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Thursday, September 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nazi hunter finds clock is ticking against him

Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON — So many aging Nazis. So little time before they wind up in an American cemetery, ending their long, make-believe lives filled with anglicized names and American-issue Social Security checks.

But they have a relentless nemesis in Eli Rosenbaum.

The 47-year-old Rosenbaum is director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), this nation's Nazi-hunting unit — the one that went after Ohio retiree John Demjanjuk and, after some controversy several years ago over the way it handled his first case, won a second denaturalization order in February.

His agency's lawyers are aggressive and largely successful: Of 118 people the OSI has sought to denaturalize or remove during its 23 years of existence, 68 have lost their citizenship and 56 were deported, including three extradited for trials abroad. Seventeen cases are in litigation.

Through the OSI's work, U.S. officials have barred another 165 people from entering the country since 1989, including war criminals of Japanese descent who occasionally have shown up as modern-day tourists.

Border and Customs agents match their names on a government "watch list" — to which the OSI contributes — and put them on planes back home.

Hitting home

Sometimes Rosenbaum's investigations make his own government blush. As a young OSI lawyer he exposed how the United States let in Arthur Rudolph, who directed NASA's Saturn V rocket project to carry men to the moon.

Rudolph, according to documents unearthed by Rosenbaum, had worked with the SS to secure slave labor for Hitler's V-2 missile program at Germany's Mittelwork rocket factory.

Rosenbaum's supervisor told him he'd never get anywhere with an accusation against a prominent scientist, one the United States had quietly recruited to build its rocket program. He was wrong; Rudolph agreed to leave the United States after he was confronted with the evidence.

Rosenbaum is also the lawyer who, during a stint as general counsel for the World Jewish Congress, led the investigation that exposed the Nazi connections of Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations general secretary and former Austrian president.

Today most of Rosenbaum's targets are not the architects of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich but the alleged foot soldiers — people such as Vladas Zajanckauskas of Massachusetts, an 86-year-old grandfather accused in June of training concentration-camp guards and of helping to wipe out the Warsaw ghetto during the war.

Others include 78-year-old Jakiw Palij of Jackson Heights, N.Y., accused in May of serving as a guard at a Nazi forced-labor camp.

"This case," Rosenbaum told reporters after his office sought to revoke Zajanckauskas' citizenship, "serves as a reminder that the Justice Department will not allow this country to be a haven for Nazi-era war criminals."

Zajanckauskas has denied the charge.

The OSI's 13 government attorneys and 10 historians sift through files of evidence gathered around the world and methodically build cases to deport people accused of crimes against humanity.

OSI employees dig through archives, collect records and feed information and names into Immigration and Naturalization Service databases.

"We gather all these names and get birth-date information where we can, and we methodically check them against immigration records and other records to see who's here," Rosenbaum said. "We find the person, then the investigation begins in earnest."

The cases can take years. In the early 1980s, the OSI came upon a document found in the Soviet Union that showed one man ordering the deaths of 52 Jews, each one named in the order. "It was a typed copy, and the Soviets told us the original was nowhere to be found," Rosenbaum recalled.

The man who gave the order, Aleksandras Lileikis, chief of the Lithuanian Security Police for the Vilnius region during the war, was then living near Boston. Rosenbaum and another investigator went to his home in 1983 and showed him the document.

Lileikis, rather than acknowledge or deny that the death order was real, merely said he had not seen it before and noted that it did not have his signature, so anyone could have put his name on it.

"So we didn't have enough."

Nearly a decade passed, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly there were records with Lileikis' signature.

"The evidence was so powerful and so poignant, including a death warrant that he signed for a 6-year-old girl and her mother," Rosenbaum said.

The OSI won its denaturalization case in 1996, and Lileikis decided to go back to Lithuania. He became, said Rosenbaum, the first Nazi persecutor returned from the United States to any of the successor states to the Soviet Union.

Lileikis was indicted by Lithuanian prosecutors, but the trial that began in 1998 never went beyond preliminary stages, and he died in September 2000 at age 93.

The OSI cannot bring criminal cases because U.S. law does not allow prosecution for crimes that occurred elsewhere. But the agency can file for deportation on the grounds that an individual entered the United States on false pretense or that the individual persecuted innocent people during World War II, which Congress has deemed as grounds to keep someone out.

The OSI was awarded the Anti-Defamation League's first International Human Rights Award in 1997, and ABC News has called it "the most successful Nazi-hunting unit in the world."

