Holocaust Remembrance Day: Perpetrators in America 

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Auschwitz Birkenau, one of many concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany in World War II. Photo by MARCIN CZERNIAWSKI on Unsplash.

While sitting at home, you look outside and see your elderly neighbor wave at you. Growing up in the neighborhood, you have known this person all your life. Perhaps you were even invited over to their house or they brought baked goods over. However, how much did you really know about that neighbor? 

A few years later, a news article was published stating your elderly neighbor was likely a perpetrator during the Holocaust. How do you react? Would you claim they couldn’t have possibly been a perpetrator, you haven’t have witnessed anything and they are always kind to everyone they meet? Or would you speak out against their criminal acts?  

Claire E. Aubin, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, presented her thesis project yesterday on Holocaust perpetrators who have immigrated to the United States. According to Aubin, the total amount of immigrants that entered the U.S. during the post-World War II period was around 600,000. However, the exact number of perpetrators within this group is still unknown, due to their aging population and unknown whereabouts. She stated that some researchers estimate around 10,000 perpetrators escaped, but only 150 have been discovered in the U.S.  

“While many who planned the atrocities of the Holocaust at the highest levels were tried in front of war crimes after the war, many perpetrators were not,” Aubin said. “In honoring Holocaust victims and survivors, we must ask whether the people that caused their suffering have ever been brought to justice and how failures to do so might have occurred.” 

As Aubin explains, many perpetrators hid among the displaced peoples after the Nazi regime collapsed. Then, some continued to fabricate their background to immigrate to the U.S. It is commonly misunderstood that most perpetrators were from Germany or Austria, but Aubin notes that perpetrators were also recruited from elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Most known perpetrators were involved with duties ranging from Nazi administration, political soldiers (SS), camp guards, propagandists and antisemitic collaborators.  

Light was shed on Holocaust perpetrators in the 1980s, but it was not until 1997 that the U.S. government formally created a task force to investigate them. Once detected, perpetrators can face charges like immigration fraud, denaturalization, deportation or extradition. Since most perpetrators would be elderly by now, a frequent amount of perpetrators face no consequences because they are too old or ill to have an appeals process, according to Aubin. 

Aubin spoke about seven discovered perpetrators in Connecticut so far. In 1985, one notable perpetrator discovered was Vladimir Sokolov, a lecturer at Yale University. Sokolov was a propagandist for the German army. He was later put on trial and faced deportation charges. Perpetrators were detected by statements made by Holocaust survivors and archives. Their whereabouts were also publicized by the press, both locally and nationally.  

According to Aubin, many neighbors or friends of perpetrators did not believe their neighbor could have done such a horrible thing; they claim they would have known if their neighbor was a perpetrator. One perpetrator’s neighbor even claimed that it must not be true because the perpetrator always treated her dogs very nicely. But upon closer examination, it was discovered that her job was to train dogs and attack those in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  

A railroad road leading to a building in Auschwitz Birkenau. Photo by Lāsma Artmane on Unsplash

“Both neighbors and press coverage very often show a semi sympathetic light on the accused, claiming that their contributions through the community could have some way proved their innocence,” Aubin said. “Or that they should be resolved for their past actions because of their comparatively good later lives, religious dedication, family lives and successful careers even housekeeping and lawn maintenance were all invoked in the possibility that they could have been a Holocaust perpetrator. Despite that, none of these facets of a person can prove any sort of prior innocence.” 

Aubin mentioned that some defend perpetrators by arguing that they were forced to follow duties for survival. However, Aubin said this argument is not convincing because SS members had to demonstrate that they were ideologically aligned with the cause. For instance, they have to prove that they held antisemitic, anti-communist views, and were willing to commit acts of brutality to become a member.  

“I think we all have this false narrative in the U.S. that to be a Nazi you have to be this evil person, who just embodies evil all the time,” Aubin stated. “In actuality, it’s probably someone who was manipulated into these set of hateful beliefs for a period of time, behaved in that way, realized later that those rules were no longer socially acceptable in the new context and pretended it never happened in the first place. That’s mostly what happens because if you immigrate to the U.S. Of course, you’re going to lead a very normal, quiet, kind life for the most part, because you don’t want to get kicked out or draw any suspicion.” 

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