'Operation Last Chance' by Efraim Zuroff: Book Review

Whilst on a course at Yad Vashem in Israel two weeks ago (more on that soon), my group were lucky enough to hear from Efraim Zuroff, the 'chief Nazi hunter' at the Simon Wiesenthal Center based in Jerusalem. It was just a day after Zuroff had been in Berlin launching Operation Last Chance II in Germany, offering monetary rewards for anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of former Nazi war criminals.
After a fascinating lecture, I approached Zuroff and asked to buy the only copy of his book, 'Operation Last Chance', that he had brought with him. I was desperate to learn more about the process of 'Nazi hunting' and how much luck Zuroff and his team had had thus far.

'Operation Last Chance' begins with Zuroff taking us through his own personal history; his life in America before he made aliyah (immigration to Israel), his work at Yad Vashem and how he became a prominent figure in exposing Nazi war criminals. The second half of the book's chapters are divided by country and the progress (or lack of) in catching Nazi war criminals that has taken place in each.
Reading the book is almost like reading a detective novel; you read about the discovery of names of war criminals, the confirmation of where they are living, the involvement of a country's government or other organisations to bring them to justice, and you almost feel yourself getting excited at the prospect of at least some justice being served. Alas, most of the time there is not a happy, or even a satisfactory, ending to the cases presented. I found myself feeling increasingly frustrated at different countries and their reluctance to extradite and/or prosecute war criminals, sometimes due to their age and apparent frailty but also to save face and avoid the embarrassment of having Nazi war criminals living as ordinary citizens in their countries. As a British citizen, I was most ashamed to read how British newspapers reacted to Zuroff's meetings with government ministers to highlight the issue of Nazi war criminals living in the UK in 1986.
It should also be pointed that Zuroff and team are not just looking for German war criminals. Indeed, the fact that the Nazis were given much assistance and collaboration from other countries, notably those in Eastern Europe such as Lithuania, Croatia and Estonia, is often overlooked. Undercurrents of anti-Semitism were prevalent in these areas before the Holocaust, and with the rise of extremist, fascist groups, it was only a matter of time before the Jews of Eastern Europe were being tortured and executed by their fellow countrymen. In the wake of post-war Communism that blanketed the former Soviet Union, these other countries' involvement in the Holocaust was downplayed, even denied, by those in charge. The history of the Holocaust has been somewhat re-written in some places so that countries such as Lithuania can try and rid themselves of the guilt and the knowledge that their country played a part in the extermination of the Jews during World War II. This is also part of Zuroff's mission; to ensure that facts are faced up to and the unpleasant wartime past in certain countries is accepted. It is very much an on-going process.

Zuroff's book gives an extremely interesting account of the attempts to catch Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice in the last few decades. Frustratingly, it is not a book that ticks off numerous successful cases, but does highlight the problems of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and lack of co-operation from countries all over the world that still exist. A must-read.

Recommended for...
Anyone with an interest in the history of the Holocaust and post-war Europe; perhaps also those with an interest in international or criminal law.