NPR Transcript: How Thousands Of Nazis Were ‘Rewarded’ With Life In The U.S.
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Back in the early ’70s, New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman got a confidential tip that American immigration authorities knew of dozens of former Nazis – some implicated in serious war crimes – who were living in America. Holtzman discovered that it was true and that the Immigration And Naturalization Service wasn’t doing much about it.
Our guest, investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau says that was just the tip of the iceberg. In his new book, Lichtblau reports that thousands of Nazis managed to settle in the U.S. after World War II, often with the direct assistance of American intelligence officials who saw them as potential spies and informants in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Lichtblau also discovered some disturbing things about the Allies’ management of liberated concentration camps after the war and the difficulties survivors faced. Eric Lichtblau is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. In 2006, he won a Pulitzer Prize with James Risen for their stories on the NSA’s secret surveillance of American citizens. Lichtblau spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became A Safe Haven For Hitler’s Men.”
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Eric Lichtblau, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Thank you. Great to be here.
DAVIES: You know, there’s one thing that you write about early in the book – and this may be well known to historians – but it was shocking to me. And this involves what happened in the concentration camp after they were liberated by Allied armies. You know, we picture these starved, sick, traumatized survivors being treated well and given assistance and freedom. The picture you describe is very different. Tell us about that.
LICHTBLAU: Yeah. It was shocking to me as well to find that even after the liberation of the camps, they were still prisoners. They were kept under armed guard. They were kept behind barbed wire. They were bunked with Nazi POWs. In some cases, believe it or not, the Nazis still lorded over them while the Allied ruled the camp. And when I started researching the book, this was a book about the Nazis who fled to America. I really had no intention of looking at the survivors. It seems sort of irrelevant to what I was doing. And then the more I got into it and the more horrified I was by the conditions that the survivors lived in – where you had thousands and thousands of people dying even after the liberation of disease and malnutrition – I realized that it was relevant to the story because as easy as it was for the Nazis to get into America, it was just as horribly difficult for the Jews and the other survivors to get out of the camps. And it took them months – and in some cases a couple of years – to get out of these displaced person camps. And it made me realize that the liberation that, you know, I had learned about years ago was in some sense sort of a mockery.
DAVIES: So we’re talking about loose survivors living for weeks or months in these horrifically crowded, squalid barracks and the American army, which obviously was not prepared for this kind of a humanitarian crisis…
DAVIES: …Turned to the people who know how to run things. And they were the Nazis in a lot of cases.
LICHTBLAU: General Patton believed that the Nazis were best suited to run these camps. In fact, he openly defied orders from then-General Eisenhower, who was in charge of the European forces after the war. Patton was in charge of the displaced persons camps. And Patton had sort of an odd fondness almost for the Nazis. And he believed that they were the ones – the most – in the best position to officially run the camps. And he, you know – he gave them supervisory approval to basically lord over the Jews and the other survivors.
DAVIES: And what do we know about Patton’s attitude towards Jews?
LICHTBLAU: Well, I didn’t know, again, before going into the research with this book, but he was a virulent anti-Semite as shown in his own journal entries. There was a key point just months after the end of the war when these displaced person camps were getting up and running where Truman sent – President Truman sent an emissary to investigate the conditions that Jewish groups back in America had been hearing that the survivors were living under these horrific conditions. And Truman and the other politicians in Washington didn’t want to believe it. So he sent the dean of the Pennsylvania law school, a guy named Earl Harrison, to investigate. And Harrison’s report was – and let me quote for you here – Harrison wrote to Truman that as matters now stand, quote, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” So he was equating to the president the displaced person camps with the Nazi concentration camps. You – essentially, the flag had changed. You didn’t have the Nazi flag flying over the camps. But they were still prisoners in every sense of the word.
DAVIES: And I want you to share Patton’s own words with us about this.
LICHTBLAU: Yes. I will. Patton was incensed by this report to Truman. You know, of course he ran the camps and he believed that he was running them well and efficiently. So he wrote in his diary – the words were so jarring that when I first saw this document at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I thought it might be a forgery because I couldn’t believe that a war hero – General Patton, who’s remembered through history as a war hero – could write such words. But what he wrote in his journal about Harrison’s report was this, quote, “Harrison and his ilk believe that the displaced person is a human being, which he is not. And this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.” He went on to say that the Jews in one particular DP camp had, quote, “no sense of human relationships,” unquote. They would defecate on the floors and live in filth like lazy, quote-unquote, “locusts.”
