The Last Nazi Hunter

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff has spent four decades doggedly chasing Holocaust criminals, but when his pursuit led him to Lithuania, the fight got personal. Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters

Efraim Zuroff has accomplished much in his long career, but there's one thing he's particularly proud of: He's the most hated Jew in Lithuania.

His Lithuanian friend Ruta Vanagaite agrees: She called him a "mammoth," a "boogeyman" and the "ruiner of reputations"—and that's just in the introduction to a book they co-authored.

Last summer, in a journey that helped cement his notoriety, Zuroff set off across the Lithuanian countryside in a gray SUV with Vanagaite, an author best known for a book about women finding happiness after age 50. Their goal: to visit some of the nation's more than 200 sites of mass murder during World War II. On the road, between destinations, they talked and talked, recording their conversations. The trip formed the basis of their 2016 book, Our People: Journey With an Enemy, an instant best-seller in Lithuania. It also ignited a rancorous debate among Lithuanians, who have long downplayed their country's considerable role in the Holocaust.

Zuroff, often called the last Nazi hunter, has spent nearly four decades chasing down suspects from Australia to Iceland, from Hungary to the United States. His methods are sometimes controversial, but his mission is righteous: bringing to justice every remaining perpetrator of one of the most heinous crimes in history. For Westerners, the tiny country of Lithuania might seem an odd place for him to dig in, but with most Nazis either dead or too frail to face trial, this Eastern European nation may be the Nazi hunter's last stand. He considers Lithuania one of his most important fights because it hasn't addressed its role in mass murder during the Holocaust—its citizens killed almost all of the 250,000 Jews who lived there in 1941. "Not a single Lithuanian sat one day in jail in independent Lithuania" for collaborating with the Nazis and participating in the Holocaust, Zuroff tells Newsweek.

"I realize how difficult it could be for Lithuania to admit its complicity," he told Vanagaite in Our People. "It took France 50 years to acknowledge its guilt. Germany had no choice. But for your sake and your children's sake, the sooner you face this honestly, the sooner the healing process will start."

"If it took France 50 years, it will take Lithuania 50 years as well," said Vanagaite.

"No, it will take you 90 years," replied Zuroff. "Because your crimes are greater, and your ability to deal with them is less. The French prepared the Jews to be sent somewhere, and they sent them away to be murdered. Here, the Jews were murdered by your people….

"You know why everyone in Lithuania hates me? Because they know that I am right."

As Nazi Germany annexes Lithuania on the Baltic Coast, Reichsfuehrer Adolf Hitler is accompanied by Wehrmacht military leaders and aides as he marches down the streets of Memel, or Klaipeda, to view the last addition to his Third Reich, March 23, 1939. AP

The Thinking Man's Indiana Jones

Zuroff wants to make it very clear that Nazi hunting isn't as glamorous as it sounds. "A lot of times, people come up to me and say, 'You have my dream job.... When I was a child, I wanted to be a Nazi hunter,'" he tells Newsweek, clearly amused by their ignorance. "You know—it's not doing ambushes in the jungles of South America."

Nor does it resemble the popular '70s book and subsequent film The Boys From Brazil, in which Laurence Olivier spends much of his time chasing Dr. Josef Mengele, played by Gregory Peck, and unraveling his evil plan to use 94 clones of Adolf Hitler to resurrect the Reich. The film doesn't hold up particularly well, and not only because of its revenge fantasy ending that features Mengele being mauled to death by a pack of Dobermans. (In reality, the "Angel of Death" drowned while living under a pseudonym in South America.)

Zuroff says a Nazi hunter's job these days is "one-third detective, one-third historian, one-third political lobbyist," with countless hours spent tracking down witnesses, poring over archives and convincing governments to take action. Imagine Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with the hero spending 98 percent of the movie in his school's library.

Zuroff never set out to become an object of contempt in Lithuania or the world's last Nazi hunter. He grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York—Brighton Beach and Flatbush—hoping to become the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA. Though he was named for his great uncle, Efraim Zar, who was murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, Zuroff's career as a Nazi hunter began only after he made aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel, in 1970 and completed his Ph.D. in Holocaust history.

