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Investigators race the clock to bring hiding Nazi war criminals to justice

Eli Rosenbaum, charged with finding the last living Nazis, looks at the identity papers of accused war criminal John Demjanjuk.

ALEX HOLT | Times

Eli Rosenbaum, charged with finding the last living Nazis, looks at the identity papers of accused war criminal John Demjanjuk.

WASHINGTON — For half a century he lived in the United States, finally settling at the end of a cul-de-sac in Panama City, a short drive from the beach.

But one spring day in 2002, history caught up with Michael Gorshkow. Federal authorities said he was more than an aging Florida retiree:

He was a Nazi war criminal.

Gorshkow, 78 at the time, was accused of participating in the murder of 3,000 Jewish residents of a ghetto known as Slutsk in Belarus in February 1943.

It may surprise many to know there are still Nazis hiding in the United States. But for the past 30 years a little-known branch of the Justice Department has been tracking them down, seeking to bring some of history's most heinous criminals to justice before they die of natural causes.

Walking into the Human Rights and Special Prosecution division, one might expect to find high-tech surveillance equipment and undercover agents getting ready to go out into the field.

"There is this Hollywood conception of how these cases originate. You know — a survivor recognizes her former tormentor on the street," Eli Rosenbaum of HRSP says.

But it's not secret agents or former victims. It's historians who are exposing them.

They have combed through Nazi personnel records and accumulated more than 70,000 names. From these lists Justice Department attorneys have won cases against 107 individuals out of 137, with nine losses (in the remainder of cases, the defendant died before the trial). They have also prevented an additional 180 from entering the United States.

Until recently HRSP, formerly known as the Office of Special Investigations, was the only law enforcement agency in the world to employ historians, according to Rosenbaum. The national security division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now also employs historians.

• • •

HRSP has seven full-time historians, along with 30 attorneys, who work on Nazi prosecutions and contemporary human rights violations.

In the case of Gorshkow, an HRSP historian looking through files in 2001 identified him as a person of interest. His name was cross-checked with U.S. domestic records and a match was found. Then came the hard part.

Even if HRSP could show that Gorshkow was in the Minsk Gestapo and the unit committed war crimes, it still had to prove that he participated. For this they turned to a 1943 German detachment order listing Gorshkow as an interpreter involved with the liquidation of a Slutsk ghetto.

"There are two pits in the resettlement area," reads the order. Rosenbaum flips to another page, which outlines how ammunition would be transported to the pits, where two officers "will be responsible for the distribution of cartridges."

On a bitterly cold day in February 1943, the Minsk Gestapo traveled to the Slutsk ghetto to carry out the gruesome orders, according to court documents. Members of Gorshkow's unit loaded Jewish men, women and children onto trucks and drove to a nearby forest, shot them and threw them into the pits.

As residents saw more of their shivering neighbors loaded onto trucks that came back empty, they began to resist. Gorshkow's unit set the ghetto on fire and guarded the exits. When the shooting stopped, around 3,000 people were dead.

Nicholas Masseo lived next door to Gorshkow in Panama City. He said Gorshkow spoke with surprising frankness of his contempt for Jewish people. He recalled giving him a ride one day.

"All he could talk about was how bad the Jews were," Masseo said. "It was really upsetting."

Becky Palmer, another neighbor, said she was shocked at first, because Gorshkow seemed to be very nice, but there were troubling signs, like an exchange between the old man and a German exchange student she hosted. When the student dated a black man, Gorshkow approached, speaking German. Palmer asked what he said, and the student replied, "Oh, he's just an old Nazi."

Rosenbaum says such behavior is not typical. "Usually these guys keep a much lower profile."

• • •

In all of its war crimes cases, the events occurred outside United States jurisdiction, so the most that HRSP can do is compile evidence and send the accused to a country where they can be prosecuted.

"It's frustrating, yes, but on the other hand the alternative would be to do nothing," says Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Look how hard they had to fight Demjanjuk, who claimed to be an innocent lamb and victim himself."

Foxman was referring to John Demjanjuk, perhaps the most notorious case HRSP has pursued. The retired Cleveland auto plant worker was originally accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," a sadistic guard at the Treblinka camp in Poland. Extradited to Israel in 1986, he was tried and sentenced to death. But in 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction based on new evidence.

Demjanjuk returned to the United States. Investigators delved deeper and concluded he was a guard at other camps. He had his citizenship revoked and was removed to Germany last year to stand trial for complicity in the deaths of 27,900 inmates at Sobibor in Poland.

"There is no question this man was voluntarily involved with the Nazi final solution," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "He may not be 'Ivan the Terrible,' but the weight of the other evidence compiled will convict him in German court," he predicted.

Meanwhile, Gorshkow is living freely in Estonia. He fled the United States shortly after HRSP filed to strip him of his citizenship. An Estonian embassy official says he is still under investigation.

Gorshkow's attorney, reached by telephone, had no comment.

"It's a joke," says Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a former contractor to the Office of Special Investigations. "He's been under investigation for five or six years, so what's the story? (Estonia has) no political will to prosecute, let alone punish, Nazi criminals."

The work has many frustrations, and "that's one of them,'' Rosenbaum says. "You never really make peace with that idea."

Nevertheless, Zuroff praises the agency for its diligence.

"The United States is the only country which has consistently exhibited the political will to ensure that as many Nazi criminals are brought to justice as possible,'' he says.

• • •

As more and more Nazis begin to die of old age (the youngest Nazi war criminal would most likely be 83), Rosenbaum admits that "time is running out."

HRSP was formed by a merger of the Office of Special Investigations and the Domestic Security Section, and it addresses modern human rights violations as well as Nazi atrocities. This year, for instance, a former Guatemalan special forces soldier was arrested in Palm Beach County and accused of participating in the massacre of a Guatemalan village in 1982.

Rosenbaum remains committed to bringing the last of the living Nazi war criminals to justice.

Just last month, a Pittsburgh-area man was sent to Austria for his alleged role as a concentration camp guard.

Zuroff points out that for such monstrous crimes, the age of the perpetrator is irrelevant.

"The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of a killer," he says. "If it were in the '50s or '60s, no one would bat an eyelash.''

Asked what the threshold was for bringing charges, Rosenbaum says HRSP doesn't focus on rank or position, but on actions. A death camp guard could be culpable because the sole purposes of the camp were terror, persecution and genocide, and the guards helped keep it running.

Rosenbaum was director of the Office of Special Investigations and is now director of human rights enforcement strategy and policy for HRSP. He started as an OSI intern in 1979.

He says a conversation with his father while driving in a blizzard had a profound influence on him. His father, who fled Germany in 1939 and served in the U.S. Army, told his son he had been at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Young Rosenbaum asked his father what he had seen.

"I didn't hear any response … you know we're both looking out at the snow on the road, so I look over and his eyes are full of tears and his mouth is open as though he were trying to respond but he couldn't do it, he got all choked up," says Rosenbaum. "I never asked him again and he never told me. … I got his answer through his reaction."

For three decades, Rosenbaum has made it his life's work to provide some measure of justice for crimes so depraved they left his father speechless. Asked what drives him, he says foremost is the gratitude expressed by survivors. But the work serves the future as well as the past, he says.

"It's of crucial importance to the world," says Rosenbaum, "that people who would consider perpetrating such crimes understand that there's a real chance that if they do, they'll be pursued for the rest of their lives."

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: A Justice Department division investigating suspected Nazi war criminals recently stripped two men of United States citizenship and removed them from the country. A story Monday mischaracterized the legal process.

Investigators race the clock to bring hiding Nazi war criminals to justice 06/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 3:18pm]
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