War crimes: 'We have five or six years to get these former Nazis before they are all dead'

Money is no object as academic steps into Wiesenthal's shoes and vows to hunt down the last of Hitler's henchmen
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The Independent Online

Efraim Zuroff is putting cash bounties on the heads of fugitives accused of war crimes in an attempt to bring them rapidly to justice. The founder of the Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and a close friend of the man after whom it was named, Mr Zuroff is the brains behind "Operation Last Chance", a final attempt to flush out Nazi war criminals before they die or are too old or infirm to stand trial.

"I like to think of myself as Simon's successor," Mr Zuroff told The Independent on Sunday. "I like to think that's what he would have wanted."

The pair met in 1978 in Los Angeles at the premiere of the Wiesenthal-inspired film The Boys From Brazil. "I was just so struck by him," said Mr Zuroff. "He was this lonely fighter for justice, with incredible wit and perseverance in his crusade. It was a surreal, amazing encounter."

The meeting prompted Mr Zuroff, 57, to ditch his academic career and become a full-time Nazi hunter. His approach is radically different to that adopted by Wiesenthal, who died in Vienna aged 96, but Mr Zuroff sees it as the most effective way of continuing his legacy.

Operating on a shoestring in a cramped Vienna office, Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, tracked down more than 1,100 fugitive Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the death of millions of Jews. Wiesenthal kept track of sightings of former Nazis by sticking drawing pins in a map hung above his desk, and relied on a network of informants and personal contacts.

But with time running out, Mr Zuroff has decided to throw money at the problem. Since many of Germany's high-profile cases have been solved, his attention is on eastern Europe and the Baltic states, where many locals collaborated with the Nazis, believing it would bring them independence. Aided by a Miami-based Jewish charitable foundation, Mr Zuroff descends on east European capitals, holds high-profile press conferences, buys advertising space in newspapers and on billboards, sets up local hotlines and offers rewards of around £100,000 for tips that lead to prosecution.

The initiative, which Mr Zuroff says is working "extremely well", has spread to nine countries, including Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Romania, and was extended to Germany last year. It has thrown up the names of 380 suspects, some 79 of whom are under investigation by local prosecutors.

"The truth is we have maybe five or six years left to get these former Nazis before they're all dead," admitted Mr Zuroff. "That's why I find the term 'truth warrior' more accurate than Nazi hunter." When there are no more Nazis left to hunt, Mr Zuroff says he will turn his efforts to rebutting historical revisionism and Holocaust denial.

Despite Mr Zuroff's work, the 50-year-long crusade of Simon Wiesenthal, who survived 12 concentration camps and Nazi prisons, and lost 89 members of his family, will remain unequalled.

AT LARGE: THE TWO MAIN TARGETS

* Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man. Brunner is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 130,000 Jews. He was last seen on a street in Damascus in 1992, and was believed to be living in a guarded apartment in the Syrian capital. He would now be aged 92.

* Aribert Heim, 91, "the butcher of Mauthausen". A former concentration camp doctor who injected petrol into Jewish prisoners and amputated body parts without painkillers, he is believed to live among the many German pensioners on the Costa Blanca in Spain. There is a £95,000 bounty on his head.

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