Between the months of May and October 1944, some 216,000 people were systematically killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. During this time, 19 year old Hans Breyer worked outside the camp as a guard. There is no certainty of whether he knew about the atrocities occurring inside. Still, today, so-called “Nazi hunters” in the German government seem sure of Breyer’s knowledge. They pin all the Auschwitz deaths on the 89 year old, now an American citizen and grandfather in Philadelphia. These “Nazi hunters” want to punish Breyer for being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, 70 years ago.
This is not the first time “Nazi hunters” kidnapped an elderly American on flimsy evidence of Nazi collaboration. In 2009, 89 year old John Demjanjuk, who worked as a guard at Sobibor, was forcibly taken from his home in Ohio to undergo trial in Germany. The authorities ignored Demjanjuk’s claims of poor health, and he died in German captivity in 2012 while awaiting appeal of his conviction.
Many Americans in similar situations face a similar fate. This is in part due to the work of famed “Nazi hunter” Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Every year Zuroff compiles a list of the “Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals.” The 2014 list includes eight men, all in their 90’s, three of whom are or were American citizens. That includes 90 year old Theodor Szehinskyj, accused, like Breyer, of being a concentration camp guard; 93 year old Ivan Kalymon, accused of shooting Jews, which he denies; and 93 year old former American citizen Algimantas Dailide, accused of arresting Jews under his superiors’ orders. Surprisingly, Dailide makes Zuroff’s list despite the fact a Lithuanian judge found him unable to face punishment due to health concerns in 2008.
Today, Zuroff, who praises the capture of Breyer, continues to receive accolades for his “Nazi hunting.” But is Zuroff’s work truly praiseworthy? Let’s view his “Nazi hunting” from a moralistic perspective. What good comes from tracking and imprisoning men like Breyer so near the end of their lives? It does not bring back any of those killed in the Holocaust. It does not even punish the man being imprisoned since age has already restricted his freedom. All imprisonment does is punish the man’s family. They ultimately bear the legal costs. They have to live the rest of their lives with the burden of familial blame. Most importantly, they will be deprived of a family member they cherish.
As Breyer sits in a cage without the possibility of bail, let’s call out Zuroff’s form of “Nazi hunting” for what it really is. In no way should it be viewed as a noble pursuit. It is a regressive, vengeful charade that attempts to right the wrong of history by punishing the families of the minions to the long-dead truly guilty.
If Zuroff really wants to help victims of the Holocaust, he can redirect his efforts to track down Holocaust victims scattered throughout the world, and assist them as they struggle with old age. That would be a noble pursuit to endeavor; spreading compassion in lieu of hate.