Is there an expiration date on justice? Efraim Zuroff doesn’t think so.
After more than thirty years as the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Zuroff knows a thing or two about justice. His relentless pursuit of Nazi war criminals has formed the backbone of his life purpose, not to mention his iconic moniker. To the world, Zuroff is “the last Nazi hunter”—and the subject of an upcoming CNN documentary by the same name.
The title suits him, especially in light of the joint project launched by the Wiesenthal Center and the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami in 2002. “Operation: Last Chance,” as its name implies, is apt to be the last concerted, international effort to locate Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. Faced with the increasing difficulties of such a task, the goal of the initiative is to “offer financial rewards of up to 10,000 euros for information which will help facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Holocaust perpetrators.” The project is currently active in Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Some people question the morality of convicting 80- and 90-year-old men (and occasionally women) for crimes they committed more than half a century ago. Surely they’ve repented. Surely they’ve realized that what they did was wrong. But not only is Zuroff unconvinced; he’s uninterested. The passage of time does nothing to absolve the guilt of a mass murderer. There is no statute of limitations on genocide.
And here we’ve stumbled upon a fascinating issue: the question of justice and accountability. If we cease to hold perpetrators of genocide accountable for the atrocities they committed, what are we doing if not condoning mass murder? There’s no such thing as a geriatric “get out of jail free” card for those who have committed heinous crimes.
Unfortunately, the legal systems in the countries where Operation: Last Chance operates are not always of accord. Even when Nazi war criminals are located, they rarely receive punishments commensurate with the crimes they committed. “In Lithuania, three Nazi war criminals were prosecuted,” Zuroff explains in a recent discussion with Forward newspaper, “but they made a mockery of the judicial process by making sure they never would be punished.”
Does this scenario sound eerily familiar? “A mockery of the judicial process”?
On March 4, 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. To date, over 500,000 Darfuris have been murdered by Bashir’s state-sponsored Janjaweed militia, and over 3 million have been displaced from their homes. But the ICC can only act when a state is unwilling or unable to carry out an investigation or prosecution. And, more than a year later, the Sudanese government is still balking at the warrant. Not only is a convicted war criminal still at large; he’s just been re-elected President.
According to Simon Goldberg, President of the Student Holocaust Education Movement:
This dictator shares the same comfort Nazi perpetrators enjoy in their tucked-away villas and their downtown coffeehouses. What’s more, Al-Bashir remains unmistakably free to engage in war crimes, the menu of which defies description. But, with the Sudanese government denying any allegations of direct attacks against the civilian population; Sudanese officials refusing to cooperate with ICC prosecutors; and the unshakable support of the Arab League and Islamic Conference Organization, the indictment is bound to remain just that—an indictment.
Efraim Zuroff has dedicated thirty years of his life to tracking down perpetrators of the Holocaust. The research is never-ending—digging through old newspapers and photographs, traveling the world to collect testimonies of surviving victims, peeling back years of darkness and secrecy for the truth beneath.
Meanwhile, Bashir moves in the clear light of day: a convicted war criminal, a mass murderer, and an avid denier of the charges brought against him. When will he be held accountable for his actions? How long will the other countries of the world stand idly by? And when do we follow the example of Adam Bashar, the Darfuri refugee and activist featured in The Last Survivor, and speak out?
CNN has yet to decide whether to air The Last Nazi Hunter. They’re not convinced that there’s enough public interest in a documentary about a man who has predicated his life’s work on the notion that the fight for justice is justice itself. “What Zuroff achieves,” says Goldberg, “regardless of how many Nazi criminals ultimately die in isolated cells, is the preservation and propagation of human dignity in the purest of forms.”
It’s time we prove the media bigwigs wrong and raise our voices in the battle for human dignity. Please watch the The Last Nazi Hunter on CNN. Then take the 30 seconds to create a (free) account and leave your comments.
We WILL fight for justice, and we won’t be silent until it’s served. Now let’s tell the world.
And so I remain,
As ethnic tensions in Sudan continue to cause an international spike in blood pressure, another conflict has recently captured my attention. This one is unfolding in an entirely different country, on an entirely different continent. It’s happening in Sri Lanka.
