Book review: Tireless pursuit to bring Nazi criminals to justice

October 28, 2016

The sentencing in Germany this year of a 94-year-old former SS guard at the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, and the death in July of Auschwitz survivor and chronicler Elie Wiesel make publication of this book exceptionally timely.

Its author is Andrew Nagorski, a onetime Newseek bureau chief in Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, among other cities. In his book, he has chronicled the efforts, as he puts it, “of the relatively small band, some in official positions, some operating independently” to bring to justice Nazi war criminals long after most of the world had grown more or less indifferent to their fate.

Right after the end of World War II, of course, the International Military Tribunals’ Nuremberg trials were held in Germany. Such high-placed Nazis as Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Austrian SS leader; and Julius Streicher, editor and publisher of the Nazi party newspaper; were among those found guilty and hanged. The German people needed to know the gruesome details of what had taken place in the death camps, the Allied powers felt. But, as time went on, it was the Russians and Communism that worried the American military more than trials of Nazis. Even Gen. George Patton questioned his superior officers’ determination to punish Nazis and keep them from occupying important positions in a postwar Germany. “What we are doing is to utterly destroy the only semi-modern state in Europe so that Russia can’t swallow the whole," he wrote to his wife in 1945.

But there were those who never gave up on hunting down Nazis. They included Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, a German-French couple who tracked down, in Bolivia, the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, who had been the Gestapo chief in that French city. Then there was Simon Wiesenthal, survivor of the concentration camp at Mauthausen, near the Austrian city of Linz, and founder of the Jewish Documentation Center, the international human-rights organization.

There was Isser Harel, the chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Harel was the mastermind behind the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who had been in charge of the mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Eichmann had escaped to Argentina. Harel and fellow Israeli agents found him in Buenos Aires in 1960 and flew him to Israel, where he was tried and condemned to death. Eli Rosenbaum, as general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, helped expose the SS past of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

The stories of 14 such hunters are recounted in Nagorski’s book, along with the stories of 15 of those hunted down. Most recent among the latter is John Demjanjuk, a retired Cleveland autoworker, who had served as a death camp guard and was deported to Germany and found guilty by a German court in 2011. He died less than a year later.

"The Nazi Hunters" is, variously, horrifying, informative, exciting and enlightening, but it must be read in small doses for there is so much in it to grasp.

— Phyllis Méras (pmcocroft@aol.com) is a retired Journal travel editor and freelance travel writer.