HLS homeNews & EventsAbout the BulletinBack IssuesSend Us Your NewsSearch

 Home Briefs Letters Gallery Class Notes In Memoriam Closing

Never Forget, continued

Kurt Waldheim, Arthur Rudolph, John Demjanjuk, and Aleksandras Lileikis

Rosenbaum learned early on how things can be hidden in plain sight. As a 3L he read an account of slave labor at an underground V-2 missile factory at the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. He then realized from other reading that Arthur Rudolph, a rocket engineer who'd directed production at the plant, had come to the United States along with other German and Austrian scientists. At NASA Rudolph had gone on to manage the Saturn 5 rocket project and the Pershing missile program.

After graduation Rosenbaum began as a trial lawyer at OSI. And although he took on other investigations, he didn't forget Rudolph. Eventually OSI found records in the National Archives that Rosenbaum believed confirmed Rudolph's link to the persecution of forced laborers. Among other details, he learned that Rudolph had attended a mass hanging and had required other inmates to observe the slow strangulation of fellow prisoners who were accused of plotting rebellion.

Rosenbaum confronted the retired scientist during an OSI interview. Eventually he agreed to renounce his U.S. citizenship and left the country for Germany.

It's not that Rosenbaum thinks the U.S. government's choice was a simple one. He speaks with admiration of the space program. He believes that after the war there was an urgent security need for missile technology. But someone should have recognized that "there was a moral price to be paid in using people who were implicated in Nazi crimes." And if these people were rescued "from a destroyed Germany and [allowed] to live in great comfort in the United States and to work in the field that they cared so much about, there should have been a time when we said: Rather than retire here, go back to Germany."

Rosenbaum was gratified to see Rudolph go. "The survivors who've made new homes here ought not to run into their former tormentors in the Safeway," he says. Yet Rudolph, like so many people OSI has prosecuted, was never tried in his home country, and that, Rosenbaum says, is one of the great frustrations of his work: "We have spent countless hours over the years pressing governments in Europe to do the right thing. We've had limited success."

One of the rewards is setting the record straight. And when it comes to World War II, that's what OSI knows how to do. The unit now includes 13 attorneys but also 10 historians, versed in many languages, who track down evidence in archives in the United States and abroad on crimes committed more than a half century ago. "Together," Rosenbaum says, "we assemble these enormously intricate evidentiary jigsaw puzzles." The archival research also feeds a "watch-list" of former Nazi and Axis war criminals to be excluded from the United States. Some 70,000 names are on the list. OSI gets a call at least once a month from airports around the country. Since 1989, when records started to be kept, 165 people have been turned away (including Günther Tabbert).

Just as OSI cases were beginning to drop off in the '80s ("the biological solution" at work, says Rosenbaum), the fall of Communism provided an infusion of new evidence. Researchers were allowed into archives, whose documents had previously been available only at the discretion of Soviet intermediaries. OSI was suddenly able to develop new cases and revive old ones that had reached dead ends.

Rosenbaum was working on one such case in 1983. Aleksandras Lileikis had been chief of the Lithuanian Security Police in Vilnius province during Nazi occupation. Since the '50s he'd been living in Massachusetts. Only 5,000 of Vilnius' 60,000 Jews survived the war. Thousands were sent to Paneriai, a wooded hamlet outside of Vilnius, where they were stripped of their clothing, lined up in pits, and shot. Rosenbaum was eager to bring to justice a man believed to have ordered such atrocities and who, unlike many of the men OSI prosecutes, was not simply "a trigger puller." Rosenbaum confronted the 76-year-old in his home with a document that consigned 52 Jews to the killing squads in Paneriai. Although Lileikis' name was typed at the bottom of the page, the order was not signed, and Lileikis denied any knowledge of it. Rosenbaum remembers Lileikis' challenge: "Show me something I signed." Despite requests for documentation from the Soviet Union, nothing turned up, and the case that Rosenbaum wanted so badly to move forward lay dormant.

