The Detroit Free Press is running a story today about three Michigan senior citizens (aged 81-86), all of whom are accused by the U.S. Justice Department of being Nazi guards (or of assisting the Nazis). The debate now is what to do with these men. The DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations wants to deport them. Indeed, the OSI has 6 people it is waiting to deport, if it could find somewhere to send them. But their European birth countries are reluctant (or embarrassed) to accept them (which would require them to care for them, too).
But beyond the details of these specific cases, there is a bigger question alluded to by the article: Does it make sense to attempt to prosecute or punish former Nazis some 60 years after the fact? Is there any value in going after these older men, many of whom are in poor health and probably won’t live much longer anyway? Stripping former Nazis of their citizenship so as to be able to deport them is not going to change the atrocities that occurred in the 40s, so why spend the time and resources targeting feeble seniors?
The story does not attempt to answer this question, it merely shares the points of view. But I do have an answer, and my answer is simple and unequivocal: “absolutley, it is right, and even vital, to pursue each and every one of these individuals”.
And here’s why:
These men are “wonderful neighbours”, they’ve helped shovel snow, have held real jobs, and have been productive members of society. But that is neither here nor there. They all stand accused of taking part in one of the most horrific atrocities ever wrought by man, the systematic annihilation of 6,000,000 Jews and millions of other “inferiors” and “undesirables” (including Poles, Serbs, Blacks, Communists, Freemasons, gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and others).
But that is not why I want them brought to justice.
These men, and others in similar situations, claim that they had no choice but to take part in the Holocaust. Whether they were willing participants or blameless pawns has been debated for decades, and is not overly relevant. If you kill, if you torture, if you abuse, well, then you bear blame. And these men bear blame.
But that is not why I want them identified and prosecuted.
These men also lied on the citizenship applications. I became a US citizen in 2000, I had to fill in all sorts of forms and take tests and more. I also had to make a signed statement affirming that the application was truthful, with an understanding that if I lied on my application then my citizenship could be rescinded. These men lied on their citizenship applications, and for that reason alone do not deserve the rights and privileges that U.S. citizenship bestows upon them.
But that is not why I want them deported.
Why do I want their stories told? Why do I approve of the work of the DOJ OSI? Why do I support the efforts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? Why, after all this time, is the Holocaust still relevant?
Simple, because the Holocaust is more then a ugly period of human history, and more than a personal story that claimed members of my own family. The Holocaust is also a reminder of the deplorable acts that human beings are capable of, a warning that savage brutality can (and still does) happen again.
Be in the current genocide crisis in Darfur, ethnic cleansing programs against Croats and Muslims in Bosnia in the 80s, the Sri Lankan massacres of Tamils in the early 80s, the 1994 systematic slaughter of 800,000 in Rwanda, the police abuse of Albanians in Macedonia in 2000 … these horrific events occurred, and still do occur, long after the dark European 40s.
And yet, in these sound-byte based out-of-sight-out-of-mind times, such events seems surreal, almost irrelevant. There lacks a personal association, a face, a way to relate to occurrences of such magnitude. And this is where stories like the one in today’s Free Press can help.
There is nothing anyone can do to undo the Holocaust. But finding, charging, and deporting former Nazis, even aging decrepit Nazis, is vital so as to ensure that history is more than just history. These old men can’t change history, but their stories and faces can keep that history alive and relevant. We can’t bring back the victims of the Holocaust, but we can, and must, make sure that such atrocities never occur again.