We don’t hear much about Sri Lanka. A tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, it’s relatively small—slightly larger than the state of West Virginia and significantly more crowded (a population of twenty-one million as opposed to W. Virginia’s two). The predominant ethnicity is Sinhalese (82 percent), with Tamil making up the biggest minority group (9.4 percent).
And, as is so often the case, it’s the tension between these groups that has left a dirty stain on Sri Lankan history. War erupted in 1983 between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil separatists (LTTE) and became one of the longest-running civil wars in Asia. Norway helped negotiate a ceasefire in 2002, but the peace treaty was repeatedly violated in the years that followed and an estimated 265,000 people were displaced.
In 2009, the Genocide Prevention Project released a Mass Atrocity Crimes Watch List, and Sri Lanka made it onto the top tier—the “red alert” countries who had the highest composite of risk factors. In May of the same year, the Sri Lankan government declared official victory over the rebels. But is an official victory the same as an actual one? And if so…at what cost?
Today, one year later, the government has launched a new project in Sri Lanka: the project of destruction.
In an astute article in The Guardian, anthropologist Malathi de Alwis explains the current state of affairs:
On 19 March 2010, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror carried a brief article on its front page startlingly headlined, “Government to wipe out LTTE [Tamil Tiger] landmarks”. The rationale for this, according to the secretary to the ministry of tourism, George Michael, was that the “LTTE and the violence which affected the public during the war should be forgotten”. Fortified with such logic, the government has bulldozed all the LTTE cemeteries in the Wanni… A few weeks back, the Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was defaced with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army. While the homes of LTTE leaders will be replaced with hotels and resorts, according to the ministry, we have also witnessed the erection of several state-sponsored “victory monuments” to commemorate the defeat of the LTTE in the north.
De Alwis is “dismayed by the government’s myopic and misguided understand of memory, and its brutal disregard for the feelings and emotions of a people who have undergone unimaginable and innumerable horrors for the past three decades.” Instead of “bulldozings and demolitions and exhortations to forget,” she advocates a drastically different approach. “We need to reflect on the circumstances that led to this war and make sure we do not repeat mistakes made in previous decades.” For de Alwis, this is the only way to “ensure that we never again descend into that hellish abyss.”
What the Sri Lankan government is attempting is nothing new. Perhaps that’s why their efforts to rewrite history—to scrape away the “undesirable” parts—make me profoundly uncomfortable: precisely because it’s so familiar. It’s eerily reminiscent of Holocaust deniers or the Sudanese government denying that genocide ever occurred. The first step is to destroy the evidence. The second step is to forget what happened. And how very dangerous it is, this forgetting.
I think we’d all agree that destroying the remnants of the past is not the answer. If we want to keep ourselves from descending yet again into that hellish abyss, then we must remember. It is our moral imperative.
And if film is a way “to document – to serve as a keeper of memories for future generations,” as Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman attest, then documentaries like The Last Survivor became all the more vital. The film functions as a memorial, but not a stagnant one. It is an active memorial: one that makes it impossible to forget.
For de Alwis, memorials “play a crucial role in all societies. They function as repositories of memory, suffering and grief, and often help to translate the unthinkable to the thinkable.” The sooner we move into the thinkable, the sooner the preventable can and will occur.
Check out The Last Survivor next week, screening on May 11th and 12th at the Jewish Film Festival in LA.
“There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself. One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life.”
It was the quote that launched a thousand ships—or, at the very least, the passion of one undergraduate. In 2005, the words of Dori Laub pierced my consciousness and stirred my soul. Laub, psychoanalyst, Yale academic, and co-founder of the Holocaust Survivors’ Film Project, had said something so simple yet so profound: that it is in the very telling of our traumatic histories that we survive them.
Five years later, the same quote was scrolling on my mental marquee as I scanned the selections at the Dallas International Film Festival. So it’s no small surprise that a title like The Last Survivor immediately caught my eye. I’d arrived in Dallas just a few days earlier, eager to engage with the arts community. A cursory glance at the synopsis further piqued my interest—the film seemed right in line with my interests. “How serendipitous,” I mused.
