Search for Nazis all about justice

Accountability: Time is bringing to an end the task of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, but 50-year-old atrocities still drive its director.

March 21, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Early in the morning three weeks ago as he lay in bed, Eli Rosenbaum's phone rang. The nation's pre-eminent Nazi hunter knew before he grabbed the receiver that it was the Justice Department.

Two U.S. immigration agents in Montreal had stopped a man trying to board a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after his name appeared on a watch list of former Nazi criminals.

Justice officials patched Rosenbaum, head of the department's Office of Special Investigations, through to one of the agents. The agent couldn't pronounce the man's name. So Rosenbaum, barely awake, grabbed a paper and one of his kids' pencils with a fuzzy pink handle.

"K-I-S," the agent said, "I-E-L ... " and he knew.

Joseph Kisielaitis.

After two decades of hunting the men responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, Rosenbaum found the work that has defined his life had come full circle.

"Mr. Kisielaitis," he said to the man to whom the agent had given the phone. "It's been a long time."

Rosenbaum joined the Office of Special Investigations in 1979 when he was 24 years old, still in law school. Now he is director of an office that has denaturalized 67 U.S. citizens and deported dozens more living in the country on visas, all accused of participating in Nazi atrocities.

The quest to find these men - they are all men - has consumed Rosenbaum, giving him a purpose yet threatening to overwhelm him with darkness and evil that emerge from the half-century-old documents and photographs he studies every day.

It has been 57 years since the fall of the Nazis, and his search for the perpetrators is coming to an end.

Though Rosenbaum and his 35-member staff have enough work for several more years, the men they are chasing are turning up aged and frail, their memories - and sometimes their legal accountability - erased by disease.

There is talk on Capitol Hill of giving the office a new task. Congress is considering a bill to charge the office with investigating perpetrators of atrocities the world over, from civil wars to guerrilla actions.

The Bush administration has not yet offered an opinion.

"If we don't get another assignment either from the attorney general or Congress, we will bring this project to an end, and this office will close," Rosenbaum said reflectively on a recent day in his office, where files and paper cover every horizontal plane.

"We will look back at a project that was born out of a response to scandal - that there were all these Nazi perpetrators in the U.S., and the government was doing nothing - and succeeded beyond anybody's expectation."

The Office of Special Investigations was created in 1979, after the government discovered that a number of former concentration camp guards and other suspected Nazi war criminals were living comfortably in American suburbs.

Previously, the responsibility fell on the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. attorneys' offices, with tepid results. In the 34 years between the war and the creation of the office, just two people were deported.

Because the Nazi atrocities were committed abroad, the United States lacks jurisdiction to bring charges and can only deport the suspects. But deportation can be a heavy punishment.

Laying out the evidence in a deportation hearing opens the door for Israel, Germany and other European countries to extradite suspects on criminal charges.

And it seems to impose an emotional penalty as well. Over the years, Rosenbaum said, he has been surprised by the desperation the perpetrators show in trying to remain in the United States, clinging to the place that has been their home for decades.

Many want to avoid returning to countries that are poorer or less hospitable, especially to former Nazi criminals.

Yet despite some movement to bring Nazi atrocities into their nations' collective consciousness, European governments have been hesitant to bring to trial individual Nazi war criminals. In several cases, Rosenbaum said, the office has had to go to extraordinary lengths to find a country to accept the suspects.

The office was expected to operate for only a few years. But in the 1980s, the list of suspects grew. Then, in the 1990s, the former Eastern bloc countries opened their archives for the first time to researchers, offering a trove of information on hundreds of SS soldiers and Gestapo police, concentration camp guards and others.

The office created a database that now includes more than 70,000 people. Most of them remained in Europe after the war and have apparently never tried to enter this country.

But every month Rosenbaum gets at least one phone call from a U.S. immigration agent somewhere on the border or manning a counter at an international airport, saying someone from the list is trying to enter the United States. Two weeks ago that someone was Joseph Kisielaitis.

An early case

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