A couple of nights ago I went to hear Jonathan Freedland interview ‘the last Nazi Hunter’, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem Efraim Zuroff, who was in town for the local launch of his new book, Operation Last Chance (reviewed this week in the JC, here).
Amongst the interesting points that came up:
-- Asked whether it was still ‘worth’ pursuing octogenarian former Nazis, who may very well regret actions they took decades ago and who may have gone on to lead law-abiding lives, Dr Zuroff said: “In 30 years of involvement in this issue, I have never encountered a Nazi war criminal who has ever expressed any regret or remorse".
-- He was asked whether any children of war criminals have ever approached him with evidence against their father. He answered that the only cases he encountered where children seem to feel strongly (negatively, that is) about their parents’ actions during the war were all in Germany, where there seemed to be a level of soul-searching that did not occur in most other countries post-War.
He also told a very poignant story about the children of accused war criminal Charles Zentai, a Hungarian currently living in Australia who has been accused of murdering a Jewish youth because he was not wearing his yellow star (the very high-profile extradition fight is still ongoing). On a trip to Perth, some of Zentai’s children asked to meet Dr Zuroff, apparently under the mistaken impression that if they ‘convinced’ him to lay off Zentai, the legal proceedings against him would be dropped.
According to Zuroff, the children tried to tell him that their father had been a good father and a good man, and that he led a law-abiding life in Australia. They could not, in other words, accept that their entirely normal father could be guilty of the crime of which he was accused. Zuroff said he tried to explain to them that one of the tragedies of the war was that people who were not at all criminally inclined were drawn into terrible actions which may be completely inconceivable to people who know them in other contexts. Needless to say, this was not something Zentai’s children could easily accept.
At one point, he said, they told him they "acceptd" there was a Holocaust - as if this was a major concession.
-- Zuroff said, on stage, that the Tories had told him that if/when they get into power, they will act to counter the Prague Declaration, which seeks to equate Nazism and Communism and is pushed by various countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics.
-- To me, one of the most interesting moments of the evening was when Dr Zuroff was asked whether he was worried that the memory of the Holocaust is fading amongst the (Jewish) young, particularly as there are fewer and fewer survivors left. It certainly seems to me that members of my generation, in their 30s and younger, are somewhat detached – they know all about the Holocaust, to be sure, but are not too keen on Holocaust literature, do not search out Holocaust events – in short, they do not want to be defined by it.
Zuroff turned this into a sort of a positive:
“Just 35-40 years ago, many people were very worried that the Holocaust would be forgotten – even Simon Wiesenthal was. His greatest fear was not that he wouldn’t catch Mengele, but that the Holocaust would be forgotten…. [But] the younger generation is not burdened with the psychological burden of living through the war. Younger people find it easier to ask questions, they learn about the Shoah more than their parents did. If you compare what people know today about the Holocaust to what they knew 30 years ago…Who would have imagined the UN would have declared a Holocaust Memorial Day?”*
There will be a full interview with Dr Zuroff in the JC next week.
*Please note this is not an exact quote - he was talking too fast - but very close