At Kean U., top Nazi-hunter recounts job’s ‘psychic toll’

At Kean U., top Nazi-hunter recounts job’s ‘psychic toll’

Eli Rosenbaum, hunter of Nazis and other human rights abusers, second from right, answers questions after speaking at Kean University. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Eli Rosenbaum, hunter of Nazis and other human rights abusers, second from right, answers questions after speaking at Kean University. Photo by Elaine Durbach

Winston Churchill’s advice on dealing with Nazi leaders after World War II was to “line them up and shoot them,” but the Allies’ enthusiasm for dealing with the perpetrators of the Holocaust waned rapidly. Within just three or four years, many wanted to “dispose of the past,” Eli Rosenbaum told an audience at Kean University on March 7.

For more than 30 years he has fought to counteract that tendency to forgive and forget. As director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy for the United States Department of Justice, he leads efforts to track down and bring to justice the villains of the Holocaust and of genocides and other human rights horrors around the world.

A capacity audience of about 70 students, teachers, and community members gathered at Kean to hear Rosenbaum’s talk, hosted by the university’s Human Rights Institute and its master’s program in Holocaust and genocide studies.

Introducing Rosenbaum, Dr. Keith Nunes, coordinator for the program, mentioned a concept readily appreciated by that audience — a system of grades given to reflect how diligently particular countries pursue and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity. They are awarded by Ephraim Zuroff of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

What took those present by surprise, judging by the audible exclamations, was that on a list where a number of democracies like Norway and Australia rank quite low, the United States — along with only Germany — has been winning As.

That is due, Nunes said, to the work spearheaded by Rosenbaum. For longer than anyone else in the field, he has kept the United States engaged in the fight.

In his presentation, Rosenbaum gave a rapid rundown of the best known cases, ranging from Viorel Trifa — the Iron Guardist and instigator of a pogrom who went on to be appointed archbishop of Romania — to Kristallnacht architect Otto von Bolschwing, to John Demanjuk, who eluded U.S. deportation efforts for decades. He showed a picture of Demanjuk wincing at a doctor’s lightest touch just minutes before he was secretly photographed laughing as he climbed blithely into a car.

Even The New York Times has played a part in exonerating these people, Rosenbaum said. He quoted an editorial that said, “One person’s persecutor is another person’s freedom fighter.”

Rosenbaum also mentioned leaders from attacks in places like Rwanda, Liberia, and Bosnia. Given that most of the crimes took place in other countries, the U.S. government’s only recourse has been to prosecute the perpetrators for immigration fraud, and then to deport them to the countries involved. “Most came into the U.S. the old-fashioned way,” Rosenbaum said, “by concealing their past.”

He cited as an example of success the bringing to justice of Gilberto Jordan, who led an attack on the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres in 1982. When he was finally brought to trial in the United States, he told the court he got things going by tossing a live baby into a well. The brother of that baby, a five-year-old at the time, was at the trial. He described seeing a man smash his infant sister against a tree and then toss her down that well, and then kill his mother and do the same to her. He got the only kind of compensation he could: Jordan turned to face him and apologized to him.

The pursuit of such monsters can become very personal. Rosenbaum’s deputy, a man he described as brilliant and dedicated, was killed in the Pan Am plane brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan-sponsored terrorists.

In the audience were people with varied connections to the subject, including Prof. Emeritus Bernard Weinstein, who started the Holocaust and Genocide program, and a woman from Ecuador, who asked Rosenbaum if she could contact his department to discuss the struggles she has faced in this country.

Asked why so few others have stayed the course as long as he has, Rosenbaum said it was due in part to the sheer stress of working with the horrendous records of what those perpetrators have done. “It takes a great psychic toll,” he said. His work became easier, he said, when his focus became more administrative, though the subject matter remained just as grim. “But I like the challenge of it.”

Speaking after the talk, Nunes said academics in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies also face that kind of stress. “But there is also great satisfaction in getting out word about these matters,” he said. As Kean president Dr. Dawood Farahi had said in opening the event, it was in the name of that kind of outreach that Rosenbaum was asked to come speak at Kean.

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