5 Dark Realities Of Being A Modern-Day Nazi Hunter
Our grandparents belong to what is often referred to as "the Greatest Generation" -- the "greatest" being more a reference to their Nazi-fighting ability and less their equally intense love of hard candy. Still, they managed to let lots of Nazis slip through their fingers after World War II was over -- including some of the higher-ranked ones. Today, there are still thousands of (quite old) Nazi war criminals hiding around the world. Dr. Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Weisenthal Center and Jurgen Kolb of Just Likes To Hunt Nazis have devoted their lives to tracking them down. Not only did we sit down with them, but Jurgen let us tag along to stalk a real-life aging Nazi war criminal. The results were ... unexpected.
Yes, There Are Still Nazis In The World
"We're making a final push to prosecute them before they die, and we're finding people who have gone nearly their entire lives thinking that they got away with it," says Kolb.
And he does mean their entire lives. Some of these guys are pushing their centennials, but thanks to modern medicine, they're still out there. The badassedly named German government office responsible for investigating them, the Z Commission, prosecuted 50 in 2013 alone. In August of this year, they charged eight more in a single day. The bookkeeper of Auschwitz himself, over 95 years old, was earlier this year sentenced to four years in prison, which at this point is a life sentence. Another Nazi is currently on trial for his role in over 170,000 murders. Between 2001 and 2011, there were 87 convictions. This decade is on pace to beat that number. And why not? This is, obviously, their last chance.
The target today is the top guy on the Wiesenthal Center's Most Wanted list, Gerhard Sommer. We won't give you his whole life story, because frankly, he doesn't deserve it, but he helped massacre 560 civilians in Tuscany, 119 of them children and many of them in ways too gruesome for us to describe here. He received the Iron Cross First Class, basically a Nazi Medal of Honor, one week later.
This tremendous shitlord lived out his life in relative peace in Hamburg until about 2002, when his role in the massacre was uncovered and launched him into a 13-year legal battle. Italy managed to find him guilty, but only in absentia, meaning he can't be punished unless he ever goes there. Back in Germany, they sent him to trial, only for him to be deemed unfit due to dementia (which he was probably faking, which is a big problem we'll get into later). He was presumably back to living in it up in the Hamburg suburbs, but investigators like Kolb and Dr. Zuroff don't give up so easily.
With that, we set off together to find this dick. But in the meantime, we learned ...
A Lot Of Countries Hide Their Nazis
Hey, remember that time Bart Simpson made an international call to Argentina and dialed Hitler?
The "Nazi hiding out in Argentina" is a common trope, but that sort of escape was mostly limited to the high brass -- guys like Eichmann and Mengele. Only 9,000 Nazis escaped to South America, but the SS, who did most of the dirty work of the Holocaust, numbered 800,000 at its peak. Most of them tended to stay home when they were done war-criming. "The reason we have found so many in recent years is because they never moved," Jurgen explained. It turns out they were hiding in plain sight. "They may have served time for several years early on, or were let go in court in the '60s or '70s. But most thought they were free."
Here's a vengeful thunderclap to accompany that quote, on the off chance you didn't hear one in your mind.
That's a good thing for those dedicated to finding them. Many countries that were victims of the Nazis (all of Europe, essentially) were also full of collaborators who couldn't wait to get their fascism on. When these folks get busted, their countrymen are often angry at the hunters for muddying up their nation's reputation over a few genocidal eggs. Dr. Zuroff told us, "Most countries don't want to be embarrassed. Many countries [i.e. Poland, France, Croatia, the Baltic states, and Hitler's birth land, Austria] want to be known as the victims, and uncovering somebody from there who worked with the Nazis and killed people for them would be a national embarrassment and dredge up their unpleasant history. No one wants to be remembered as the country that helped the Nazis kill Jews."
So it's not surprising that countries like Ukraine or Croatia or Hungary, which have complicated histories with the Nazis, aren't happy having their baggage brought up. But when we asked Jurgen which country is most protective of their Nazis, his answer was shocking. "I'd have to say Canada."
Canada, which had around 5,000 Nazis flee to it after World War II, has not prosecuted or deported a single one. It's been a series of acquittals, despite some of them openly saying that they completely depopulated Jews from towns that once claimed having around 5,000 of them.
The best countries at finding and prosecuting Nazi war criminals are Germany and Italy, for obvious reasons, as well as the U.S., presumably because we all grew up cheering as Harrison Ford cold-cocked half the Wehrmacht.
Just Because They're Old Doesn't Mean They Can't Get You Killed
In the first few decades after the war, when most old Nazis were still spry enough to pull a trigger, Nazi hunting was a dangerous job. Simon Wiesenthal (the Michael Jordan of hunting Nazis) received so many mail bomb threats that the Vienna post office had to go on lockdown. His house was bombed, and at one point he had a $120,000 bounty on his head. That's in '60s money, mind you.
Your average SS today has trouble standing unaided, but that doesn't mean the danger is gone. Dr. Zuroff had a brush with it while he was going after Croatian war criminal Milivoj Asner, who deported hundreds of Jews, Serbs, and Romani to death camps, and also had an eminently punchable face, even as an old man.
