Dr. Efraim Zuroff jokes that his childhood fantasy was to be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the National Basketball Association.
That didn’t work out as he had hoped, so instead he made a career of hunting down Nazis and bringing them to justice — a task that many other Jews tell him is their dream job.
On the evening of Monday November 9 — the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht — Dr. Zuroff will share personal stories from his 30-plus years of Nazi hunting at the Moriah School of Englewood’s 44th annual Library Benefit.
“The library is one of the tools we have in teaching about the Holocaust and Jewish history in general,” he said in an interview from Eastern Europe, where he is finishing his next book and also gathering information on former Danish soldiers responsible for the deaths of many Polish Jews interned in a camp in Belarus during 1942 and 1943.
“There is greater consciousness of the Holocaust in Western society than ever before, and Holocaust education can help in the fight against xenophobia and racism,” he said.
As director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel branch in Jerusalem, Dr. Zuroff coordinates Nazi war crimes research worldwide and compiles the center’s annual Status Report on the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals, including a “most wanted” list. His activities have been the subject of five television documentaries.
“I will talk about what it means to be a Nazi hunter in the 21st century,” he said. “I’m going to talk about efforts to bring Nazis to justice through personal stories of cases I’ve dealt with to give people a greater understanding of how we work, what trials and tribulations we face, and why it’s still important to try to maximize justice, 70 years after the end of World War II.”
Among the many war criminals Dr. Zuroff has helped bring to justice is Dinko Sakic, the former commandant of the Croatian concentration camp Jasenovac, a place knows as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” In early October 1999, Sakic — who lived in Argentina for more than 50 years — was sentenced in Zagreb to 20 years’ imprisonment. His was the first trial of a Nazi war criminal in a post-Communist country. Sakic died in prison in 2008, the same year Dr. Zuroff was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Raised in Brooklyn, Dr. Zuroff moved to Israel in 1970, right after college. In 1978, he became the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where he helped establish a library and archives and was the historical adviser for the Academy Award-winning documentary “Genocide.” In 1980, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations hired him as its sole researcher in Israel. For six years, he assisted in the preparation of cases against many Nazi war criminals living in the United States.
In 1986, after his research uncovered the postwar escape of hundreds of Nazi war criminals to English-speaking countries, Dr. Zuroff rejoined the Wiesenthal Center to coordinate its international efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. These efforts have influenced the passage of special laws to enable the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain.
In 2002, Dr. Zuroff co-launched Operation Last Chance, which offers financial rewards for information facilitating the conviction and punishment of remaining Nazi war criminals. His book by the same name will be available for sale at the Moriah evening.
So far, Operation Last Chance has been initiated in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Norway, and has yielded the names of some 800 previously unknown suspects. One hundred and ten of those names have been submitted to local prosecutors.
Dr. Zuroff is a return guest at the Moriah Library Benefit; his first appearance coincided with the 1994 publication of his first book, “Occupation: Nazi-Hunter,” chronicling efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals in Western democracies and explaining the rationale for such efforts several decades after the crimes. His books and articles have been translated into many languages, and he speaks about his work across the world.
He is now collaborating with a non-Jewish Lithuanian writer, Ruta Vanagaite, on a unique book, “Our People,” about Lithuanian complicity in the murder of Jews. The title is a double entendre referring to Dr. Zuroff’s relatives, who were murdered in the Holocaust, and Ms. Vanagaite’s relatives, who, she recently discovered to her horror, participated in the murdering. The book is coming out in Lithuanian in January, and an English version will follow.
“Lithuania has been playing a major role in efforts in Eastern Europe to rewrite the narrative of the Holocaust to hide the crimes of the local populations and downplay the evil of Nazism and equate it with Communism,” Dr. Zuroff said.
Emily Dauber of Englewood, a co-chair of the benefit, described Dr. Zuroff as an “interesting and compelling speaker whose work is of particular relevance in today’s world, to the state of Israel, and to us as Jews.”