In June 2014, 89-year-old Johann Breyer appeared before a Philadelphia federal judge charged with complicity in the gassing of 216,000 Jews at Auschwitz. American and German investigators presented the court with documents that proved that Breyer, a dedicated SS officer, was a willing participant in the Nazi death camp’s operations.
Breyer, who was extradited for trial in Germany, is probably the last Nazi war criminal to be tried in an American court; old age and infirmities leave few of them fit for trial. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office recently launched “Operation Last Chance,” signaling that the hunt for Nazi war criminals was nearing an end. As a result, historians and journalists previously occupied with descriptions of the camps and gas chambers will now focus on the small band of people who risked their lives, careers and reputations in the hunt for Nazi perpetrators.
Andrew Nagorski, a highly experienced Newsweek staffer, has recognized this new trend in anti-Nazi journalism and produced an extremely valuable, highly readable book, titled — what else — “The Nazi Hunters.” (Simon & Schuster, $30) Some of the hunters cited are well known to us (Simon Wiesenthal, Tuvia Friedman, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld) but others such as Fritz Bauer, William Denson and Benjamin Ferencz, and Jan Sehn have been largely overlooked or forgotten.
Bauer, for example, was a German judge who provided the Israelis with the key tip that led to the capture of Eichmann. William Denson, the U.S. Army’s chief prosecutor at the Dachau trials, brought 177 people to trial, won all his cases and saw 97 of the convicted hanged. Ferencz was only 27 when he supervised the “biggest murder trial in history,” namely the trial of Einsatzgruppen commanders guilty of the mass killing of Jews, Gypsies and civilians on the Eastern front.
Jan Sehn was a Polish investigative judge who not only interrogated Auschwitz commander Rudolph Höss but convinced him to write his memoirs before he was hanged in 1947.
Along with his praise for the men and women who dedicated their lives to the task of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, Nagorski doesn’t hesitate to discuss their personal failings:
“Those who have attempted to bring the murderers to justice have been loosely labeled as Nazi hunters — but they have not been anything like a group with a common strategy or basic agreement on tactics. They have often been at odds with each other, prone to recriminations, jealousies and outright rivalries, even as they pursued the same goals.”
The Klarsfelds — among the bravest of the Nazi hunters — indulged in symbolic acts that might have had tragic consequences and discredited the effort to bring war criminals to justice. Beate slipped past West German Chancellor Kurt-George Kiesenger’s bodyguards and slapped the Chancellor in his face. On another occasion, Serge put an empty gun to the head of Kurt Lischka, the former Paris Gestapo chief.
Nevertheless, without the dedication of this small band of Nazi hunters, knowledge of the Holocaust might have slipped away and been forgotten. “In the immediate aftermath of the war,” Nagorski says, “many Germans and Austrians were in denial about the scale of the horrors that had been carried out in their name. One reason for the Nuremberg trials was to make them face that reality.”
The Allies — Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union — also thwarted the Nazi hunters’ efforts. The Cold War, Nagorski recalls, set in almost as soon as the hot war ended and German rocket scientists became valuable property no matter how many victims they had starved and worked to death.
In his closing chapter, Nagorski regretfully points out that only a small portion of the Nazi war criminals ever came to trial and that those who were tried usually received light sentences — virtually slaps on the wrist. Nevertheless, not all was lost. The Nazi hunters, by exposing the truth, succeeded in educating society about what really happened, even if most of the guilty remained free.
The last sentence in the book reads: “The story of the Nazi hunters is almost at its end, at least the part that involves trying to track down surviving war criminals. But their legacy endures.”
Sol Littman is a sociologist turned journalist and community activist. His professional career includes 14 years with the Anti-Defamation League, followed by five years as the editor of the Canadian Jewish News. He was a member of the Toronto Star’s editorial board and community affairs specialist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Littman spent 15 years as Canadian director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His publications include “War Criminal on Trial” and “Pure Soldiers or Sinister Legion.” Littman is a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.