By and large, there is always an adventurous sentiment attached to the concept of someone hunting Nazis; the lone character, working against shadow figures to try and bring a sense of purpose and truth to the world. Yet, after meeting Efraim Zuroff, the real notion of enforcing justice and retribution is about as adventurous and romantic as getting hit in the face with last week’s used underwear.
Zuroff works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the centre made famous by its namesake who is responsible for the capture and trials of some of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust. Despite his height and imposing stature, Zuroff comes across as extremely personable, his sense of humour and his ability to weave stories easily capture one’s attention and ingratiates him to whoever is in his company.
Now, 60 odd years after the defeat of Nazism, justice seekers like Zuroff are facing a harder and harder quest for justice as former instigators and collaborators of the Jewish genocide pass away with age.
One of the first obstacles in Zuroff’s attempts to force prosecution of former Nazi’s are the attempts of the Nazis themselves to convince people that their trails are a waste of time and that they’re not capable of facing prosecution.
Zuroff, in his time with us, explained that when faced with potential prosecution, Nazis suddenly become extremely aged and incoherent, and their legal teams claim that they are unfit to stand trial. A classic example of this is the SS medical orderly Hubert Zafke who has consistently avoided trial for his role at Auschwitz. Despite being physically capable before his attempted trial, the minute that his defense team became aware of the charges against him, he suddenly required full time care and the use of a wheel chair. He also managed to develop dementia.
So then, with it becoming increasingly more difficult to imprison or bring former Nazis to trial, why is it so important for men like Zuroff to continue his campaigns to find these criminals? To answer the question, Zuroff got straight to the point. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and the fact that they have alluded punishment does not change the nature of their crimes. In this vein, Zuroff reiterated the notion that time and age cannot create innocence. Many of these criminals, who at the time of the Holocaust were often at their physical peak, ambivalently executed many people who are as old, if not older, than they are as they face prosecution. Just as they gave their victims no justice, so justice should hold them accountable.
Perhaps most importantly, nations around the world owe it to both the victims, the survivors, and the ancestors of the Holocaust to pursue and hold accountable those people who perpetrated the largest systematic destruction of any group in history.
So how does Zuroff ‘catch’ Nazis? Smiling, the man himself said that finding them in the first place was often the hardest thing. Many Nazis, not caught in the original Allied advance, often slipped through Europe under assumed identities which they maintained, often right up until their capture. Many also fled to South America where they were often protected by the countries that they had fled to. Some criminals like Erich Priebke and Dino Šakić, made no attempt to hide their identities and their openness lead to their day in court. Other criminals like the infamous Adolf Eichmann, escaped to Argentina where they engaged in civilian life under new identities. In these cases, extensive work by the Israeli government, Simon Wiesenthal, and other intelligence services managed to identify and then work towards extradition and prosecution.
When a suspected Nazi is found, nowadays often through tip-offs (these people are still, even now, bragging about what they did), it is the job of Zuroff to build a case against them. This is a tedious and extensive process as the teams have to prove that they have accurately identified the criminal. Once done, Zuroff then lobbies the local governments to prosecute the criminals. This is because the Wiesenthal Center has no power to prosecute criminals and must rely on the goodwill of individual states to accept and then instigate the criminal proceedings against the former Nazis.
Unfortunately, not all countries work alongside the Nazi hunters, New Zealand being a prime example. In 1990, the Wiesenthal Center sent the government a list of 46 war criminals that were thought to be living in New Zealand. On that list was an Auckland man presumed to have been a member of the Lithuanian Police Battalion which contributed to the liquidation of some 165,000 Jewish Lithuanians. Unfortunately, the New Zealand Bolger government threw out the list of names claiming that the Wiesenthal Center had provided insufficient evidence.
Yet, despite the roadblocks that the Center has faced, it has been successful in bringing multiple high profile murderer to justice as well as many other lower level conspirators who all aided in the Holocaust. Now that the surviving body of Nazis are reaching the literal end of their shelf life, the Center has grown its goals in an aim to foster tolerance and understanding through community, education and social action.
Following our morning with the Nazi Hunter, we had what was essentially our first afternoon off. This gave a group of us the opportunity to venture into the Palestinian West Bank and visit the birth place of Jesus. Bethlehem is slap bang in the middle of the Palestinian zone of control and is one of the areas enclosed in the Israeli built wall. Bethlehem is both a zone in which Christians and Muslims live alongside each other and where tourism is one of the city’s biggest money earners. Historically, within the Muslim Jewish conflict, Bethlehem has been a melting pot of terrorism with many suicide bombers leaving the city to blow themselves up while riding buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the Second Intifada.
Nowadays, Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority who enforce law and civic control through the area. However, Israel intelligence monitors the situation in Bethlehem very carefully and often Israeli military or policing units will enter Bethlehem to combat any rising threats.
To enter Bethlehem, our bus travelled out of Jerusalem and through a military checkpoint. This was pretty plain sailing for a bunch of Kiwi’s and nothing like what the Palestinians have to go through. The Palestinians, when entering and exiting the West Bank, must go through extremely vigorous security checks with metal detectors, bag searches, and extensive questioning. The Israeli Defense Forces who operate the check points do so from behind bomb proof glass and are very cold and efficient and do not tolerate any larrikinism.