The neo-Ustascha (Croatian Nazis) sent Zuroff this lovely little note: "You Jews really are a peculiar nation! You yourselves are looking for a sword that will cut off your heads. What you are looking for is what you Jewboy Zuroff will receive! Leave the Croats alone in peace. If any Croat will be put into jail because of your sick Jew ideas, we warn you: We'll start murdering your fellow countrymen in Croatia. We know your names and addresses. You decide for yourselves."
This is the internet, and you've probably seen more terrifying threats on Twitter today alone, but they also issued a $25,000 bounty for his still-warm corpse, so they were pretty serious.
Thankfully, either no one took them up on it or they were all lousy shots, and Asner died shortly thereafter. Jurgen's story is even more harrowing. "I was in Lithuania looking for a few SS collaborators who might be still alive. Somehow, local [neo]Nazis found out and confronted me outside of my hotel. (This was during the day, with sunlight and citizens walking by. If it had been at night, I might be dead.) I was told, 'Lithuanians did nothing wrong! Leave us alone, or you're not going back to Germany alive.' I was punched once in the stomach and kicked twice on the ground. The police didn't care, but I continued on anyway."
That's the kind of thing a guy can never quite put out of his mind. We were sitting at a cafe in Berlin when Jurgen suddenly tensed up, seeing a skinhead walk in. "We're going. Now," he said. It turned out the skinhead wasn't a Nazi, but after his last beating, Jurgen doesn't exactly take chances. And neither do we. You don't argue when a professional Nazi hunter says it's go-time, so we threw some Euros down and got the hell out.
War Criminals Play On Sympathy To Escape Justice
According to our Nazi hunters, when they do manage to find a Nazi healthy enough to take to trial, he almost invariably gets super sick right as the trial starts. "We call it Wiesenthalitis," Dr. Zuroff says. Have we mentioned Germany is awesome at naming things? "They suddenly become as sick and frail as possible to gain sympathy. Milivoj Asner is a good example of someone I've tracked down who displayed this."
Apparently, the strategy we all used to escape algebra tests can also work on war crime tribunals. The goal, Jurgen explained, is to "make it look like we are trying to drag out poor, defenseless people into court." Yes, that would be a terrible thing to do, wouldn't it, former Nazis?
Incidentally, Asner -- who had claimed for years to be barely able to move -- was frequently found around the same time going to soccer games. We're pretty sure European soccer stadiums are all riots waiting to happen, so being healthy enough to attend one probably made him healthy enough to go on trial for genocide. Meanwhile, Gerhard Sommer, the human shit mountain we tracked, was being charged with 342 counts of murder when it was discovered he "had" "dementia." Still, if it could be proven that he didn't, the prosecution could possibly get another shot. So what are we waiting for? Let's go bring this fucker to justice!
When It Comes To Justice, You Have Take What You Can Get
If Sommer is faking, it's a matter of proving it, and that means keeping an eye on him -- which the target no doubt knows. We were able to track Sommer to a specific town, and knew he'd be in one of the nursing homes there. They also knew what he looks like these days.
We crossed off the Jewish retirement home in the area for what are hopefully obvious reasons, as well as the all-women retirement homes for different but equally obvious reasons. This left us with four facilities he could be in. Eventually, at one of the homes, we were keeping an eye on the downstairs restaurant when Jurgen suddenly pulled up his camera and started taking pictures. There he was: a Nazi war criminal, in the withered, wrinkly flesh. And that was ... kind of it. Jurgen began to put away his camera and said, "All we can do now is update where he is living and that he's still alive."
Maybe he'll make a mistake at some point. Or maybe he'll quietly die in his sleep, or get dementia for real. Hell, even if he could be brought to trial, would he live to see the verdict? Would imprisonment be appreciably different from his current life? The guy isn't exactly zipping around on a jet ski in his spare time. And no matter what is done to him, he still got 70 years of a normal, peaceful life after killing 10 times as many people as Ted Bundy. He's a shuffling reminder that if karma exists, it has some huge fucking blind spots.
"That man in there killed hundreds of people and never expressed guilt or remorse," Jurgen growled. "But he left a free man because he's claiming to be too sick. He's going to die free." Most Nazi war criminals died free. Nazi hunting is a noble endeavor, but it doesn't have a high success rate. Remember when we said 87 old Nazis had been convicted between 2001 to 2011? Well, those convictions represent a 3 percent success rate for Nazi hunting as a profession.
So why keep doing it? Jurgen has his reasons. "There is a line I like. 'This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice.' Every war criminal, it doesn't matter if they are a Nazi or Khmer or Serbian, needs to know this. It doesn't matter how long it takes or how good a life you have led after what you did. You still did it. And there will always be the Simon Wiesenthals of the world to make sure you see justice."
And sometimes the best justice you can get is passive-aggressive, rather than of the carving-swastikas-into-faces variety. Once, Jurgen was tracking a 90-year-old former camp guard who escaped prosecution. He decided to pay the man's neighbors a visit. "I noticed a Mezuzah [a Jewish door decoration] on a house two away from his and knocked on the door. I wasn't thinking, but when they opened it, I was silent with nervousness, then showed them the present-day photo. I asked, 'Is this your neighbor?' They said, 'Yes. Why?' 'He's a Nazi.' They complained so vocally that he had to move." Because if you can't prosecute them, you can at least inconvenience the hell out of them.
Evan V. Symon is a Personal Experience Team interviewer, writer and interview finder. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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