October 5, 2013 – In late July, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance II launched a new campaign in major German cities to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. The initiative was spearheaded by Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Center and director of its Israel office. In the wake of a press conference of the German judicial authorities held on September 3, it is now known that thirty-one Auschwitz guards are alive and living in Germany while another seven are living in other countries.
Targum Shlishi has long been a supporter of Operation Last Chance – the initiative, first launched in 2002, was conceived by Aryeh Rubin, significantly funded by Targum Shlishi, and coordinated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office.
As part of the most recent campaign, approximately two thousand posters publicizing the initiative were displayed on walls, billboards, and transit stops in Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne for periods of approximately two to three weeks beginning in late July. The posters were of a black-and-white photograph of the railroad entrance to the Birkenau death camp and stated that it is “Late, but not too late” for justice. The poster text declared: “Millions of innocents were murdered by Nazi war criminals. Some of the perpetrators are free and alive. Help us to bring them before a court.”
Operation Last Chance offers monetary rewards of as much as $33,000 for information resulting in the capture, conviction, and incarceration of Nazi war criminals. “Unfortunately, very few people who committed the crimes had to pay for them,” says Zuroff.
Zuroff notes that there are several key objectives in seeking out the remaining war criminals:
- The passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes or the guilt of the killers
- Age should not mean that murderers have immunity
- All victims of the Nazis deserve that efforts be made to hold the killers accountable
- Today’s campaign is a reminder to the world of the magnitude of the crimes of the Holocaust and a warning to contemporary anti-Semites and racists
- Today’s campaign and any resulting trials help counter Holocaust denial and distortion
“Even though the guards that could currently be brought to trial are low on the Nazi totem pole, and even though there is only a slim chance that these guards will be convicted and punished, it remains extremely important to pursue justice,” says Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi. “As long as any person who committed crimes against the Jews remains alive, it is our obligation to future generations to leave a proactive legacy, not one of inaction. It is also our obligation to the survivors. I do not want to have to look into a survivor’s eyes and say ‘It’s over, they are too old, so we stopped.’ There is an additional benefit derived from keeping this history alive and relevant for Germany’s younger generation – it is important that they are aware of their grandparents’ actions. It is my hope that Dr. Efraim Zuroff continues in his work as long as any Nazi guard, participant, or active onlooker remains alive. May the message to those who wish to harm our people be that eventually justice will be served.”
Prior to the poster campaign, Operation Last Chance had received the names of 660 suspects, 106 of whom have been submitted to prosecutors for trial, according to Zuroff. The poster campaign generated a wealth of information. To date, two cases have been submitted to the German governmental authorities, one involving a male guard and one a female guard at death camps.
Operation Last Chance was first launched in 2002 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office together with Targum Shlishi. “Operation Last Chance was our attempt to respond proactively to the reality of the diminishing opportunity to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. Time was running out and we sought to maximize justice while it was still possible to do so,” said Zuroff. At that time, Operation Last Chance was launched in Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary.
Speaking at a press conference at the Bundestag in Berlin in January, 2005 to announce the campaign’s original launch in Germany, Aryeh Rubin said that Operation Last Chance “is NOT about revenge. The eighty-year-old guard has lived his life and has his grandchildren, while we have no grandmothers, the repository of our oral culture. That can’t be revenge. IT’S ABOUT JUSTICE…This is really our last opportunity to achieve justice for the crimes of the recent past. History will not judge today’s postwar generations by the cars they drive, the movies they produce, or the buildings they erect. They will be judged by the society they build and the legacy they leave.”
Change in Legal Precedent
This summer’s drive to seek out Nazi war criminals was spurred by the 2011 conviction in Munich of former Ohio autoworker John (Ivan) Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murder of thousands of Jews while he was a guard at Nazi death camps. “This decision was significant because it was the first conviction in Germany of a Nazi war criminal in about fifty years in which no evidence was presenting to the court of a specific crime against a specific victim,” Zuroff explains. “The court determined that service in the Sobibor death camp, whose sole purpose was the mass murder of Jews, is sufficient to convict a person at minimum of accessory to murder and sentence them to five years’ imprisonment.”
That legal precedent has led to the reopening of hundreds of investigations. The court ruling means that any individual could be convicted of accessory to murder if they were guards at a Nazi death camp that existed solely for killing, without adjacent labor camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Treblinka), or were members of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), to which the precedent also applies, according to meetings Zuroff has had with German judicial officials.
The Wiesenthal Center is asking for tips and has established a mobile hotline in Germany (0800-589-4806). While the investigation is focused on Germany, suspects can live anywhere.
For more information
For more information about Operation Last Chance, see its website at www.operationlastchance.org.
About Targum Shlishi
Targum Shlishi is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information about Targum Shlishi, see its website at www.targumshlishi.org.