But critics — including defense attorneys and sometimes representatives of ethnic groups or a dissenting judge — say the OSI picks on weak, innocent targets who had menial jobs and never directly harmed a soul.

"They're persecuting old men in the interest of keeping their own jobs," said Robert Murtha, a New York attorney who represented Michael Gruber, a former SS guard deported to Austria last month.

Murtha acknowledges Gruber worked as a guard at the Sachsenhausen complex in Germany but said he was in the camp's aircraft factory and guarded trains. Though the trains were loaded by prisoners, Gruber never dealt directly with them, Murtha said.

He described his client, who has kidney cancer, as "a crippled old man in a wheelchair, in dialysis."

Rosenbaum defends the OSI's case against Gruber, saying that anyone who guarded a concentration camp was a cog in the Holocaust machinery — and that if Gruber needs dialysis, surely he'll get it in Austria.

"The purpose for the existence of the camps was to persecute people, and anyone who participated in the camps was complicit in the persecution of people," he said.

Making it personal

Rosenbaum grew up on Long Island in a family of conservative Jews. His father, Irving, was a teenager in 1938 when with his parents he fled to New York from Dresden, just before the war.

Irving Rosenbaum joined the U.S. Army, where he was one of the first Americans to enter Dachau after the concentration camp's liberation.

He served in the 7th Army's psychological-warfare unit under the name "Irving Rowe," the U.S. government's way of hiding his Jewish identity should he be captured.

"What did you see at Dachau?"

Rosenbaum, then a teenager, was driving with his father on a skiing trip when he asked the question.

"And his mouth opened as if he was going to speak. But no sound came out," the OSI director remembers.

"And I saw that his eyes were welling with tears.

"And I didn't say anything and he didn't say anything and it got quiet in the car, and eventually we moved on to another topic. Because at that point he didn't have to tell me. I later read and obviously knew from his reaction that it was terrible."

After high school, Rosenbaum attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned an MBA from Penn's Wharton School.

While at Harvard Law School, he applied for an internship at the then-new OSI. The internship turned into a job. Except for a brief stint with the World Jewish Congress, Rosenbaum has spent his career at the OSI.

The work can be emotionally challenging and aggravating, he acknowledges. There's "the frustration in so many cases of knowing in your gut that an individual was in it up to his ears, but at this late date you can't prove it," he said.

The Demjanjuk case

One of the OSI's most publicized cases involved John Demjanjuk. The Justice Department maintained that the Seven Hills, Ohio, man was Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard at Treblinka, a death camp in Poland.

The OSI said Demjanjuk also served at the Sobibor concentration camp and the Trawniki training base, also in Poland.

The OSI won a deportation order to the Soviet Union, but Israel extradited the Ukraine native to stand trial for war crimes.

An Israeli court sentenced Demjanjuk to death, but the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 overturned the conviction, ruling that documents from the Soviet Union cast "reasonable doubt" that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible.

After his return to the United States, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the OSI had "acted with reckless disregard for the truth" by not disclosing earlier the witness statements that suggested Ivan the Terrible was someone other than Demjanjuk.

The OSI asked the U.S. District Court in Cleveland to reopen the matter, arguing that even if Demjanjuk wasn't Ivan the Terrible, evidence still showed he had served at Trawniki. The court refused but said the OSI could refile if it thought it had a "credible case."

The OSI did so in 1999, and earlier this year won a new deportation order based on evidence that Demjanjuk served at the Trawniki, Majdanek and Sobibor camps, forcing Jews off trains and into the gas chambers. Demjanjuk's lawyers have appealed.

The OSI acknowledges that it changed the way it did business after the first Demjanjuk case. The old practice was to see what the defense asked for before turning over prosecution documents.

"Lawyers here and elsewhere in civil practice tended to construe requests very narrowly," said Rosenbaum, whose involvement in the first case was limited to taking and transcribing notes from interviews conducted by two other OSI lawyers in Israel.

Now, he says, the OSI hands over reams of material even if defense lawyers forget to ask for it.

Rosenbaum faces a deadline in his job.

"There is this so-called biological solution to these cases," he explained. "The Grim Reaper is taking our defendants and our suspects with increasing speed."

Which means that with each passing year, there is "less and less time to complete one's work. And so we have to develop these investigations, we have to investigate these cases, as fast as we can."

He stops and corrects himself.

" ... as fast as we responsibly can."

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