Meet The OSI: The DOJ's Elite Hunters Of Nazis Hiding In America

September 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazisFascismCold War

Meet The OSI: The DOJ's Elite Hunters Of Nazis Hiding In America

Sixty-five years after the end of the war, the U.S. Department of Justice is still on the case.

Crowded in front of the television in Eli Rosenbaum’s office, his staff was taken with a giddy anticipation not often found in employees of the United States Department of Justice.

The mood was doubly odd because the footage they watched was pretty dull: a Gulfstream jet idled on a runway at Cleveland International Airport. Rosenbaum’s eyes were glued to the screen too, but he wasn’t giddy. He wore a skeptical frown. The coverage was broadcasting live on CNN, on May 11 of 2009, and yet Rosenbaum didn’t believe the plane on the screen would lift off.

The director and chief prosecutor of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations—the “Nazi-hunters” in local parlance—he had been waiting for most of his adult life to watch this particular flight and its 90-year-old passenger, John Demjanjuk, depart the United States for good. After a morbid odyssey of hearings and appeals, injunctions and stays, exonerations and recriminations, however, no disappointment would surprise him.

Maybe the engines would shut down, Rosenbaum mused. Maybe the attorney general would call him with an 11th-hour reprieve? Maybe Demjanjuk, who was lying on an ambulance gurney in the plane’s cabin, the only passenger who’d not be making the return trip from Germany—maybe he would have a heart attack. Or charge the cockpit—for all his claims of decrepitude, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was still a physically menacing man, with hulking shoulders, a head like a cannon ball, and behind outsized bifocals a glower that only seemed to corroborate the charges against him––that he committed mass murder while he was a concentration camp guard serving in the Schutzstaffel, or SS, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“This was the case in which anything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong,” Rosenbaum recalls thinking, as he sat there in his office at 7:30 in the evening—he remembers the time exactly—watching the plane stalled on the tarmac. “Something’s going to stop it. It isn’t going to leave.”

OSI: The Most Successful Nazi-Hunting Organization in the World

The case of Demjanjuk stretches so far back it precedes the existence of OSI, which was set up, 31 years ago, with one mandate: to track down former Nazis and collaborators who had immigrated to the United States without––or, more troublingly, with––Washington’s knowledge, and to try to deport them.

A retired Ford engine mechanic and grandfather from the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills, Ohio, Demjanjuk first came to the attention of the government when his SS I.D. card was accidentally recognized in a photo spread by survivors of the Treblinka concentration camp. Since then he had been convicted by an American court, in 1987, of entering the country illegally; extradited to Israel, where he was convicted on flimsy evidence that he was a notorious guard, known as Ivan the Terrible, at Treblinka, and sentenced to be hanged; exonerated by the same court, then sent back to the United States, where, in 2002, he was again tried and again found guilty of the original charges of having served at a series of camps (though not Treblinka), and again denaturalized; and finally deported, in May, to Germany.

The plane did indeed take off, after an hour on the runway. Demjanjuk now lives in a cell in Stadelheim prison, a young Adolf Hitler’s home for a summer month, and spends his days in a Munich courtroom, facing charges of participating in the extermination of 27,900 people. The trial began in January 2010. His all but inevitable conviction may not come until this fall. That’s if Demjanjuk, who is usually wheeled into court on a gurney, does not die first. (As this issue went to press, there was still no verdict.) And while it’s true he was caught on camera in 2009 walking around and joking with ICE agents after claiming he was too ill to move, judging by his current appearance the latter possibility seems as likely as the former.

“Who would have thought at the end of World War II that 60-plus years later they’d still be prosecuting these cases?” Rosenbaum, who is 54, told me. “These are the ultimate cold cases. It’s hard enough to prove a mugging that took place down the street a week ago.” He said there are “a lot of misconceptions about this work, especially about how the investigations originate and how they’re conducted. There’s the Hollywood version of this. That just doesn’t happen.”