Little did I know just how serendipitous it was.
As I settled into my seat at a sold-out screening, I was expecting a film about survival. I was expecting to watch four powerful stories unfold onscreen, the personal narratives of survivors from four horrific genocides: Rwanda, Darfur, the Holocaust, and Congo (the last of which, up until watching the film, I had been totally unaware of). And I was not disappointed—The Last Survivor offered all of that.
But it also offered something I was not expecting. Two things, actually. The first was a message of hope. The second was a call to action.
I’m a firm believer in the power of stories. They can move and inspire us; they make us laugh, they make us weep. When I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night, there came a page where I had to close the book and pick it up again the next day; the pain was just too raw. But can stories affect real change? Can they tilt the world off its axis, inspire an uprising, breathe spit and fire into a valiant cause?
Directors Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman believe they can. Not only that…they believe that giving survivors a forum in which to tell their story is the absolute best way to ensure that genocides like the Holocaust never happen again. And, as I begin my work with Righteous Pictures, I believe them.
According to Michael and Michael, they’re enthralled by “cinema’s capacity to not only bear witness, but to document – to serve as a keeper of memories for future generations.” I couldn’t agree more. As Dori Laub will attest, survival in the truest sense transpires only when there is dialogue, and film is such an ideal space for creating that dialogue between bearing testimony and bearing witness. I remember watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time and trembling. There is nothing as powerful as allowing people to tell their story, then standing back to let those stories speak for themselves. The Last Survivor achieves much the same magic.
But here’s where the team at Righteous Pictures is doing something truly exceptional. For them, it doesn’t stop at the bearing witness/bearing testimony dialectic. Instead, the dialectic becomes a trialectic, because not only do the film’s viewers bear testimony…they bear the responsibility to take action as well.
And that’s when it hit me. As Michael Pertnoy fielded questions after the film was over, the audience lingering wide-eyed in their seats, still under The Last Survivor’s spell, it occurred to me that, in all my years of reading and research—my foray into Holocaust Studies, my thesis work, my ongoing fascination with trauma and memory—never have I put the final piece into the puzzle. It’s embarrassing to admit, but for all my academic study of genocide, genocide prevention never came up once. And if genocide is indeed preventable, then shouldn’t every story spoken lay the groundwork for a world where one fewer story need be told?
What the Michaels have done—and brilliantly so—is taken the issue of genocide from the realm of the purely esoteric (tweed, theory, and the ivory tower) and made it real. The film’s four characters are so vivid, so heartbreakingly human. As Adam kicks up sand at the Israel-Egypt border or Justin sings praise songs with a smile that could melt Antarctica, we are with them, every step of the way.
But we are not merely passive spectators, watching a stagnant retelling of a story. Because each of the film’s four survivors is deeply involved in fighting genocide, it is next to impossible to walk away from the film without feeling something stir within us. We are impassioned. We are enraged. And we want to do something about it.
Which is why I introduced myself to Michael Pertnoy after the screening, waiting patiently for my turn as he graciously fielded a barrage of admirers, people who were stunned and impacted by the film, propelled into action on what would have otherwise been a sleepy Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to tell him that they’d created a work of art that spoke to people—especially young people—on such a dynamic and engaging level. And I wanted to tell him that, for perhaps the first time, I saw the unstoppable potential of a film like this, not only to educate and empower, but to spark a grassroots movement of international reform.
So, I told him. And here I am.
The floodgates have burst open. Impassioned discussions with the Righteous team, reading everything I can on Genocide Prevention, staying up until 3 a.m. with twenty Google Chrome tabs open on my laptop simultaneously—my work as RP correspondent has officially commenced. All my old passion has come rushing back, this time with the promise of something real and tangible, and so worth fighting for.
Laub had it right: survivors must tell their story in order to know it, and they must know their own buried truth in order to live their lives. But we’re taking it a step—no, 10,000 steps further. It’s time we take these stories of indefatigable hope and survival and proclaim them to the world so that, on some glorious day in the not-too-distant future, there will be no more atrocious truths to be buried. No more denial. No more silence. And yes, even this: no more genocide.
Let the journey begin.