Once through into Bethlehem, we had a long drive through the narrow streets of Bethlehem to the Shepherds’ Field. This field is reportedly the place where a posse of shepherds were told by the angels that the Messiah had been born. This Catholic site consists of a beautiful little chapel, a cave church and the remnants of a former monastery. There is much controversy as to whether or not this is the actual field where the shepherds received their visitation as – with all things in the Holy Land – the different Christian denominations all have their own version of events and specific sites.
As with many of the religious areas in Israel, each church/chapel is a combination of stunning beauty and garish trinketry. The stunning architecture and art of the main chapel is juxtaposed by the cave just below it. In the cave, a fully equipped chapel accommodates little nativity pieces scattered around the various holes in the walls that look as if a bunch of five-year-old interior designers had been let loose after visiting the two dollar Christian megastore. Nevertheless, it was interesting to look around the cave in which, for several millennia, shepherds used to farm their goats and sheep.
Following the Shepherds’ Field, our tour guide then took the gaggle of New Zealand educators to the Milk Grotto. Now as a Catholic and a Christian, I will confess to being completely ignorant of the place. The traditional mythology of the grotto follows: After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge in the cave in which the modern grotto resides. One day, in a boom of exuberant light and glory that left Darth Vaders’ big entrance somewhat lacking (Gloria in excelsis Deo), an angel told Joseph to hightail it off to Egypt. Being a man of action, Joseph insisted that they leave straight away. Unfortunately, Mary was in the middle of instigating her own ‘free the breast’ campaign with the young Jesus and her let-down occurred before the young messiah could latch properly. In the ensuing explosion of breast milk, the now lactate enriched rocks in the grotto suddenly turned milky white. Now I’m no geologist and cannot attest to the miraculous convergence of mammary excretion and sandstone, but word on the street is that powdered forms of the rock can help couples to conceive. So being one who loves to test a theory, I purchased a small packet of the powdered rock for experimental purposes. So if anyone out there wants a bit of divine help to conceive, I have some ancient Marian boob juice for your procreational requirements.
Leaving what could arguably be the best kept secret in the world of aphrodisiacs, we found ourselves at the much vaunted Church of the Nativity. Similar to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the church is built slap bang over the place of importance, in this case the point on which it is thought that Jesus was born. On arriving at the rather monolithic church – stone blockwork with not much decoration – you are instantly shocked by the size of the entrance door. Standing perhaps even lower than five feet in height, the door forces you to bend right over to enter the church. Our tour guide said that it was designed to force pilgrims to bow on entry to show reverence. However, the tour guide behind us said that the door was built so small to prohibit the entry of camels and horses into the building. Now I’m not going to get into any arguments, but I certainly know which version I like better.
As with the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity’s grandiosity is severely negated by the extensive renovations occurring throughout the complex. Masses of scaffolding limit views and hide much of the intricate art and architectural features. However, that does little to prohibit the hoardes of varying Christian traditions who all have altars here and who all parade through the structure.
Some highlights of the Church, include the cave underneath the central altar. This area has areas marked out that display the‘actual’ birth place of Jesus. A long low cavern, blackened through two millennia of candle and oil fumes, houses dozens of stunning paintings and icons of Jesus’ life. Also impressive is the main altar run by the Orthodox Church. Here, lining the isles, are a collection of some of the most exquisite iconography in the Christian world, many images of which are copied extensively. Finally, on exiting the Church, one can find an incredible wooden sculpture of St George slaying a dragon which was gifted to the Church in 1926 by a Christian family. As for the significance of the statue, it makes as much sense to me as green tea ice-cream, but in this land of contrasts, well hey, everything goes.
Finally, having finished with the Nativity, we ventured home via the West Bank Barrier. This was an impromptu stop that was primarily the result of several shrieking women and a complaint bus driver; the goal, find a real life Banksy. Viewing the wall, one can understand both the Israeli and the Palestinian views. But rather than get political at this lengthy stage, I will limit my thoughts to the wall itself. Along the wall are stories sponsored by the Palestinian Youth Media House that describe the Palestinian Struggle against the Israeli State. The stories are often provocative and heart wrenching, but as with all things Palestinian/Jewish, only tell one side of the story. All along the wall are smatterings of heavy graffiti and fully legitimate street art. Here, below the Israeli observation towers, the stories of struggle are played out and the history of Palestine is sketched in paint. Some of the images are not only provocative, but intrinsically beautiful and speak of liberation, oppression and armed conflict. Unfortunately, the wall we ran along never revealed any works of Banksy, but did reveal the famous image of Leila Khaled, the face of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) movement. Khaled is most well known for being the first female involved in one successful hijacking of a plane and another unsuccessful attempt that ended with the death of her accomplice.
In all, the day was long, tiring, but unforgettable. To delve through ideas of justice, nationalism, self-determination and religion was unforgettable, painful, but also stunningly human. It was a day of contrasting extremes that I shall not forget.