In the early 1980s, he worked in Israel for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which was formed in 1979 to probe and prosecute war criminals. Since 1986, Zuroff has directed the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization that combats anti-Semitism and is named after the Holocaust survivor and legendary Nazi hunter who died in 2005. Since he operates through a nongovernmental organization that has no power to prosecute, Zuroff is considered a "freelance Nazi hunter."

Coming into the profession so late, Zuroff missed many of the big names Wiesenthal and others pursued—Mengele, Adolf Eichmann and Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo agent who led the arrest of Anne Frank and her family. "That I'm jealous about, definitely," Zuroff says, sitting in his sunny Jerusalem office, surrounded by books and overstuffed files, with framed press clippings surrounding him and a miniature basketball hoop in one corner. This could be the work space of a genial but harried accountant, until you look closer and notice that one little drawer reads "Latvian War Criminals Master List, M-Z."

Zuroff protests at an annual procession honoring the Latvian Waff en SS unit. Like its Baltic neighbor Lithuania, Latvia plays down its history of collaboration. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

From this base, the loud but jovial Nazi hunter fields phone calls with tips on suspects through his Operation Last Chance initiative (financial rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Nazi war criminals), follows up on promising leads and works with partners who can scour archival material in the languages he can't handle. He went to Copenhagen last summer to submit an official police complaint about a Danish SS volunteer who remains alive and unpunished. Since the number of living perpetrators has dwindled in recent years, Zuroff increasingly spends time writing op-eds about Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, speaking with the press when these topics are in the news and giving lectures at universities and conferences.

"You have to start from the premise that it's almost impossible to prosecute a Nazi these days," he says, his large frame folded behind his desk and graying hair usually topped with a kippa. Many of Zuroff's critics think it's time we stop prosecuting Nazi collaborators—most of them are dead or too old to stand trial, they say, and some argue it's vindictive to dwell on events so far in the past. Zuroff scoffs at such talk. "First, the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers," he says, launching into his oft-recited "Nazi Hunting 101" spiel. "Old age should not protect people from punishment, people who committed such heinous crimes. We owe it to the victims—that's three. Four is it sends a powerful message about the serious nature of these crimes, their importance. Five is it's important in the fight against Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion. Six, 'superior orders' has almost invariably been rejected as a defense, so in other words, individual criminal responsibility." He insists that if the world doesn't make it "abundantly clear" that all individuals who participate in genocide will face consequences, people will assume they can get away with mass murder.

Zuroff can't give an exact tally of how many war criminals he's brought to justice. There are those whose sordid past he merely exposed, some cases in which he helped push for an investigation and other instances in which he got suspects before a judge—but they somehow escaped conviction or punishment. Despite his job's many frustrations, his résumé is formidable, and his name is known from Los Angeles to Vilnius, from Budapest to Sydney.

Still, many are critical of him and his work. "A piece about Zuroff? Well, he plays the media well, doesn't he?" Christoph Dieckmann, an award-winning scholar and researcher at Germany's Fritz Bauer Institute for History and the Impact of the Holocaust, says in an email when asked to comment on Zuroff's legacy. "The problem with Zuroff is that Zuroff is always about Zuroff," he adds in a later phone interview, claiming he is "a one-man institute, ridiculously bad on research," who oversimplifies the issues and "turns history into a James Bond movie."

Zuroff insists he isn't on an ego trip and that his relentless drive to prosecute comes from a need to honor the victims, fight Holocaust distortion and educate new generations. "Countries understand that all they have to do is wait it out, ignore nudniks like me…and they'll spare themselves the embarrassment, the expenses, the balagan [mess]," he says, his Brooklyn accent still unmistakable after more than 40 years in Israel. "I try to tell them that if you don't prosecute Nazis and allow them to get away with it, it's a form of moral pollution."

But "in the long run, the fight over the narrative is more important than the individual criminal."

And so, as the last remaining perpetrators die off, persuading an entire society to admit its ghastly role in the Holocaust is the last Nazi hunter's latest—and most difficult—battle.

It's Complicated

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 90 percent of Lithuania's Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and some estimates go much higher. Regardless of which estimate you use, the Jewish death rate there was one of the highest in all of Europe. And there's a sickening twist to this already-gruesome tale: In countries like France and the Netherlands, Nazi collaboration typically meant identifying, gathering and preparing Jews to be deported to concentration camps, but collaborators in Lithuania also did much of the killing—usually by shooting their neighbors and watching their bodies collapse, one on top of another, into pits dug in the forest.