He told in his journal of taking General Eisenhower to tour a makeshift synagogue that the Jews in the camp had set up to celebrate the holy day of Yom Kippur. Quote, “we entered the synagogue, which was packed with the greatest, stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen,” end quote. This was Eisenhower’s first glimpse of the DPs Patton wrote. So it was all new to him. Quote, “of course I have seen them since the beginning and marveled the beings alleged being made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act,” end quote. And, you know, it was this type of virulent anti-Semitism that really infected the displaced person camps.
DAVIES: So while the survivors of the camps were having a hard time of getting out of Germany and…
LICHTBLAU: Very hard.
DAVIES: …Rebuilding their lives, a lot of Nazis were managing to escape. How did they do it?
LICHTBLAU: In the early months and first few years after the war’s beginning in mid-1945, only a very limited number of immigration visas could get into the United States. Of all the survivors in the camps, only a few thousand came in in those first year or so. To get a visa was a precious commodity. And there were policymakers – immigration policymakers – in Washington who were on record saying they didn’t think that the Jews should be let in because they were, quote-unquote, “lazy people” or entitled people and they didn’t want them in.
But there were many, many thousands of Nazi collaborators who got visas to the United States while the survivors did not, even though they had been, for instance, the head of a Nazi concentration camp, the warden at a camp, or the secret police chief in Lithuania who signed the death warrants for people, or Nazi concentration camp guards. The bulk of the people who got into the United States – some were from Germany itself – some, in fact, were senior officers in the Nazi Party under Hitler, but more were the Nazi collaborators, some who wore the Nazi uniform, some who did not from Eastern Europe because the floodgates of immigration visas really opened up to them after the war even while Holocaust survivors were being denied entry to either the United States or to Palestine.
DAVIES: Of course, some Nazis managed to escape and get to the United States or other countries because they were in a position to – in the confusion of the period – you know, alter documents and change their identities. But there were also clear policy decisions made here. And a critical person here is Allen Dulles, who was in the American intelligence system, later headed the CIA. And you describe an interesting meeting between him and a Nazi general, Karl Wolff. Tell us about him and this encounter.
LICHTBLAU: Yeah. Dulles is a key figure in the book. And even before the war was over – a few months prior to Germany’s surrender when it was inevitable that Germany was about to lose the war – Dulles began negotiations through his deputies. Dulles, at that point, was a top OSS – which was then a spy agency – OSS official in Switzerland. And he began talks through his deputies with General Karl Wolff who was a senior – senior Nazi. He had been Himmler’s chief of staff. He had helped to set up the train network that brought millions of Jews and victims to their deaths at the concentration camps. At the end of the war, he led a large contingent of SS men in Italy. And Dulles believed that perhaps he could get General Wolff’s men to lay down their arms early, which did end up happening.
DAVIES: Tell us about his meeting with this General Wolff.
LICHTBLAU: Right. So Dulles met at a safe house in Zurich with Nazi General Wolff, the former chief of staff to Himmler. And Wolff and Dulles had a very nice chat by a fireside. They drank scotch. They talked in German. Dulles spoke German. And it was, by all accounts, an amiable chat. And Dulles sent a series of really amazing cables back to Washington after these meetings, back to the intelligence officials in Washington. And he said he was impressed with Wolff and his deputies, as what he called moderate Nazis. And I can quote from this if you’d like.
LICHTBLAU: He said Wolff is a distinctive personality and dynamic, too. Our reports and impressions indicate that he represents a more moderate element in the Waffen-SS, with a mixture of romanticism. The general’s aim, Dulles cabled Washington, was to help lead Germany out of war, and quote, “end useless material and human destruction.” Wolff was handsome and trustworthy, too, Dulles added later. And the Allies would be able to work with him. Those who met him could plainly see that Wolff was no ogre, Dulles wrote. You almost have to remind yourself that he was talking about the chief of staff to Himmler, a senior Nazi SS war criminal, who, had it not been for Dulles, would have faced probable execution at Nuremberg for his role and atrocities.