But in fact OSI is almost suspiciously cinematic. It has tracked down not just SS functionaries, but murderous police chiefs, fascist martinets, mobile kill-squad leaders, an aide to Adolph Eichmann, a pogrom-inciting propagandist priest, and a V-2 rocket scientist. It’s dug them up in Seven Hills and Long Beach, California, in Minneola, Long Island, and the south side of Chicago. OSI helped expose the Central Intelligence Agency’s sordid history with Klaus Barbie and the Nazi past of the late Austrian president and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. It has identified Nazi-looted paintings––in the National Gallery in Washington. It’s now going after perpetrators from Rwanda and the Balkans.

And the Demjanjuk case, to name just one, has inspired a small library’s worth of government reports, op-ed rants, and legal digest articles, not to mention a good novel (Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock), a little-seen musical (The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret), and, indeed, a movie, Music Box, which was up for the Best Picture Oscar in 1989. The film has one particularly commendable aspect lost on most viewers––it accurately portrays the methodical nature of OSI investigations, which rely not on sensational revelations, nor Buenos Aires street-corner captures, but on archives and researchers, maps, translators, and historical minutiae. The stuff of war historians.

Each case is a years-long “needle-in-the-haystack” process, Rosenbaum said, and Demjanjuk’s case is not unique in its prolixity. OSI is by far the most successful Nazi-hunting organization in the world, having denaturalized, deported, or extradited 107 accused World War II war criminals from the United States thus far—a record neither the Simon Wiesenthal Center nor the Mossad approach—yet its work takes decades to complete. That’s when it’s completed at all: there are still any number of OSI defendants living in the United States who’ve had their citizenship stripped, but whom can’t be removed, because no country will accept them. Demjanjuk is the first OSI defendant Germany has ever agreed to try. Israel has refused to try any since it exonerated him.

An Organization Built Around Retribution

Music Box also features a hard-driving OSI chief who delivers this speech to the defendant’s daughter: “Do you really think I give a damn about punishing an old man? I don’t have any vengeance in my heart. But I’ll tell you what I do care about. I care about remembering. It’s too late to change what happened, but it’s never too late to remember what happened.” Which, significantly, is precisely the complaint that OSI’s critics make of it. Rosenbaum and his team are not as interested in the enforcement of law, they say, as they are in making a historical point—in retribution.

“There was the putrid smell of righteousness about the whole matter. Everybody was so eager to right the Holocaust,” said Gary Fleischmann, a defense attorney who represented Andrija Artukovi, whom OSI had extradited to the Soviet Union in 1987, where he was tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad. Artuković, a high-ranking official in Nazi-allied Croatia during the war and a leader of the brutal Ustaše, died while awaiting execution.

OSI was able to dig up copies of long-forgotten decrees Artuković had put his name to that persecuted Jews (for the sake, as one decree states, of the “protection of the Aryan blood and honor of the Croatian nation”). It found the decrees in a box in, of all places, the Library of Congress. Still, said Fleischmann, “There’s no question Artuković was an anti-Semite. But that’s not a war crime.”

Michael Tigar, a defense attorney and professor at Duke University School of Law who represented Demjanjuk, said, “I think an office which is set up around a particular issue and is staffed by people who become true believers represents a danger.” Tigar, unlike Rosenbaum known for his courtroom dramatics, quoted John Ruskin to me. “‘No more dangerous snare is set by the fiends for human frailty than the belief that our own enemies are also the enemies of God.’ When that snare takes hold of people they take the attitude they can do anything they want to win.”

“The Big Challenge For Me is to Build These Cases”

Unlike Tigar, though, most of the people whom Rosenbaum has faced in court would probably not say he’s willing to do anything to win. “Eli’s a decent guy, he’s a straight shooter,” Rad Artukovi, Andrija’s son, told me—in the same breath that he accused OSI of committing fraud in his father’s case, which was tried while Rosenbaum was not at OSI. Rosenbaum doesn’t revel in deporting senior citizens, and he doesn’t speak about his quarry with the contempt or trembling indignation that the subject of the Holocaust often elicits. He’s unfailingly solicitous and polite to defendants, OSI transcripts show, even when he believes them to be mass murderers.