By Efraim Zuroff
Doesn't the world owe it to all the Nazis' victims to make equal efforts to bring each of their torturers and killers to justice? Recently, I've found myself increasingly preoccupied with that question, following a two-week mission to South America on the trail of the Wiesenthal Center's most-wanted Nazi war criminal, Dr. Aribert Heim. Heim committed his most heinous crimes at the Mauthausen concentration camp, where his nickname was "Doctor Death."
To put the question into proper perspective, it is important to note that during practically every press conference I conducted or interview that I gave in South America, I had to address the question of the validity or value of the effort to track down a 94-year-old war criminal. In every venue, I recited the standard mantras: "The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers"; "a suspect's advanced age is no reason to ignore mass murder"; and "the practical implication of establishing a time limit for prosecuting genocide suspects is that those lucky enough, rich enough or smart enough to elude justice will ultimately be allowed to get away with their crimes." However, I also stressed the concept that every man and woman persecuted by the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to find and hold accountable those who turned them, innocent civilians, into victims.
I noted in my remarks that Simon Wiesenthal himself had always stressed this principle, and in fact I deeply believe in its validity and moral power. But the fact of the matter is that our recent mission to Chile and Argentina clearly underscores the unfortunate fact that not all of the Nazis' victims get equal treatment when it comes to the investment made to bring their killers to justice, and the Heim case is a classic illustration.
For starters, Heim is the only Nazi war criminal in recent history who is being sought by four different police forces - those of Germany, Austria, Chile and Argentina. He is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Holocaust perpetrator in at least the past three decades, for whose capture a special task force was established by the German police. Also he is the only such criminal for whom a huge reward is being offered: 315,000 euros (135,000 euros from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, 130,000 euros from the German government, and 50,000 euros from the Austrian government).
It is true that these relatively excellent and virtually unprecedented conditions stem, to a large extent, from the fact that Heim has been on the run since 1962, when he disappeared from his home in Baden-Baden after being tipped off that the West German police were about to arrest him for his crimes at Mauthausen. So while it is true that the current whereabouts of all the other Holocaust perpetrators on our "most wanted" list (with one exception) are now known, down to their exact address and telephone number, the fact is that none of the police forces in their countries of residence were looking for them at all before they were exposed as Nazi war criminals.
Given the fact that criminals like John Demjanjuk, Sandor Kepiro and Milivoj Asner - Nos. 2, 3 and 4 on the list, respectively - played an active role in the liquidation of at least hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians, one may ask what allows the Heim case to benefit from special status, abundant political good will and relatively munificent financial resources?
The answer to this question became apparent when our team traveled to Puerto Montt, Chile and Bariloche, Argentina - the area where we believe he is currently hiding. Although we had previously publicized the reward for Dr. Heim in Chile and Argentina, it was only when we actually reached Patagonia and had an opportunity to describe his crimes in great detail, that we felt that we were finally getting our message across to the wider public. This achievement was no doubt considerably enhanced by the fact that Heim's daughter is living in Puerto Montt, and it became evident to us in two ways: One was the flow of information that reached us from informants in the area, either via our hotline or in person. The other was the expressions of support, on the one hand, and opposition, on the other, from various local residents.
What became clear was that even if Heim had committed his crimes 67 years ago, their utter cruelty simply could not be ignored. So although I consciously tried not to overdo the descriptions - of the injections of phenol directly into the hearts of inmates, the operations performed without anesthesia, the castrations and use of body parts of those murdered as decorations - the few facts I did relate made quite an impact.
In other words, the key issues that elevated Heim to his current status were the degree of his own personal responsibility for his crimes and their absolutely horrific nature, all compounded by the fact that he was a doctor who had pledged to protect and save his patients, whom he instead mercilessly murdered. In that respect, Heim easily became a symbol of the Nazis' perversion and misuse of medicine - a fact which no doubt increased his "attractiveness" as a target for all of us.
If Mengele was never prosecuted, perhaps Dr. Death's apprehension and punishment could be a partial atonement by those who failed to bring the "Angel of Death" to justice. I certainly have no objection to the efforts and resources being invested in trying to bring Heim to justice. I only wish that a far more serious effort was being to made to ensure that the killers of the other victims will also be held accountable in this world.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.