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Inside the U.S. Effort to Find Nazi War Criminals Before It’s Too Late

7 minute read

In 1979, a law student named Eli Rosenbaum read a small newspaper item about the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which was charged with prosecuting Nazi war criminals who had made their way to the country. Rosenbaum applied to be a summer intern. Almost 40 years later, he has spent nearly his entire career pursuing the mission. Rosenbaum is now the Deputy Chief of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Justice Department — the division that includes the former OSI — and Director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy.

For Yom HaShoah — this Monday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day — he spoke to TIME about how the U.S. is still going after those who committed war crimes during the Holocaust, and why it still matters so many decades later.

TIME: What do you think of being called a “Nazi hunter”? Is that an accurate description of what you do?

ROSENBAUM: I intensely dislike it, actually. It makes it seem like this is something of a sport or an avocation. These are law-enforcement matters and when they are successfully pursued it is ordinarily by law-enforcement personnel — attorneys, prosecutors, investigators and, in the Nazi cases, also historians. And frankly when [the cases] are not brought — which is the case for most Nazi criminals, the vast majority of them have got away — it is law enforcement around the world that is responsible for that outcome as well.

That having been said, they have their own challenges and nearly unique ones. When we started for instance, in 1979, the evidentiary trail was already decades old. Even then these were the ultimate cold cases. Imagine now.

How do the historians help with that?

When we were started, the assumption was that we’ll have attorneys and we’ll have investigators, like other law-enforcement efforts are conducted. We brought on traditional gumshoe types, really smart investigators from other federal agencies who were detailed to our office, but they were good at things like, ‘We have a name but where does he live?’ But when it came to the central function of amassing evidence, they really weren’t trained for that. We realized pretty quickly that we should be trying to bring some historians on board, people who actually had expertise in the subject of World War II. Ultimately, we became the first law enforcement agency in the hemisphere to have its own complement of historians. We sent them all over the world to archives. They went off to Europe and Israel and elsewhere to look for the proverbial needle in the haystack. That’s what it’s always been in our cases, looking for some documents that would enable us to make our cases.

When a case starts, is it usually with a name or a person you’re looking for? Or do you start with records being uncovered and then work backwards?

In the first few years of our office, nearly all of the cases originated with leads that were provided directly or indirectly by foreign governments. In nearly every incident, it was the Soviet Union. They, for a variety of reasons both noble and otherwise, were interested in finding perpetrators of Nazi crimes who had fled to the West. We realized as we were working off of these cases that if we really wanted to as comprehensibly as possible identify perpetrators who were in the United States, we needed to be proactive, so we started checking names on people who served in particular units or camps or whose names were on posted wanted lists. In most cases, we were able to find birthdays using records of birth and then we methodically ran, name by name — over 70,000 names, closer to 80,000 names by now — against domestic records. This had to be done for the most part by hand. It’s still done in a sense by hand, aided by computers, in part because especially when you’re talking about Eastern European names we have to consider a variety of spelling alternatives and shortened forms. The vast majority of our cases have been the result of this proactive effort that we made, one that no other country in the world except to some extent Germany and to some extent the Soviet Union, has ever even attempted.

What is the status of the search today?

Since the inception of the program we’ve won cases against 108 participants in Nazi crimes of persecution. We removed from the United States in one way or another 67. Most of the others died before we could get them to the point of deportation or extradition.

When I started in this, we worked as fast as we responsibly could because we were told even in 1979 that these people are old and they’re dying. And that was true. I often make the analogy to a race and so I say that when we started we were told ‘You’ve gotta run a 4-minute mile’ and so we worked to get in shape and somehow we did it. And then the next year, though we were all a bit older, they said, ‘Now you’ve got to run it in 3:55.’ So we struggled and we did it, but each year we have less and less time. We have a number of people under investigation and we are pursuing those cases assiduously.

But the majority of what you’re doing now is about war criminals involved with other atrocities?

Absolutely. We in fact just got a sentence in a case in Jacksonville, Fla., of someone who served in a unit in the Bosnia conflict that committed atrocities. That was for immigration fraud. We didn’t have that possibility in the Nazi cases because they’d immigrated so long ago that the statute of limitations on that kind of criminal prosecution had long since run out, but in some of our modern cases that is the main focus. On the human rights side it is overwhelmingly Rwanda, Bosnia and Guatemala.

Is there anything that your office has learned from pursuing the Nazi cases that can specifically be applied to this pursuit of other war criminals?

One of them is the importance of having historians or country specialists, that kind of professional expert, on your staff. So many of these crimes involve settings about which the typical federal prosecutor and the typical American knows little, if anything. Another thing we’ve learned is the importance of patience. Even though time is fleeting, these cases, both the modern cases and the World War II cases, are a needle in a haystack search and one can’t necessarily expect to resolve them in months. Sometimes it takes years, but I’m really happy to say that the department never gives up, in either the World War II cases or the other human rights cases. However long it takes, we’ll be there. These people need to know, those of them who dared to come to the United States, that the Justice Department never sleeps when it comes to human-rights violators in our country who shouldn’t be there. We’ll pursue them and in all likelihood we’ll find them.

Why do you personally feel it’s important to keep looking so many decades later?

The crimes are so horrific that if governments don’t pursue the perpetrators it sends the worst possible signal — namely that these governments, after a passage of time, will simply move onto other things. It’s crucial that would-be human-rights violators of the future have in mind that the world doesn’t forget and that prosecutors continue to pursue these cases even decades after the crimes were committed, so that they understand that they will never be confident of having gotten away with the crime. They may go into old age even having to look over their shoulders, wondering if they’re being followed.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com