But Dulles saw him as a pathway after the war to gather intelligence on the Soviets because the Soviets were the new enemy. This was the new Cold War. And even before Germany had surrendered, Dulles realized that the Nazis were yesterday’s enemy and the Soviets were today’s enemy. And he developed this odd personal relationship with this Nazi general – with Carl Wolff – and protected him for months, even years, after the war from prosecution.
DAVIES: Eric Lichtblau’s new book is “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became A Safe Haven For Hitler’s Men.” We’ll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, our guest is Eric Lichtblau. He’s an investigative reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner for The New York Times. He has a new book about how the United States helped Nazis immigrate to the United States after World War II. It’s called “The Nazis Next Door.”
Well, at the heart of this story is the decision by a lot of American policymakers, the intelligence official Allen Dulles and others to use ex-Nazis to spy on and kind of to work against the Soviets – the Communists who were the new enemy. Do we have any idea how many of these people kind of fit into that category?
LICHTBLAU: Sure. There were upwards of 1,000 Nazis who were used by U.S. intelligence after the war – by the CIA, the FBI, the military and other U.S. intelligence agencies – both in Europe as well as inside the United States, in Latin America, in the Middle East, even a few in Australia. And these were seen as basically cold warriors who served as spies, informants and other intelligence roles.
DAVIES: Did American intelligence officials in letting – getting these Nazis into the United States – did they fake their identities? Did they alter documents to allow them to get in?
LICHTBLAU: They did. They did. In at least a handful of cases that I examined – the CIA files on – they actively cleansed their records. They realized that guys who’ve been involved in senior levels – at senior levels of Nazi atrocities would not pass through immigration at the INS. And they basically removed a lot of the Nazi material from their files. One of the worst cases is that of a guy named Otto von Bolschwing was a top aide to Adolf Eichmann in a Jewish affairs office – Jewish affairs office. And von Bolschwing with the CIA’s help – he had been a spy in Europe after the war. He was able to move in the mid-1950s to New York with a – essentially a white-washed history that passed through immigration. And there are a number of cases like that where these guys had worked for the CIA, usually in Europe and then were able to move to the United States with at least the tacit approval of the CIA and sometimes the active involvement in whitewashing their records.
DAVIES: Otto von Bolschwing is an interesting character because he was closely associated with Eichmann who the Israelis managed to kidnap from – was it Argentina? – I think…
LICHTBLAU: Yes. Argentina.
DAVIES: …And brought him and put him on trial in Israel for war crimes, and von Bolschwing was concerned that that investigation would lead to him.
LICHTBLAU: Right, right.
DAVIES: How did he react?
LICHTBLAU: Yeah. No, it’s a fascinating scene in 1960 when the Israelis had these bold kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina. This sent tremors around the world. Most people saw this obviously as a great moment for justice and accountability. Eichmann became one of the great trials in 20th century history. But Otto von Bolschwing – his old aide – was living in New York at that time and was terrified. And there are documents showing that he then went back to his old handlers at the CIA who he had worked with as a spy during the 1950s and told them he was terrified that the Israelis were going to come after him next and that his name was going to come out at Eichmann’s trial – which in fact it did. His name came out. Eichmann even credited him as one of the early pioneers of this policy of terrorizing the Jews in Germany and trying to get them to flee Germany before the concentration camps. So Eichmann credited von Bolschwing as one of his top aides at the trial. And von Bolschwing saw this coming.
He told the CIA, you know, they’re going to come after me – what do I do? I need help. And his CIA handlers actually met with him in New York City in 1961 and had a long, long meeting discussing what they knew of his record and what they were going to do. They offered him protection. They said, we will not tell the Israelis about you. We will not let them know we’re here. We’re not going to tell record to tell the Justice Department about you or the INS about you. But we have one demand, and it was nonnegotiable – which was that von Bolschwing has become so successful in the United States that he was up for a job at the State Department in India – in sort of an export-import role in India. And the CIA was worried according to it on files – that if his nomination went forward, his history would come out. They had managed to conceal his role to Eichmann for, at that point, more than 15 years, but they said if you want our help, you have to drop that nomination. At first he actually protested, but ultimately, he agreed to drop the nomination. And no one knew of his past. The CIA kept their mouth shut, and no one knew of his true past for another two decades.
DAVIES: Now – so the CIA actively tried to protect a lot of these Nazis – scrubbed damage information from the records. What about the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover?
