Is the US really committed to rooting out Nazi war criminals in our midst? A definite "no" is the answer one must draw from a dismaying "ABC News Closeup" report which claims that not only have we been lax in prosecuting and extraditing but in some cases we have even recruited, employed, and proteocted war criminals.
"Escape From Justice: Nazi War Criminals in America" (Sunday, 7 p.m., check local listings) contains allegations that more than 200 Nazi war criminals now living in America were responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million people. Produced by Richard Gerdau, written by Michael Connor with Gerdau, this still-unfortunately-timely documentary translates an appalling record of nonaction into case histories interpersed with shocking newsreels and damning Nuremberg-trial footage. It is a no-nonsense documentary which follows traditional nonfiction TV patters, forsaking disco-beat journalism to allow quietly determined men to point retributive fingers at those with allegedly bloody hands.
Under the aegis of Pameli Hill, "ABC Closeup" has taken up the seemingly neglected cudgels of righteousness. Correspondent Michael Connor and other reporters tracked alleged Latvian, Romanian, and German war criminals to their lairs in America in an attempt to pinpoint defects in our immigration and justice system which they say allows such people to avoid responsibility for their past actions.
Then, interviews with eyewitnesses and accusers in the foreign lands point up the injustices even further. Some of those accused have been apprehended and deported -- but they are only a pitiful few of those suspects who are acknowledged to reside in the US. Only Argentina and West Germany are thought to have more. Reports narrator Tim O'Brien: "Of the more than 200 cases under investigation, only 16 are now in litigation."
Some cases are well-publicized, others are unknown to the general public but very well known to people like Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Justice Department investigators. Yet in some cases there has been three decades of inaction. Says Dr. Charles Kremer, one of accuser, about the witnesses: "They're old people . . . I'm past 80 myself. How long can you wait for the government to try a case?"
For almost 30 years, Dr. Kremer has been providing the government with documented evidence about Trifa because he insists that the man be brought to justice. It is a pitiful moment in the documentary when Dr. Kremer cries on camera: "Seventy-seven people in my family were killed," he sobs. "I have no uncles, no aunts, no cousins. . . ."
Emotional as this presentation is, it is a subdued evaluation considering the nature of the material. For the most part, the documentary allows people like Gen. Telford Taylor of the Nuremberg trials and Walter J. Rockler of the Justice Department have their say. For every Nazi criminal convicted at Nuremberg, it is estimated that more than 100 escaped. And despite our 1940s pledge to seek out Nazi criminals and return them to the countries in which their crimes were committed, precious few have been apprehended.
And much of our inaction, according to ABC investigator Connor, is due to at least one "top-level intelligence program which not only allowed some war criminals into this country but did so with the official sanction of our government." Called Project Paperclip, it brought more than 900 German scientists to the US. Although it supposedly barred active Nazis, the project screening procedures were lax as the American military and the Departments of State and Commerce collaborated in recruiting German brainpower for both the military and American business.
With admirable determination, "ABC Closeup" tracks down other alleged war criminals and some of their victims. Included is Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, for 20 years a New York City housewife now on trial in West Germany, one of the few that have been extradited.
In the long run, one all-important question is asked of people over and over again: Why has so little been done?
Says the congresswoman from New York, Elizabeth Holtzman: "There are a lot of theories -- conspiracy theories . . . bribery . . . incompetence . . . possible anti-Semiticism. It may also be that these people came here to join the cold war, claiming to be anti-communist and their backgrounds were overlooked. I don't know the answer. . . ."
Says the Justice Department's Walter Rockler, heading a unit now responsible for investigating Nazi cases, when asked to rate past US efforts to get rid of these people on a scale of one to ten with ten the highest: "Two."
Whatever the reasons, according to Mr. O'Brien: "The failure to investigate these cases in the past means that many of them may never be effectively dealt with in the future."
And in many cases, those accused are not only unrepentant, but arrogant.
One accused of being a member of the deadly Waffen SS, Tscherim Soobzokov, gloats over his seeming invulnerability and hints that his victory is a victory for democracy over "a small minority group. . . ." And good Nazis know exactly who that small minority groupis.
Wiesel, Wiesenthal -- all of the accusers -- appear on camera with a look of haunted agony in their eyes. Says Wiesenthal in justifying his continuing search to root out the criminals: "When you pardon one genocide, you open the door for the next. . . ." Says Wiesel, talented purveyor of words: "Language has been almost destroyed by the event. . . .And that is the irony of all ironies. We must speak and we don't know how. How can you describe the massacre of 1 million children? There are no words for that. How can you describe the life of one person in Auschwitz . . . one night in a ghetto? . . ." As to the delays in prosecuting the cases, "There is no way to justify such procedures."
It is apparent that the spotlight needs to be a continuing beacon. Only a few days ago, Martin Mendelsohn, deputy director of Justice Department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations was reassigned to other duties. Said Representative Holtzman: "To remove him would seriously impair the effective functioning of the office. . . ."
The Christian Science Monitor checked with ABC correspondent Michael Connor, who interviewed both Mendelsohn and his superior, Walter J. Rockler, as to the implications of the action. Says Mr. Connor: "As far as I can tell, it was strictly a personality conflict between the two men. The people I talked to feel that it will not seriously impair the progress of the investigations."
And so, the battle still rages on all levels.