to come back as deputy a few years later and I did.
ROSENBAUM: Because the cases just don't let go of you. I have the extraordinary privilege of meeting victims of atrocity crimes from World War II to more recent times. Each of these people breaks your heart. Each of these people impresses you with their courage, being willing to talk about what happened to them and their families, being willing to reopen these psychic wounds that can't really ever heal. You meet them and you say, well, I have to pursue justice for them. It has to be done.
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MARTIN: Eli Rosenbaum is the director of strategy and policy at the Justice Department's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions section. As of 2010, he is responsible for tracking down former Nazis as well as war criminals from other global atrocities.
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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.