Andrew Nagorski, The Nazi Hunters

Henryk Grynberg, The American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies
Refers to Book

Most Nazi murderers were never charged, and most of those put on trial avoided appropriate sentences. The United States could not punish them for crimes committed somewhere else; its law allowed only deportation to where they came from or where they participated in criminal activities. Ironically, even most of those deported continued to live in impunity. Besides, ‘there were hardly ever extradition requests’, according to Eli Rozenbaum of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). One example: Poland never requested the extradition of John (Ivan) Demjaniuk, who served as guard in the Sobibor death camp.

Even Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie would have never faced justice, were it not for a few stubborn seekers of justice who are the main heroes of Andrew Nagorski’s book. They include not only the well-known (and often overrated), such as Simon Wiesenthal or Serge and Beate Klarsfeld—whom Eli Rosenbaum calls ‘human rights activists’ rather than ‘Nazi hunters’—but also the truly  effective ones who are today forgotten, as the German judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer who, unbeknownst to the German authorities, set the Israelis on the right trail of Eichmann, and initiated the collective Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt; or the Polish investigative magistrate Jan Sehn, who interrogated the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and former prisoners of that camp, gathering key evidence for future trials, including that of Eichmann. It was also Jan Sehn who farsightedly persuaded Höss to write his autobiography which became the most crucial proof of Nazi crimes. Nagorski reminds that both Bauer and Sehn died under suspicious circumstances in Frankfurt, the latter during the Frankfurt trial. 

 ‘Auschwitz was not simply a mechanized killing machine that operated according to impersonal rules; it was also very much the product of the personal actions, idiosyncrasies, and sadism of those who were charged with running that machinery,’ writes Nagorski (p. 190) and the Höss autobiography is the best evidence of this. The eighteenth century theories of the Enlightenment did not prove true as the perpetrators were often highly educated: both the governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, and the commander of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf, held doctorates in jurisprudence; both Aribert Heim, known at Mauthausen as ‘Doctor Death’, and Josef Mengele, the doctor devil who selected people for gassing and experimented on live prisoners at Auschwitz, held genuine medical degrees. One of Mengele’s experiments was testing massive X-ray radiation on Polish nuns (299). The author does not explain, why those nuns were imprisoned at Auschwitz or why Mengele singled them out, but numerous documents and testimonies of my fellow child survivors indicate that nobody hid more Jewish children than Polish nuns. The author cites and leaves unresolved questions, whether ‘these criminals were insane in any way’ or ‘the product of any “monster gene”’, or ‘simply creatures of their environment…’ (183). According to my lifetime observations, they were all of the above, and always under the influence of centuries-long antisemitic culture.

Nagorski points out that the Austrians, who after the war claimed to be the first victims of German occupation, ‘had assumed a disproportionate percentage of top Nazi positions in the machinery of terror, especially when it came to running the concentration camps (p. 111). And death camps—I would add. According to Wiesenthal who lived in Austria most of his life, including his time at Mauthausen, ‘Austrians accounted only eight percent of the population of the Third Reich, yet Nazis from Austria were responsible for half of the murders of Jews committed under Hitler’ (ibid). And here is also a fresh look at abetting in crime: ‘Eight and a half million Germans had belonged to the Nazi party’ (full membership records have survived) and ‘millions more were involved in Nazi-affiliated organizations’ (p. 92). In the communist system, such organizations were officially called ‘conveyor belts of the Party.’

The book devotes much attention to the Cold War situation that led to discontinuing of the hunt for Nazi criminals, employing them as ‘skilled specialists’ and protecting from the hand of justice (Klaus Barbie, the ‘butcher of Lyon’ is here a case in point). That was done not only by the occupation powers, but also, or even more so, by the new German states, who simply would not have been able to function without the help of former Nazis. West Germany pragmatically closed its eyes on the past of its citizens, while East Germany quickly retrained them ideologically.

In addition, the Jewish state, proclaimed in 1948, had more important priorities than Nazi hunting, because ‘intelligence services of the East—Poland, Rumania, and Russia of course—recruited many of the immigrants’ [to Israel] (p.135). The information they gathered was passed to the Arab countries—mostly through the KGB (p. 136). Checking thousands of immigrants (and tourists) from the Communist bloc became the top priority for Israeli intelligence and counterintelligence, ‘the struggle for Israel’s survival in a region filled with enemies trumped everything else’ (ibid). Thus, the Nazi hunt had to be limited to the main perpetrators and so the books title The Nazi Hunters seems not quite adequate.

The author reminds that kidnapping of Eichmann met with international condemnation including by the UN Security Council. Argentine demanded his return. ‘The Washington Post accused Israel of resorting to “jungle law”’ (p. 162). Jewish opinion was also largely critical of Israel’s action. Psychologist Erich Fromm called it ‘an act of lawlessness of exactly the type of which the Nazis themselves… have been guilty’ (ibid). Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wanted Israel to hand Eichmann over ‘to another country for trial’ (ibid). The American Jewish Committee philosophized that the trial should not be held in Israel because Eichmann committed ‘crimes against humanity, not only against Jews’ (ibid).

I agree with everything that is written in Nagorski’s remarkable book except for one conclusion. Herbert Cukurs, the record-breaking Latvian aviator of the 1930s often called the ‘Baltic Lindbergh,’ became a commander of Latvian volunteers who rounded up and executed Jews in the forest. Nagorski writes that Cukurs’ unit is responsible for the murder of about thirty thousand Jews of Riga, including three hundred, among them many children, whom he ordered to be burned alive in a synagogue. Many eyewitnesses remembered the face of the prewar celebrity. After the war, Cukurs fled to Brazil and lived happily until 1965 when he finally was ambushed by Mossad agents, one of whom had lost his family in Riga. But this is not the end of the story. In 2014 the butcher of the Jews of Riga became the main hero of a musical. The producer of the artistic event argued that from a legal point of view the question remain open: ‘There are a few people who testify that he was a killer and others who say that he was a hero’ (p. 229). The Latvian democratic authorities have admitted that the show ‘is not in good taste’, but—being committed to free speech— they could not stop it. And so ‘many Latvians enthusiastically applauded the performances, preferring to remember Cukurs as the popular aviator of the 1930s, while ignoring his murderous records afterward’ (ibid). This last point seems not quite true.

Andrew Nagorski –Andrzej for his Polish friends – is a world class journalist who served as Newsweekcorrespondent and subsequently bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. His book is very well documented.  Though a child of Polish wartime refugees, he was brought up and educated in United States and is an American who—contrary to people of my experience—has the right not to know that the enthusiastic part of the Latvian audience applauded not just the prewar actions of their hero.

Henryk Grynberg