Efraim Zuroff has accomplished much in his long career, but there's one thing he's particularly proud of: He's the most hated Jew in Lithuania.
His Lithuanian friend Ruta Vanagaite agrees: She called him a "mammoth," a "boogeyman," and the "ruiner of reputations" — and that's just in the introduction to a book they co-authored.
Last summer, in a journey that helped cement his notoriety, Zuroff set off across the Lithuanian countryside in a gray SUV with Vanagaite, an author best known for a book about women finding happiness after age 50. Their goal: to visit some of the nation's more than 200 sites of mass murder during World War II. On the road, between destinations, they talked and talked, recording their conversations. The trip formed the basis of their 2016 book, Our People: Journey With an Enemy, an instant best-seller in Lithuania. It also ignited a rancorous debate among Lithuanians, who have long downplayed their country's considerable role in the Holocaust.
Zuroff, often called the last Nazi hunter, has spent nearly four decades chasing down suspects from Australia to Iceland, from Hungary to the United States. His methods are sometimes controversial, but his mission is righteous: bringing to justice every remaining perpetrator of one of the most heinous crimes in history. For Westerners, the tiny country of Lithuania might seem an odd place for him to dig in, but with most Nazis either dead or too frail to face trial, this Eastern European nation may be the Nazi hunter's last stand. He considers Lithuania one of his most important fights because it hasn't addressed its role in mass murder during the Holocaust — its citizens killed almost all of the 250,000 Jews who lived there in 1941. "Not a single Lithuanian sat one day in jail in independent Lithuania" for collaborating with the Nazis and participating in the Holocaust, Zuroff tells Newsweek.
"I realize how difficult it could be for Lithuania to admit its complicity," he told Vanagaite in Our People. "It took France 50 years to acknowledge its guilt. Germany had no choice. But for your sake and your children's sake, the sooner you face this honestly, the sooner the healing process will start."
"If it took France 50 years, it will take Lithuania 50 years as well," said Vanagaite.
"No, it will take you 90 years," replied Zuroff. "Because your crimes are greater, and your ability to deal with them is less. The French prepared the Jews to be sent somewhere, and they sent them away to be murdered. Here, the Jews were murdered by your people….
"You know why everyone in Lithuania hates me? Because they know that I am right."
Zuroff wants to make it very clear that Nazi hunting isn't as glamorous as it sounds. "A lot of times, people come up to me and say, 'You have my dream job.... When I was a child, I wanted to be a Nazi hunter,'" he tells Newsweek, clearly amused by their ignorance. "You know — it's not doing ambushes in the jungles of South America."
Nor does it resemble the popular '70s book and subsequent film The Boys From Brazil, in which Laurence Olivier spends much of his time chasing Dr. Josef Mengele, played by Gregory Peck, and unraveling his evil plan to use 94 clones of Adolf Hitler to resurrect the Reich. The film doesn't hold up particularly well, and not only because of its revenge fantasy ending that features Mengele being mauled to death by a pack of Dobermans. (In reality, the "Angel of Death" drowned while living under a pseudonym in South America.)
Zuroff says a Nazi hunter's job these days is "one-third detective, one-third historian, one-third political lobbyist," with countless hours spent tracking down witnesses, poring over archives, and convincing governments to take action. Imagine Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with the hero spending 98 percent of the movie in his school's library.
Zuroff never set out to become an object of contempt in Lithuania or the world's last Nazi hunter. He grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York — Brighton Beach and Flatbush — hoping to become the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA. Though he was named for his great uncle, Efraim Zar, who was murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, Zuroff's career as a Nazi hunter began only after he made aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel, in 1970 and completed his Ph.D. in Holocaust history.
In the early 1980s, he worked in Israel for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which was formed in 1979 to probe and prosecute war criminals. Since 1986, Zuroff has directed the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization that combats anti-Semitism and is named after the Holocaust survivor and legendary Nazi hunter who died in 2005. Since he operates through a nongovernmental organization that has no power to prosecute, Zuroff is considered a "freelance Nazi hunter."