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The Sorrow and the Hope

Never Forget

Eli Rosenbaum '80 is driven to bring Nazis to justice before it's too late

Eli Rosenbaum

Eli Rosenbaum '80 sticks a tape in the VCR in his office. An elderly man, tanned and silver-haired, speaks in German before a microphone. It's Günther Tabbert, an SS officer during World War II, who helped direct the execution of all the Jews of Daugavpils, Latvia --more than 1,000 men, women, and children. Here he is, more than 50 years later, when he was stopped at John F. Kennedy Airport as he tried to enter the United States. Rosenbaum translates: "I can't believe anybody cares about those events of so long ago."

Eli Rosenbaum cares. Although he was born 10 years after the Third Reich was defeated, he's made it his life's work to seek a measure of justice for its victims by pursuing the Holocaust's perpetrators. Rosenbaum heads the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), whose primary mission is to track down Nazi war criminals living in this country, denaturalize, and deport them (the United States has no jurisdiction to try them for World War II crimes).

OSI was created in 1979--decades after Cold War politics and U.S. immigration policy made it easier for Nazis to enter the United States in the first place. When OSI does succeed in denaturalizing Nazis, few foreign countries will try them. And the reality that makes some question the continuing existence of OSI contributes to Rosenbaum's sense of urgency; those complicit in the genocide that exterminated 11 million people--6 million of them Jews--are either dead or very old. With every delay, another one could die peacefully in his bed on American soil.

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One day, when Rosenbaum was a teenager, during a long road trip, his father told him he'd been sent into Dachau concentration camp a few days after it was liberated. A former Army intelligence officer, Rosenbaum's father had told his son plenty of World War II stories, but not this. When Rosenbaum asked him what he'd seen there, his father didn't speak. And Rosenbaum says he never asked again: "His silence and his tears told me everything I needed to know." Rosenbaum has since become all too familiar with the details.

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As a law student, Rosenbaum read a book by journalist Howard Blum about the search for Nazis in America. He remembers how angry he was to learn "that people who had committed genocide had come to the United States, and that our government wasn't doing anything about it."

When he stumbled upon a notice in the paper announcing the opening of a unit at the Department of Justice to look into suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States, he called immediately and convinced the director of OSI to take him on as its first summer intern. Rosenbaum already had an M.B.A. from the Wharton School and had planned on a career in corporate law or the business world, but after that summer he knew he wanted to go back to OSI.

The next year he wrote his third-year paper on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and the Holtzman Amendment, the legislation that he's now spent his career enforcing. Former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman '65, a driving force behind the establishment of OSI, authored the statute, which was passed in 1978. It makes those complicit in atrocities committed during World War II subject to denaturalization, closing loopholes in immigration law that had allowed them to enter the United States.

When Rosenbaum noticed that the statute of limitations on prosecuting Nazi war crimes in Germany was about to expire, he led the school's Jewish Law Students Association in a campaign to gather signatures of protest from law professors around the country. He also convinced Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of West Germany, who was speaking at Harvard's commencement that year, to meet with him. And, although Rosenbaum won't take any credit for it, he was relieved when the German Parliament did eventually extend the statute of limitations indefinitely.

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