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‘We will be relentless’: top US Nazi hunter turns to Ukraine war crimes | War crimes

When Eli Rosenbaum was hunting Nazis hiding in America, the most he could do was deport them, but he says the US is now poised to change its laws so that he will be able to prosecute Russians responsible for war crimes in Ukraine.

Rosenbaum, who spent much of the past 40 years leading the US government’s pursuit of Nazis, has been appointed as the head of the justice department’s War Crimes Accountability Team, set up in June to help bring war criminals to justice for atrocities in the Ukrainian conflict.

Widespread outrage at Russian mass killings and deportations as well as targeting of civilian infrastructure, has created bipartisan support for the justice for victims of war crimes bill. The legislation will transform US law so that suspected war criminals apprehended in the US, or extradited from elsewhere, can be prosecuted even if neither they nor their victims are Americans. The change would finally bring US law into line with the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

“It means that if a war criminal comes here, we have jurisdiction. It wouldn’t be just US victims and perpetrators, but any war criminal who sets foot in the United States,” Rosenbaum told the Guardian. “I know firsthand the frustration of having war criminals here and all you can do is revoke their citizenship and deport them unless some country wants to extradite them, which in the Nazi case almost never happened.”

Another bill is being drafted that would recognise crimes against humanity and allow them to be prosecuted in US courts, a statute every other Nato country has adopted except Italy. And there are bipartisan discussions under way for legislation that would allow the US to supply evidence to the international criminal court (ICC).

“Congress must strengthen our laws so that perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will never find sanctuary in the United States,” Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip and chair of the Senate judiciary committee, told the Guardian in an emailed statement. “I am determined to ensure that those who commit these heinous crimes are held to account. Our nation led the first prosecutions for such crimes in the Nuremberg trials. It’s time for the United States to take the lead once again.”

The justice for victims of war crimes bill is co-sponsored by the ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, Senator Chuck Grassley. His office did not respond to a request for comment, but a Democratic aide on the judiciary committee said that bipartisan support was so solid, that there were firm hopes of getting the bill passed before the end of the year, no matter the results of next month’s congressional elections.

Rosenbaum comes to the job of counselor for war crimes accountability with the reputation as the world’s most effective Nazi hunter. The justice department’s office of special investigations (OSI), which he worked for and then ran, tracked down more than a hundred former Nazis who had sought to blend in with American society.

Both his parents were Jewish refugees from Germany, and his father, Irving, joined the US army and went back as part of a psychological warfare unit, ending the war interrogating leading Nazis.

Photographs showing victims of Russia’s war on Ukraine are seen in the background while Eli Rosenbaum responds to questions during a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Ukraine war crimes in September.
Photographs showing victims of Russia’s war on Ukraine are seen in the background while Eli Rosenbaum responds to questions during a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Ukraine war crimes in September. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Rosenbaum joined the OSI as an intern soon after the unit was founded in 1979, and then returned as an attorney in 1980, becoming director in 1994. One of his earliest cases started with a book he happened to pick up in a shop while he was still an intern, about the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp which provided the slave labour for the Nazis’ V2 rocket programme at Mittelwerk. Up to 20,000 prisoners are estimated to have died in the construction of the V-2 rockets there, far more than were killed by weapons when they rained down on Britain.

The book led him to ask questions about the culpability of Wernher von Braun and other Nazi rocket scientists who the US spirited away from Germany after the war as part of Operation Paperclip, aimed at securing their knowhow for the US and denying it to the Soviet Union.

Von Braun died in 1977, but Rosenbaum started scrutinising another engineer, Arthur Rudolph, who had gone on to run the Saturn V programme which propelled Americans to the moon. From Rudolph’s past statements, he had clearly been aware of Dora-Nordhausen, and at one point complained about having to leave a New Year’s party at the end of 1943 to oversee the movement of some equipment.

Quick Guide

Suspected Nazis in the US


Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan

The first suspected Nazi extradited by the US for a war crimes prosecution was convicted in 1973 in West Germany of multiple acts of murder while a guard at the Majdanek concentration camp. She chose inmates to send to the gas chamber and stomped an elderly woman to death. Released from jail in 1996 due to ill health, she died three years later age 79.