Lithuania's crimes against its own people during World War II seem irrefutable, but the country's collective memory has been muddied by several factors. For one, there is its long history of foreign occupation, particularly by the Soviets, who took over twice—first in 1940, then again in 1944, when the Red Army pushed the occupying Nazis westward. Lithuania did not declare independence from the Soviet Union until March 1990, after nearly half a century of Communist rule. Another is that, in line with much of the right-wing thinking all over Europe between the world wars, many Lithuanians associated Jews with Bolshevism—a strain of anti-Semitism stoked by Nazi propaganda. Decades under the Soviets also led many Lithuanians to see themselves as "victims slash heroes," as Vanagaite tells Newsweek; the former for their suffering under the Soviets and the latter for eventually breaking free of the USSR and aiding in its demise. With that mindset, it's hard for a nation to accept that its citizens could also have been perpetrators of genocide. Even those who participated in mass murder might be celebrated as national heroes for their anti-Soviet activities.

In his book Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, Zuroff recalled a 1991 dedication ceremony for a monument in Paneriai—a suburb of Vilnius where roughly 70,000 Jews were killed. Gediminas Vagnorius, then the prime minister of Lithuania, claimed the Holocaust lasted only three months and reduced the scope of Lithuanian participation, saying "a group of criminals cannot outweigh the good name of a nation, nor can it rob it of its conscience and decency." Perhaps those comments can be shrugged off as the growing pains of a newborn nation, but even today the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, focuses almost exclusively on Soviet crimes and resistance; its first and only exhibit on the Holocaust wasn't added until 2011.

Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Kagan visits the Chamber of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty

Zuroff and Dovid Katz, a longtime ally of the Nazi hunter and founder of the web journal Defending History, claim that some in Lithuania are pushing what they call the "double genocide" theory, which equates Soviet crimes against Lithuanians to Nazi crimes against Jews. They accuse a state-appointed research group—the prodigiously named International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania—of promoting the double genocide theory, even by putting both Soviet and Nazi crimes in its title. The commission's executive director, Ronaldas Racinskas, heatedly disputes that charge and says he "100 percent supported, supports and will support" Zuroff's primary goal of bringing Holocaust perpetrators to justice, though he calls Zuroff's aggressive methods "counterproductive."

Zuroff says Racinskas's proclamation of support is "pure fabrication. I do not remember a single statement or any effort by the commission to encourage or support the efforts of the Wiesenthal Center to help facilitate the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazi war criminals."

No country has an impeccable record when it comes to prosecuting perpetrators of the Holocaust, but some have made commendable efforts. The U.S., after years of doing nothing, denaturalized dozens of Nazi collaborators. Germany, birthplace of the Holocaust, is still prosecuting death camp guards and foresees continuing such work for another decade.

Almost immediately after Lithuania declared independence, Zuroff started pushing the country to prosecute Holocaust criminals, appearing on television and petitioning the government to pursue legal action. As Vanagaite put it in Our People, "[He] came to spoil the wedding." Despite his persistence, only three people have been tried for Holocaust crimes in independent Lithuania—and the possibility of any more facing judgment seems remote. In 2001, Kazys Gimzauskas, a deputy in the Saugumas (the Lithuanian equivalent of the German Gestapo), became the first Nazi collaborator convicted in an independent former Soviet republic, but by then the court ruled him too ill to be incarcerated. In 2006, Algimantas Dailide, another member of the Saugumas, was convicted and sentenced to five years. However, a court in Vilnius ruled that he would not be imprisoned "because he is very old and does not pose danger to society."

Zuroff helped scare the third, Aleksandras Lileikis, a Saugumas commander, back to Lithuania from Norwood, Massachusetts, where he had been living for many years, working at a Lithuanian encyclopedia publishing company. Lileikis was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1996 after the U.S. Department of Justice charged that he had "concealed his involvement in the mass murder and other persecution of Jews and others" when applying for immigration. Lileikis was indicted by a Lithuanian court but died in September 2000 before his trial was over.

