Never Forget, continued
Rosenbaum has participated in special projects at OSI over the years, from a report on the United States' role in helping Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief of Lyon, elude French justice, to tracing the whereabouts of Josef Mengele. At one point, a sample of Mengele's remains spent a few days in Rosenbaum's desk drawer, "an appropriate posthumous humiliation," he says.
Yet the project for which Rosenbaum may have received the highest accolades is not necessarily the one that gave him the most satisfaction. In 1997 his office provided key detective work in an interagency investigation into looted Nazi gold and other stolen assets.
Stuart Eizenstat '67, who spearheaded the efforts as undersecretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, explains that when a report was first prepared, "We had great difficulty in determining whether any of the gold pool collected by the Allies had been from victims, as opposed to the central banks of the countries the Nazis occupied." This was not merely academic, says Eizenstat. After 60 years, six tons of gold still had never been distributed. "We were very close to issuing the report, and Eli insisted that we should not publish it until we pursued this further and that he would not sign off for the Justice Department until we did."
Concerned that the final report would not be complete, Rosenbaum pulled his staff off of other work to focus on the project. Within weeks, he and OSI historians were able to trace shipments of victim gold to European countries, including Switzerland (one of Germany's major sources of foreign credit and equipment during the war). OSI's discoveries made it into the report, and largely because they did, Eizenstat eventually was able to convince most European countries involved to donate the value of their part of the six tons of gold to a Nazi persecutee relief fund.
Eizenstat acknowledges that Rosenbaum's tenacity may have rubbed some people the wrong way: "He sent some very tough letters to people about the quality of their work." But Eizenstat says, "It's important to understand that his passion was supported by facts. He didn't ask that we put things in simply as an emotional response--only when he could find the evidence."
Rosenbaum and his team received a Justice Department award for their contribution. He says he is glad that his office participated in the "pursuit of historical justice," but the high level of interest in the issue of looted gold and artwork clearly grates on him. He believes it is a question of skewed priorities. "These are crimes of property. The typical victim of the Holocaust was middle class or poor. What they had were their lives," he says. "A third of all Jews who were alive on earth before the war were murdered."
* * *
In February John Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship for the second time, when Chief Judge Paul Matia '62 ruled that OSI evidence showed he'd been a guard at several forced-labor camps and the Sobibor death camp. Rosenbaum is proud of the litigation victory and of his team's performance in a tough case. But he looks weary when asked about the history of Demjanjuk's prosecution, which goes back some 25 years, to before the office was created. Although Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986 and then sentenced to death based on survivor evidence that he was the Treblinka death camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, documents emerged suggesting that he was the wrong man. Demjanjuk's conviction was overturned, his citizenship was reinstated, and OSI came under fire. In 1999, under Rosenbaum's leadership, the office brought new charges based on evidence that Demjanjuk was a guard at other camps, including Sobibor. After the judge's ruling in February, the octogenarian could be deported again, but only after all appeals are exhausted and only if the government can find a country that is willing to take him.
To date, 67 Nazi war criminals and collaborators have been denaturalized and 54 have been permanently removed from the United States. Eighteen cases are presently in litigation and more than 170 persons are currently under active investigation. According to the latest Simon Wiesenthal Center report on activity in Nazi war crimes cases, the United States' success by far surpasses that of other countries. So far only eight people deported from the United States for complicity in Nazi crimes have been tried abroad on criminal charges, and only three have been convicted.
"The whole process of bringing war criminals to trial is very much imperfect justice," says Dershowitz. "But imperfect justice is a lot better than perfect injustice." More important than the numbers, he says, "is the fact that the United States government has made a commitment to the world that it will take seriously these issues, and it has led the world in this regard."
OSI continues to take on cases and to uncover documents. Recently one of the researchers found a planning document for "the resettlement" of Jews--the proposed location, "two pits." "Your heart just drops when you see that," says Rosenbaum, "but it inspires you."
Rosenbaum says he's not sure what other work he could have done where he would have met so many heroes--Nuremberg prosecutors and Nobel Prize winners among them. But he seems equally honored to have shaken hands with the unsung heroes: survivors who have trusted him enough to tell their stories, providing evidence, even when talking about the past reopened painful wounds. Rosenbaum says he thinks often about a man who participated in "one of the great escapes of history" from the Sobibor death camp, survived the rest of the war in occupied Poland, but today still wrestles with how the Nazis could have wanted to kill his mother.
Although, according to Rosenbaum, OSI has enough cases for several years of work, the office's life span dwindles as the suspects get older and frailer.
Holtzman, the former congresswoman who also served as a district attorney, believes that as long as the perpetrators can understand the charges against them, "every Nazi war criminal in this country should be brought to justice.
"I don't see how we can walk away from the Holocaust without sending a terrible signal to the murderers of today, the people who still want to kill civilians, and who torture other human beings, who want to wipe out ethnic groups."
In 1999 the Senate passed a bill that would extend OSI's role to include investigating other torture and genocide cases, but it never got through the House. "It should be the attorney general's decision," Rosenbaum says. "But if we are called upon, we're ready."
When the office dissolves, Rosenbaum says it will organize its declassified records for public scrutiny, so "what can be disclosed is disclosed." So many documents have been discovered and translated over the years, many from classified archives. He likes to think this will lead to "at least a small renaissance" in the study of Nazi crime.
* * *
On his way to and from the office, Rosenbaum listens to recordings of radio stations from the '60s and '70s--snatches of news, music, weather from ordinary days some 30 years ago. He's collected over a thousand of them. During his drive he listens and takes a little time from a job that has absorbed much of his life, so many weekends and evenings that he could have spent with his wife and daughters. He's received many commendations over the years, from the Justice Department, from survivors groups. An award from University of Pennsylvania Law School cites personal sacrifices and dangers faced. He says the dangers, in fact, are no greater than those most prosecutors encounter (unless you consider the fattening meals served to him in survivors' kitchens). But the pace of the work has not let up. Files and papers cover every surface in his office, record after record of atrocities to be vindicated while there's still time. Rosenbaum won't tell you he hasn't thought about how his life could be more leisurely by now if he'd pursued the corporate path that brought him to law school in the first place. The job takes its toll on you, he says. There's foreign governments' reluctance to assist, their indifference to prosecution. There's the frustration of dealing with other U.S. government agencies. There's learning of so much suffering that he can't undo. He says he knows he owes the survivors the truth; they've been lied to so often. And telling the truth is enough to get him beyond the frustrations most days. But he also allows himself those moments in the car, as if the recordings could take him back to a time when he didn't know what he knows now.
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