By Symi Rom-Rymer
By 1948, World War II had been over for three years, yet hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons remained scattered throughout the wrecked and scarred European landscape. The United States Congress responded with one of its most far reaching immigration laws, the Displaced Persons and the Refugee Relief Acts, which brought over 600,000 of those refugees onto its shores. But among the Nazi victims and self-defined anti-Communists who sought shelter in the US, were perpetrators of war crimes who were also eager to start a new life in a new country. Slipping by the overworked and overwhelmed US consular officers, they gained entry to the US where they lived peacefully until their past lives caught up with them. This week, the New York Times released the complete 617 page report from the Office of Special Investigations that, starting in1979, was responsible for their reversal in fortune.
In the 1970s, a series of high-profile events including the deportation of Hennine Braunsteiner Ryan, a Nazi death camp guard turned New York City housewife, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service cover-up of Nazi criminals turned US citizens, sent shockwaves through American society. As a result, the OSI, under the auspices of the Department of Justice, was born. As the recently released report describes, the purpose of OSI was not to try and deport anyone who had links to the Nazis or those who fought on their behalf, but rather target those who directly and actively participated in the persecution of civilians under the auspices of the Nazi regime.
Much of the attention about the report has focused on the reluctance of the Justice Department to release it until a potential lawsuit finally forced it to last month. But the report itself makes for discomforting reading. Some cases, such as that of Arthur Rudolph, father of the Saturn V rocket and winner of NASA’s highest honor, may be more widely known, but the deep involvement of the US government in bringing him and others like him to the US and supporting them bears revisiting. Rudolph, brought to the US through Operation Paperclip, a War Department-sanctioned program designed to “exploit” Nazi scientists and their knowledge base, was a senior scientist involved in the creation of the V-2 rocket. But he was no ordinary scientist locked in a lab. He was the Operations Manager of the Mittlewerk underground complex that produced the V-2s and, despite later pleading ignorance, he knowingly asked for and used slave labor from the Dora Nordhausen concentration camp.
Even after OSI exposed Rudolph’s involvement in Nazi crimes, US politicians and government officials (including Pat Buchanan and Ray Cline, the former deputy director of the CIA) rushed to his support. As Cline said at the time, “I am inclined to think he [Rudolph] should have been recognized as having paid whatever debt to society his World War II activities deserved because of his very deliberate effort to contribute his science and technology, which was of great genius to the United States and to the strategic defenses of this country in the troubled period after World War II.” Nevertheless, Rudolph was deported to West Germany and died there in 1996; the only Paperclip scientist to be prosecuted by OSI.
The report also highlights the limitations that OSI faced as it was established thirty years after the war was over. By that time, survivors were already elderly and their testimony, already considered to be unreliable, was treated with skepticism. In addition, its early operations occurred during the Cold War when much of the information about Nazi war crimes was still in the Soviet bloc and therefore inaccessible by American lawyers. But despite these and other obstacles, the report lays out both OSI’s successes and failures as it recounts its efforts to prosecute and deport naturalized citizens accused of Nazi war crimes.
While its focus is on the Holocaust era, the report’s relevance cannot be overstated. It will live on not only within the context of Holocaust study and research but also as a blueprint for investigating and prosecuting other war criminals from other genocides. Indeed, according to the report, OSI’s work has already played an influential role in war crimes trials in Rwanda. In 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda cited OSI cases in its conviction against three propagandists for inciting genocide. But with much of its World War II related work coming to an end, the ongoing John Demjanjuk case not withstanding, the OSI is turning its own attention elsewhere. In 2004, the OSI became a permanent part of the Department of Justice and will be involved in prosecuting more contemporary war criminals. Sadly, it is clear that OSI may never become irrelevant. But because of this report, we have at least learned how fortunate we are that it exists at all.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.