Zuroff helped drive Aleksandras Lileikis from the U.S. back to Lithuania to face trial. Lileikis was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1996. AP

The Nazi hunter's pursuit of Lileikis didn't win him any Lithuanian friends. "That old person was already half-dead," says Vanagaite, who lived next door to Lileikis after he'd returned to Vilnius and remembers seeing him in his wheelchair. "I was upset like everybody else. I said, 'If he did something wrong, then he soon will be dead and go to hell.'" She remembers seeing Zuroff on TV, talking angrily about Lithuania, and recalls wondering what "this foreign, strong, big Jew" wanted from her country's old people.

Nearly two decades later, she came to understand what Zuroff wanted and why it was so important that he get it. And then she became the Nazi hunter's unlikely, and arguably most significant, ally in Lithuania.

Frenemies and Neighbors

"As they say, the birds shouldn't shit in their own nest."

Vanagaite, smiling behind a pair of cat's-eye glasses, sips coffee as she calmly explains why some Lithuanians hate her for talking about their grisly crimes against Jews, as well as those likely committed by her own family. "So I am the bird—because my name is Vanagaite; vanagas is a hawk—who has been shitting in our own nest," she continues. Then she adds sardonically, "But those people who were killers? They were not shitting. I am shitting [by writing] about it."

Vanagaite, who was born in Lithuania, graduated from the Moscow Theater Institute and has worked as a theater, TV and event producer, as well as a journalist and political PR consultant. She published one book that dealt with elder care and another, a best-seller in her country, about women thriving as they age. Not long before she met Zuroff, Vanagaite organized a program called "Being a Jew," which explored Jewish culture and traditions and culminated with 700 schoolchildren visiting the Lithuanian mass murder site in Paneriai. The project closed with a conference on Holocaust education. "I was told by all Lithuanian participants that by no means should I invite Dr. Zuroff, because they would refuse to come and sit in the same audience," she says. "So then I got curious" and invited him anyway.

Zuroff couldn't make it that day, but the two met before the conference to film a video address. For decades, the Nazi hunter had been treated with hostility in Lithuania, but suddenly here was a woman, small in stature but with an outsized personality, willing to admit to her family's likely involvement in the Holocaust. (A case file in the Lithuanian Special Archives revealed that Vanagaite's grandfather, who opposed the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1941 and was deported to the gulag upon its return in 1944, had been part of a commission that compiled lists of Jews during the Nazi occupation. Her aunt's husband, who used to send her letters, jeans and records from America, had been the chief of police in Panevezys and, Vanagaite therefore assumes, helped organize the killing of Jews. A "desk murderer," she calls him in the book she wrote with Zuroff.)

But it wasn't until after the conference, when Vanagaite attended a smaller seminar for history teachers who might be selected to participate in training at Yad Vashem, that she gave more thought to Zuroff's version of the story. She couldn't stop questioning what she had learned from Soviet-era textbooks—the same narratives she says her children were taught years later that minimized or ignored Lithuanians' role in the mass murder of Jews. She wanted to know more, and she was willing to work with the "boogeyman" to reach other Lithuanians.

Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite wrote about her own family members’ role in collaborating with the Nazis. PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty

A few months later and after several more conversations, Vanagaite and Zuroff set out in a car she dubbed "the Shoah-mobile" to do the research that would become Our People. They visited dozens of mass murder sites, local museums and towns related to their family histories. They asked locals to point them to old monuments and killing sites that were often untended and difficult to find—some still marked with Soviet-era plaques, a few unmarked—and interviewed locals old enough to remember the war or at least share stories they'd heard from older relatives and neighbors. They snacked on granola bars and lox sandwiches, always on the lookout for kosher food—no easy task in a country now home to only about 5,000 Jews.

"I know it will be very controversial," said Vanagaite of the book, speaking before Our People was published. "I have lost already a couple of friends because…because they think I'm betraying my people, betraying my country, and [they say] maybe Jews are paying for this [project]." Some members of her family are angry that she wrote about relatives and have refused to read the book.

It may feel like "shock therapy," she says, "but I think it's a healing book."