LICHTBLAU: Yeah. Hoover played almost as important a role as Dulles in aligning himself with Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the United States. The FBI under Hoover used dozens and dozens of Nazis as informants – again as Cold War spies and assets. And Hoover would personally approve the use of Nazis as collaborators. Now, he took a slightly different tactic than did Dulles. Dulles sort of acknowledged that these guys had ties to the Nazis but didn’t much care because it was outweighed by the Cold War. Hoover…
DAVIES: Did not acknowledge them publicly – he acknowledged them privately, right?
LICHTBLAU: Privately, yes. Hoover basically wrote off any suggestion that these informants were Nazis as Soviet propaganda. Time and time again, he said that these charges were untrue – you know, that this is just the Russians try to hurt our people because they’re anti-Communist. And he intervened a number of times on behalf of informants who are being accused of Nazi atrocities inside the United States – usually not publicly but the INS might be poking around or others at the Justice Department. And in a couple of cases, Hoover actively came to their defense and help to cut off investigations over the possibility of Nazi atrocities because he saw these guys as vital informants.
DAVIES: Tell us about this one guy, Laszlo Agh – what he did and what Hoover did for him.
LICHTBLAU: Yeah. Laszlo Agh was a FBI informant in New Jersey, but before that, he was a top Nazi collaborator in Hungary. And there was all sorts of evidence of war crimes against him during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. He was accused of forcing Jews at a Hungarian war camp to throw themselves onto buried bayonets and eat their own feces. And he had made some damning admissions to an FBI agent about his involvement with Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party which was actively aligned with the Nazis.
But to Hoover, these accusations were essentially meaningless, and he actually blocked his FBI agent from testifying about what Agh had admitted to him, which killed any possibility of Agh being deported. And so he was allowed to stay in New York – continued as an FBI informant. And Hoover also shut down an investigation into a Hungarian-American group that Agh led which was rabidly anti-Communist and aligned with the FBI in anti-Soviet positions. So what Hoover wrote about Agh and his group was that the group’s leaders, quote, “are known to have been connected with the Hungarian Nazi Party,” Hoover admitted, but the organization, quote, “exhorts its leaders to report all Communist and subversive activities to the FBI,” end quote. And that, in Hoover’s view was the priority, not only in Agh’s case, but in the case of other Nazi collaborators who also worked as FBI informants.
GROSS: We’ll hear more of the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Eric Lichtblau in the second half of the show. Lichtblau is an investigative reporter for The New York Times and is the author of the new book “The Nazis Next Door.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Eric Lichtblau about his new book “The Nazis Next Door.” It’s about how thousands of Nazis managed to settle in the U.S. after World War II, often with the direct assistance of American intelligence officials who saw the Nazis as potential spies and informants in the Cold War. Lichtblau is an investigative reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau. He shared a Pulitzer Prize with James Risen for their stories on the NSA’s secret surveillance of American citizens.
DAVIES: So for years and years, you had, you know, all of these people up and down in the intelligence structure assisting Nazis and hiding their pasts and working for the Americans and in many cases settling in the United States.
DAVIES: Was this ever official policy approved at, you know, the White House or Cabinet level, or was this improvised below?
LICHTBLAU: I think it was ad hoc. It was not a formal policy approved by the White House or, you know, even Dulles at the CIA to say, we are going to actively recruit Nazis and, you know, their pasts be damned. There’s no document that I found which gives sort of blanket authority for that. But it grew sort of organically because you had whole networks of Nazi spy groups that sprouted up all around Europe as well as the Middle East and Latin America, and often these guys made it into the United States sort of one by one. And there’s very little evidence that they had much to do with each other once they got to the United States, you know. They sort of had put in their service, and this was their reward. That was the CIA’s word in a number of cases – their reward for their spy service was coming to the United States and being able to live out their lives basically with anonymity and no scrutiny.
DAVIES: I guess one exception was the program to bring Nazi scientists into the country. Tell us about that.
LICHTBLAU: Right, that was known as Operation Paperclip, and there you did have a formal directive from both President Truman and then-President Eisenhower to bring in Nazis with technical expertise -the rocket engineers, the doctors. As long as, according to official policy, they were not, quote-unquote, “ardent Nazis.” This became essentially a fig leaf, and it became clear that many of the 1,600 or so scientists who were being brought into the United States – brought to military bases in Alabama and Texas and San Antonio and Ohio and all around – in fact, or however you want to define what an ardent Nazi means, were high-level Nazi Party members who were not only aware of, but in many cases actively involved in the Nazi atrocities.