Ten years later, in 1993, OSI's senior investigative historian had gotten access to Lithuanian archives. As he sorted through records from the Lukiskes prison in Vilnius, he found what they'd been hoping for: order after order--sending Jews to prison, sending them to labor camps, handing them over to the killing squads--all signed by Aleksandras Lileikis. By that time Rosenbaum had become principal deputy director of OSI, and it was David Mackey '83, head of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, and OSI attorney William Kenety '75 who filed the case. They won on summary judgment; Lileikis was stripped of his citizenship and left the country rather than face deportation charges. He was put on trial in Lithuania for genocide, but the prosecution was never completed, ostensibly due to the poor state of Lileikis' health, says Rosenbaum.

Among those Lileikis sent to their deaths was a 6-year-old girl, Fruma Kaplan, and her mother, Gita. Rosenbaum flips through a notebook in his office to copies of identification papers of men and women held in the Lukiskes prison. Faces stare back: Alta Knop, Irsas Levinas, Esther Sandleryte, but no Fruma. Rosenbaum and his team have tried to find out more about her--obtain a photograph, learn the whereabouts of the Lithuanians who tried to shelter the girl and her mother from the Nazis. But there's only the paper trail of her travels from prison to execution pit. Rosenbaum remembers a lullaby sung to children in the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius: All roads lead to Paneriai, but no roads lead back.

* * *

For a man who thrives on moral outrage and black coffee, Rosenbaum is not afraid of sounding corny. Although he loved being a trial lawyer, he thinks the biggest thrill in his career was not the cases he tried or the cases he won, but the moment he appeared as an attorney for the Department of Justice for the first time and said, "May it please the court, my name is Eli Rosenbaum, and I represent the United States."

"For a lawyer," he says, "I don't think there is a greater honor."

He will also tell you that, besides being a father, nothing else in his life has had as much meaning as this work--despite the frustrations that sometimes seem as numerous as the names on the watch-list.

When summer interns at OSI ask him for career advice, this advocate for public service counsels them to consider a stint in the private sector. How else will they know if they've made the right choice? Back in 1984, when the frustrations got to him, he went about answering that question for himself by leaving OSI and taking a job as a corporate litigator at a large firm in New York. He found he missed the challenge and responsibility he'd been able to take on so quickly after law school. And although he wanted to do his best for the firm's clients, in his heart he "didn't care which of the corporate monoliths won." Above all, Rosenbaum missed caring.

Within a year he became general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and led an investigation of the Nazi past of former UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim, who at the time was running for president of Austria. Rosenbaum's account of the cover-up and its investigation, Betrayal (St. Martin's Press, 1993), written with William Hoffer, stirred up controversy, and not just among supporters of Waldheim. Rosenbaum found himself confronting one of his childhood heroes, Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. During his investigation, Rosenbaum discovered and disclosed that Wiesenthal had previously been presented with evidence of Waldheim's past, yet he continued to defend him even as the details of Rosenbaum's investigation were released.

Professor Alan Dershowitz says Rosenbaum was courageous to take on an icon like Simon Wiesenthal. Rosenbaum was a student in Dershowitz's professional responsibility course and attributes his decision to work at OSI at least in part to Dershowitz's encouragement.

In 1988 Rosenbaum returned to OSI as principal deputy director at Director Neal Sher's request. In 1995, when Sher left, Rosenbaum was appointed director. He has now worked at OSI for 17 years and is the longest-serving investigator and prosecutor of Nazis in the country and perhaps the world. "He's somebody who has really devoted his life to trying to achieve justice in an area where very few care about justice," says Dershowitz. "The world wanted very much to move on beyond the Holocaust. . . .

"He's the kind of guy that Harvard should be proud of. All of our students, when they come here, write essays about how they are going to do public interest work, and then they end up going out and just making money. Eli is a guy who kept the promise."

* * *

  back | 2 of 3 | next  

back to top

contents print full article send feedback about this article

 Contact: bulletin@law.harvard.edu - 617.495.3118
 © 2005 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.