Their journey clearly shocked even Zuroff, who says that as a Nazi hunter, "you have to make sure it's never personal, because then you'll get consumed by the job, you'll get destroyed." For years, he was mostly successful in this regard, but the road trips with his Lithuanian co-author were "emotionally horrifying," he says. "I felt for the first time...that the Shoah had taken over my life."

When the pair arrived at Linkmenys, the shtetl where Zuroff's grandfather and great uncle once lived, he stood among patches of raspberries in the clearing where Jews had been ordered to lie facedown on the ground before Lithuanians showered them with bullets. As he did at each site they visited, he stopped to say kaddish, a prayer of mourning. "I do not know what to do, so I move away a bit and wait for him," Vanagaite wrote of that moment. "And then I hear a strange sound. Very strange indeed. I hear the Nazi hunter crying."

Trial by History Book

Zuroff and Vanagaite launched their book the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, gathering the press inside Submarine, a small sandwich shop in the center of Vilnius. According to Vanagaite's research, the building was for a period the headquarters of the Lithuanian "special unit" that murdered Jews.

Among those present at the press event was Tomas Sernas, a priest and former customs officer who was the sole survivor of a 1991 Soviet attack on the Medininkai border post that killed seven during the struggle for Lithuanian independence. For that, he is considered a national hero, so his support helped legitimize Our People.

For a couple of months after the book's release, "it was the main discussion at the dinner table," says Vanagaite, "[but] society is very split." Many young people embraced Our People, while some older Lithuanians were deeply offended. Others old enough to have witnessed the atrocities were strangely comforted by the book's revelations. "They realize that what happened in the village, what happened in the neighborhood, was not an exception," says Vanagaite. "It didn't happen just next door. It happened everywhere."

"Few books have ever been off to such an outrageous start in Lithuania," one blogger wrote in the days after its release. For five weeks, it was the top seller at a major Lithuanian bookstore chain and was in the top 10 as this story went to print. Zuroff and Vanagaite have signed with a Polish publisher and are working to secure deals to publish in English and other languages.

When Lithuania ceded Klaipeda to Germany, thousands of Jews like this family fled. Here, German crowds gather to jeer as the refugees pack up a cart. Bettmann/Getty

The book bolstered Zuroff's vile reputation in Lithuania, and in some quarters, it made Vanagaite the country's most despised daughter. She was giving an interview to a TV crew at her home one day when they suddenly demanded to see her birth certificate to prove she was, in fact, Lithuanian (and not Jewish), she says. She's also been told to "go back to Israel," and she had to explain to a concerned taxi driver that she doesn't carry a weapon to protect herself, despite the many vitriolic comments about her and the book on the internet.

Some suggested the book was funded by Jews or the Kremlin. Others claimed it discredits the Lithuanian partisan movement and serves Putin's propaganda machine as a spokesman for the Lithuanian State Security Department insinuated, Vanagaite says. Vanagaite was particularly incensed by critics who faulted the book for not including more positive elements of Lithuania's actions during the war, like the Lithuanians who saved Jews. "I was so pissed off that I said, 'OK, you know, this book is about the Holocaust, about the murder of the Jews. I'm very sorry that it's so negative. I'm sorry the Jews didn't smile when we were killing them.'"

Back to Work

"It was clear from the beginning that absolute justice and restitution could never possibly be achieved," Zuroff wrote of Lithuania in his introduction to Our People. "In retrospect, I do not regret the path I chose, but I frankly underestimated the difficulties I would face."

For Zuroff, the hunt for Nazis and the fight against Holocaust distortion are seemingly endless, but both are part of a mission he can't imagine abandoning. "I comfort myself that at least I did not betray the victims and violate their memory," Zuroff wrote. "If the price for that is the enmity of local public opinion, so be it."

As he continues to field calls, pursue leads and push governments to prosecute, Zuroff must also grapple with the ways in which his job is inevitably changing. He feels there is still justice left to be served—for his great uncle, for the tens of thousands of Jewish victims in Lithuania, for the millions of Jews throughout Europe who perished during the Holocaust and for those who have become victims of subsequent genocides.

With a burden so great, what would success look like? The world's last Nazi hunter feels that he has to keep pushing for prosecutions and acknowledgment, hoping that every small victory—like finding Vanagaite and publishing a best-seller in a country that had recoiled at his efforts for years—will bring the world a little closer to "never again."