You know, there was clear knowledge that these guys were actively involved in some of the worst atrocities. The worst of the worst were involved in the slave labor rocket factory at a place called Mittelwerk where thousands of POWs – most of them not Jews, but POWs from France, from Russia, from Poland and elsewhere – were basically put in this assembly line of death, if you will, and were worked to death. Disease, malnutrition, exhaustion – thousands died in this factory which was buried inside a mountain. And as Hitler demanded more and more rockets be built to bomb London, to bomb Antwerp – the more rockets he wanted built, the more workers died doing it. And in fact if you disobeyed – if you were a worker who was suspected of trying to sabotage some of the rockets, which some did, or perhaps you didn’t meet your quota that day, you were hanged from the construction cranes while all the other prisoners were gathered around to watch as a lesson to what would happen to you.
DAVIES: Wernher von Braun himself knew all about the factory and the slave labor conditions. The records make that clear. He was lionized as an American hero. There was a Walt Disney series about him.
LICHTBLAU: Right, right.
DAVIES: If one were taking a cold, hard look at it, could von Braun have been charged with war crimes?
LICHTBLAU: He died in 1977, and just a few years after that, the Justice Department began seriously going after a number of these Nazis. And there were active discussions in the Justice Department that if von Braun were alive, we would likely have opened an investigation, and we could conceivably have tried to deport him. And what would be the political ramifications of that? Because as you say – he was a legend. He was the man who helped get the United States to the moon in 1969. He brought the Nazi rockets over and became a folk hero.
DAVIES: I want you to talk about one more guy who was bought over as part of this program to get Nazi scientists – Hubertus Strughold – I think I have the name about right.
LICHTBLAU: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: Tells us about his role in the Third Reich.
LICHTBLAU: Sure. Dr. Strughold was a Nazi doctor who did experiments in medical aviation that were designed to keep Nazi pilots alive, and the way these experiments were carried out under his watch were through these horrific experiments on prisoners at Dachau using basically flight simulators to subject the prisoners to, you know, violent changes in altitude to see what the body could withstand. Children were subjected to this.
There were all sorts of experiments also involving feeding them putrid seawater to see what the body could withstand for when the Nazi pilots would crash into the sea. They wanted to know, you know, ways that they could keep them alive once they were downed at sea, and these were the human guinea pigs. So he was one of the Paperclip scientists who was brought over to the United States. He became, not quite as famous as Wernher von Braun was to the rocket program, but within his sphere, he was equally noteworthy. He was known as the father of space medicine because in Texas in San Antonio, he continued his work in medical aviation. He had his own flight simulator that people like LBJ visited. The Shah of Iran visited there. It became sort of a VIP stop to go to Dr. Strughold’s flight simulator. And von Braun was the guy who got the rockets to the moon – Dr. Strughold was the guy who kept the astronauts alive and, you know, was able to develop the theories on medical aviation to do it. And as with von Braun, there was little discussion about his past and what he had been involved in, even though at the Nuremberg Trials, his name had come up over and over again. That was quickly forgotten.
DAVIES: Eric Lichtblau’s book is “The Nazis Next Door.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us our guest is Eric Lichtblau. He is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of NSA surveillance. His new book about Nazis who were admitted to the United States after World War II is called “The Nazis Next Door.”
Now, it wasn’t really until, I guess, the late ’60s and ’70s that this became a public issue and the government itself began to get involved in looking into the Nazis. How did that happen?
LICHTBLAU: Right, it was really in the late ’70s that you had members of Congress and journalists who were beginning to really raise public attention about this issue in a way that had not happened before or after the war. And you had a couple of cases that became pretty notorious. Then you had members of Congress – probably most notably Elizabeth Holtzman from New York – who started holding hearings and started saying, hey, did you realize that we have Nazis who are actively involved with the Third Reich who are basically living out their years in the United States? And what happened was that the INS started investigating these cases but was…
DAVIES: That’s the Immigration and Naturalization Service ’cause these guys had all emigrated to the states, right?