John Demjanjuk

The Ohio carworker was deported to Germany in 2009 and convicted in 2011 for aiding the deaths of more than 28,000 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. He died in a Bavarian nursing home in 2012 at age 91 while appealing. His conviction was unprecedented in German law as it was solely on the basis of serving as a camp guard, with no evidence he was involved in a specific killing.

Feodor (Fyodor) Fedorenko

Deported from the US to the Soviet Union in 1984 and executed by firing squad in 1987 at age 79. A Soviet court found the former Treblinka death camp guard guilty of treason, voluntarily joining the Nazis and participating in mass killings at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Fedorenko fought a seven-year battle to remain in the US, where he had worked in a Connecticut factory before retiring to Miami Beach. 

Karl Linnas

The concentration camp chief was stripped of his US citizenship and sent to the Soviet Union in 1987, where he had been convicted in absentia over the deaths of 12,000 people at the Tartu concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Estonia. Investigators said he ordered guards to fire on prisoners knelt beside ditches that became their graves. He died of heart failure before he could face a firing squad.

Arthur Rudolph

The Nazi rocket scientist was brought to the US after the war and played a role in the Apollo moon landings, for which Nasa awarded him a distinguished service medal. Decades later he was accused of working slave labourers to death in V-2 factories. He made settlement with the US in 1984, renouncing his citizenship and moving to West Germany, where he died in 1996 age 89.

Valerian (Viorel) Trifa

The former US archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox church, relinquished his US citizenship in 1980 after admitting he lied to immigration authorities to conceal pro-Nazi activities and moved to Portugal, where he died in 1987 age 72. Trifa was an ardent Nazi supporter who made anti-Jewish speeches as a member of a Romanian fascist group.

Associated Press

Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive

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“By then I knew the men that he’s getting together to move the rocket parts in the dead of winter would not be civilian volunteers. These would be slaves.” Rosenbaum said. On being questioned by the OSI in 1983, Rudolph agreed to renounce his US citizenship and return to Germany.

Another of Rosenbaum’s early cases was Valerian Trifa, a former member of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard, who had become an archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox church in the US and Canada. As part of the research for the case, Rosenbaum had to go to the headquarters of the American Nazi party in Arlington, Virginia, in 1981, as the only place he could find a certain book on the Iron Guard was in its bookshop.

“They had a swastika on an enamel plate above the door, and during the day, they would fly both a Nazi flag and an American flag,” he recalled. “It was quite creepy inside there, and the guy who ran their bookstore was pretty creepy too. They had these giant flattering photographic portraits of Hitler and George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party.”

The Nazi headquarters is no longer there. The party went broke as it could no longer afford its rent and printing costs.

Volunteers lower into a grave a coffin with one of 15 unidentified people killed by Russian troops, in the town of Bucha, in Kyiv region, on 2 September.
Volunteers lower into a grave a coffin with one of 15 unidentified people killed by Russian troops, in the town of Bucha, in Kyiv region, on 2 September. Photograph: Reuters

“Today, you don’t need a building, you don’t need a printing press. You just need either an internet access account, or a library card and a library that has internet terminals, and you can reach far more people than the Nazi party ever could,” Rosenbaum said.

Technology has also improved for those pursuing war criminals. The US has helped Ukraine set up a state-of-the-art database for recording war crimes, and one area where Rosenbaum’s team is expected to provide critical help in building cases is in providing electronic and radio intercepts. He was cautious, however, about the role of US intelligence agencies in supplying such evidence.

“Obviously the United States has had eyes on the Soviet and now the Russian military for many decades and we have a lot of resources that other governments may not be able to duplicate,” Rosenbaum said. “So I can only say: stay tuned. We work closely with all parts of the US government that potentially can help.”

He acknowledged that it might take many years before justice can be delivered for the crimes now being committed in Ukraine, but he said the OSI showed that he and his colleagues were not intimidated by the long pursuit or war criminals.

“The word that guides us is: we will be relentless,” Rosenbaum said. “So the message to perpetrators or would-be perpetrators is: if you act on criminal orders or issue criminal orders, you may well have to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. Don’t think about being a tourist after the war in most of Europe, because if we know about you, if Ukrainians know about you, if the ICC knows about you, you may just get arrested and extradited. So it’s a different world.”

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