LICHTBLAU: Right, right, right. But the INS was really kind of ill-equipped to deal with this, and you had, you know, half-attempts to deport some of these guys. But you had prosecutions that either failed in court or went nowhere. And Congress responded by creating a whole new unit – a whole new Nazi-hunting unit at the Justice Department in 1979. And that really set off the whole period of Nazi investigations in the 1980s where you had teams of lawyers and investigators and historians at the Justice Department who began scrubbing these files looking at hundreds and hundreds of names of suspected Nazis and Nazi collaborators who are living all around the country, in Queens, in Baltimore, in Florida, in Chicago. And this was the first real wave of Nazi hunting 35 years after the war.
DAVIES: Right. And, you know, there’s one character who in a lot of ways brings together so many threads of the story, a guy named Tom Soobzokov. Do I have that about right?
LICHTBLAU: Right, yes, yes.
DAVIES: Tell us about who he was and where he was in the United States when his Nazi past emerged.
LICHTBLAU: Sure, Soobzokov was a guy in New Jersey who worked for the FBI as an informant, worked for the CIA as a spy, and before that, worked for the Nazis as an SS officer. And he had this odd and troubling relationship with the CIA in the 1950s where they had used him first as a spy in the Middle East and then even trained him in paramilitary warfare in Maryland, believe it or not. He was part of a small team that was being trained for a possible Russian invasion.
And he turned out to be a not-terribly-good spy – the CIA declared him to be an incorrigible fabricator, and they finally fired him. But then they turned him over to the FBI as an informant. So he’s sort of a fascinating character to me because he’s one of these people who admitted to the CIA that he had been involved with the Nazis as an SS officer. He even admitted that he had led an execution squad that had been in the North Caucasus where he was from – had been involved in executing partisans in his region – then went with the Nazis to travel through Austria and Hungary, but was still able to get into the United States. And he was one of the people years later that the Justice Department went after in the 1970s and 1980s.
DAVIES: And what’s interesting about this is that, I mean, the CIA had long since cut ties with him because he’d lied to them about his past and wasn’t very good us a spy, but he was living in New Jersey and was established in his community and respected.
DAVIES: When this stuff becomes public, reporters find out about this, they come to him, they interview him on his porch and you end up with demonstrations on his street, right? Supporters and accusers.
LICHTBLAU: Right, right, right. So what happened there was that he became sort of the face of Nazis in America in New Jersey during the mid-to-late 1970s and the early 1980s. The JDL, a militant Jewish group, began picketing outside his home. They would bus protesters into New Jersey from New York City, demanding deportation or worse. And the Justice Department made multiple attempts to investigate and prosecute him. But it was sort of the final irony – the CIA was the one that came to his defense because the Justice Department actually tried to prosecute him, saying he had concealed his Nazi past when he came to America in the ’50s. He had not told anyone that he was a Nazi SS officer, so he never should have been allowed in. And now he should be deported. Well, at the 11th hour, as Soobzokov was facing deportation, the CIA came up with a document from the early 1950s showing that in fact Soobzokov had told immigration officials, I was Nazi SS. So he hadn’t lied to anyone, and the Justice Department had egg on its face and was forced to drop the case against him.
DAVIES: Right, so this is the irony is that 30 or 40 years after these crimes, you know, people’s pasts are exposed, but it’s too late to bring them, you know – to prosecute them as war criminals or at least difficult. So it’s an immigration case. And then the fact that they told the Americans who they were, and the Americans had knew this, kept it secret all these years…
DAVIES: …In fact show they didn’t lie to get into the country. So they dodge it.
LICHTBLAU: Right. No, he was able to hold on to his citizenship by virtue of the fact that he had told the United States years and years earlier, yes, I was Nazi SS, and you let me in anyway.
DAVIES: Right, so he continues is in New Jersey. You might just finish the story. What became of him?
LICHTBLAU: Sure, so the Justice Department had to drop the case against him, and he sort of faded into anonymity for the better part of three years. And then one day, in the middle of the night, there was a fire outside his house. And his neighbor sees that Soobzokov’s car is on fire and goes his front door to wake him up and tell him, your car’s on fire. And as he opened the door, a bomb went off seriously injuring him and also his neighbor. And he died a few weeks later.
DAVIES: You write about a lot of the cases that the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting group, the Office of Special Investigations pursued, and you also describe this interesting phenomena of the children of the ex-Nazis who had to deal with this.
LICHTBLAU: Right. Right.
DAVIES: Most of them naturally defended their parents. I mean, I suppose every case is different. But how much did they know of their Nazi parents’ past, and how did they react to the accusations?
LICHTBLAU: Well, I talked to a bunch of the children who were investigated as Nazis in the ’80s. You can imagine this had a fairly traumatic effect on the lives, not only of the accused, but of their children. And almost to amend, they came to defense of their father when I talked to them. They believe their fathers had been wrongly accused. They were not involved in the atrocities that the Justice Department was saying. They were being vilified because they were anti-Communist, and they were staunch defenders of their parents.
The one exception that I found to that was Otto von Bolschwing’s son, the Eichmann aide who had worked for the CIA. And I spent a lot of time talking to his son, a man who’s now about 75 years old, Gus von Bolschwing, who was a lawyer and thought for years that his father was a Nazi resister, that he had worked with the anti-Hitlerites. And, you know, what he knew of the war years was sort of foggy, but, you know, he would say that he never heard his father utter an anti-Semitic word, you know, had no clue that he had these, you know, enormous skeletons in his closet, until 1981 when the Justice Department found him in California – in northern California, then in a nursing home. Von Bolschwing was quite ill from a terminal disease, and his son was confronted with all this evidence of his father’s horrific past.
And like the others, he denied it at first. He said, there’s no way this is my father. But the more he looked and the closer he came to the evidence, he came to realize that, yes, in fact his father had done all this and more. There were writings of his father’s – papers that von Bolschwing had written for Eichmann on – one was called “The Jewish Problem” – on ways to basically terrorized the Jews in the years just before the war and make their lives as miserable as humanly possible to get them to leave. And he realized – Gus von Bolschwing, reading this, this was his father.
DAVIES: You know, when a lot of these Nazi-hunting investigations got underway, it was decades after the war. And by then, so many of these ex-Nazis were established in American communities. And not just their children, but their neighbors and their coworkers and, you know, community associates and in some cases, politicians, you know, vouched for their good standing and good character. And I wonder as you read the stories, if it made you wonder about human nature and kind of how people who, in one circumstance, can live such, you know, normal lives and earn the respect of a community, and in this other time of war and chaos, just commit unspeakable crimes.
LICHTBLAU: Right, right. I mean, these were, you know, in many ways Hitler’s willing executioners, as they’ve been called, people who were involved at all levels of atrocities, from camp guards up through Nazi officers and even leading Nazi collaborators. And yet when they came to the United States they sort of faded into anonymity.
You know, for the most part, none of them ever got into any trouble in the United States. They led, you know, fairly clean upstanding lives. Some of them became prominent in their own right. And that was just a part of their past that they had completely cleansed themselves of. One of the guys that I write about who lived in Massachusetts for years and years, you know, was a police chief in Lithuania who was directly tied to the massacre of 60,000 Jews in Vilnius. And it’s difficult to reconcile, how could the person who did that in Lithuania whose signature was on all sorts of orders for rounding up the Jews for the Gestapo – how could that person be the same guy, the nice neighbor that everyone knew in Massachusetts who sold encyclopedias? And it’s difficult to square the two.
DAVIES: You write at the end of the book that in 2010, there was an internal report – government report that concluded America had become a refuge for Nazis. And I’m wondering, you know, you found so many documents that had kept this stuff secret for years, do you think the cover-up is still going on? I mean, are there still details that are classified and tales yet untold about all this?
LICHTBLAU: There are, believe it or not. In the National Archives, there are still documents that remain classified today about the CIA’s relationship with Nazi figures in the ’40s and ’50s and into the ’60s. A lot of these documents had become declassified just in the last 10 or 15 years, but it was over the strong objections in the CIA which really resisted that in the late ’90s and the early 2000s. And there are documents that may open up whole new chapters that still remain classified that I’d love to see.
DAVIES: Eric Lichtblau, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LICHTBLAU: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Eric Lichtblau spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY’s senior news reporter. Lichtblau’s new book is called “The Nazis Next Door.” You can read the prologue on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up. David Edelstein reviews the new science-fiction adventure film “Interstellar,” starring Matthew McConaughey. This is FRESH AIR.
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