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Elusive Justice: A Q&A with Filmmaker Jonathan Silvers

By Michelle Michalos
Monday, November 14th, 2011
  • comments (18)

Jonathan Silvers (Saybrook Productions)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Jonathan Silvers, the filmmaker behind Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals. The film investigates the global search for the 20th Century’s greatest criminals — fugitive Nazis — and the determined individuals who sought to bring them to justice.

Here, Silvers discusses his inspiration for the film and the motives of the so-called Nazi hunters featured in the documentary.

Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals airs Tuesday, November 15 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make this film?

Jonathan Silvers: Back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, I covered a succession of wars, atrocities, and genocides.  Anyone who observes conflict is obviously going to be sympathetic toward the victims and survivors.  But I also became increasingly curious about the perpetrators, their psyche, their methods, and their objectives.  In the aftermath of these conflicts, the majority of perpetrators not only went unpunished; they were absorbed back into the societies they had devastated.  I saw this time and again — in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo, Congo.  In most cases, the number of those brought to justice was a fraction of those who participated in unspeakable crimes.

In 1997, I was working for ABC in New York when I got a call from a friend who’d been my fixer during the Balkan wars.  He was then based in Vienna and had heard a rumor that a basement vault of a psychiatric hospital contained human remains dating back to World War II.  On the strength of this tip, I flew over with a cameraman to Vienna and we broke into the basement vault.  Inside we found several hundred human brains.  They were the brains of disabled or handicapped children who’d been murdered during World War Two as part of the Nazi euthanasia program.  These brains had been used for research during the intervening 50 years by the hospital director, Heinrich Gross, who during the War had been a Nazi doctor and had ordered these children murdered.  After we breached his vault, Dr. Gross disappeared, and we spent a week trying to track him down.  We’d been staking out his daughter’s house and just as we were about to give up, he appeared.  We ran out of our vehicle with our cameras rolling, and Dr. Gross stood there, shaking in his boots, speaking to us on camera for a half hour.  Our story aired on Nightline and BBC, and we exposed this great, unknown atrocity and this criminal who had been living not only freely, but had risen to the very highest levels of the medical profession in his native Austria.  The exposé forced the Austrian prosecutors’ hands.  The international outcry led to the first Nazi-era trial in 30 odd years in Austria.

So these experiences – the war reporting and exposing the Nazi doctor – started me thinking about the legions who’d participated in the Holocaust but had gone unpunished. And I started researching the post-war lives of the worst of the Nazi perpetrators, which was a revelation, because the vast majority of them went on to lead normal, prosperous lives.   And then it struck me that the only people who tried to hold accountable these enemies of humanity were the so-called Nazi hunters, the individual men and women who believed that enemies of humanity must be punished – if humanity itself is to survive.   In the aftermath of no other war that I can recall do you have individuals relentlessly, obsessively pursuing justice on a mass scale.

I officially launched this film in 2008 because I recognized an urgency: the generation of Nazi perpetrators was dying off.  So was the generation of Nazi hunters, and I thought that the lessons they offered were appropriate for the 21st Century, in which we unfortunately still have these kinds of atrocities, maybe not to the same scale but with similar intent.

IT: What do you think was the primary motivator for the men and women who tracked down the Nazi fugitives — a personal connection, or something larger than that, a desire for justice?

JS: So many different motives. I think all of them had a personal connection. In many cases, the connection was the loss of family, or they had experienced the Nazi atrocities themselves.   The motives are as varied as the hunters.  Most of them cling to higher principles, and to the law, which says that murder, mass murder, must be punished.  How often, in post-war environments, do you hear people talk about that? Almost never.  A few that I met were motivated by vengeance.  They were so affected by what they had lived through or had lost that vengeance was a simple and obsessive motive.  A couple didn’t even attempt to sugarcoat, they just said explicitly that it was about vengeance.

As a journalist, I have to be objective, but as a human being, I think vengeance can have very dangerous consequences.  The film opens with a segment on Jewish avengers, who lost their families and survived and decided that they were going to take it upon themselves to revenge themselves not on the Nazis, the troops who pulled the trigger, but on the German people as a whole. It’s a horrible thing to consider, especially as not all the Germans were guilty.  But to these avengers, there was no doubt that the Germans were guilty, because it was the German nation that had committed this crime.  I deliberately start with them because that was the rawest expression of justice, but I also like the ambiguity – what is justice? What do we mean by justice, and how can we ever have justice for crimes on such a scale?

IT: In the film, journalist Peter Finkelgruen says, “Politics and society didn’t want these trials, and when they could avoid it, they did avoid it.” Why was this the case?

JS: It comes down to this: no nation wants to prosecute its own people for crimes against humanity, especially when those crimes were state policy.  What child would prosecute his own parents?  If you look at the broader issue, tracking down and prosecuting war criminals is enormously expensive, time consuming, and exhausting.  Who has the money and the strength to do this?  I’ve never seen it done with any measure of success, whatever that may be.  So when Peter says politics didn’t want these trials, he’s absolutely right. Nobody wants to look in the mirror if the reflection is ugly.  And much as I believe in higher principles and punishing war criminals, in this era of economic uncertainty the question arises: can we countenance spending limited resources on prosecuting octogenarians?  Maybe if I’d survived the Holocaust I would say absolutely, go after them until their last breath.  But, pragmatically, as a nation, do we want to take on that enormous effort?  It’s a very confusing question.

IT: What was the experience like confronting Dr. Heinrich Gross, who murdered children at the Spiegelgrund clinic?

JS: It was amazing, because we had a sense when we were talking to him that he knew the jig was up – and that he’d been fearing this moment for fifty years.  Incidentally, I start the film with a similar scene of exposure, filmed in the early 1970s by a cameraman name Harry Dreifuss.  He’d been working with Serge and Beate Klarsfeld to expose Nazi criminals living openly in West Germany, and he found a guy name Kurt Lischka.  Lischka had been an SS Colonel and Gestapo chief during the war, and had sent tens of thousands of Jews to the concentration camps.  In the 1970s, when Dreifuss found him, he was a successful businessman and judge in his hometown of Cologne.  But the frame of him walking along a rain swept street when he suddenly realizes he’s being filmed is momentous.  There he is, in black and white, raising his briefcase to conceal his face and fleeing.   It’s obvious that he feared this moment, feared exposure, every day and that his worst fears were about to come true.

IT: Was there anything you were surprised to learn while making Elusive Justice?

Personnel records of fugitive Nazi criminals. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions)

JS: I think the psychology of the Nazi hunters and their single-minded pursuit and determination – to do this for decades and decades and decades…in one sense it’s amazing and honorable, and in another, it’s an indication of how damaged they were that they wouldn’t let go of this. But, if their psychological damage led to the prosecution of mass murderers, who’s to say they were wrong? What’s also interesting is that you don’t see a lot of people who do this who weren’t directly affected, but occasionally you do. At the U.S. Justice Department, you have Eli Rosenbaum, who is probably the most determined investigator out there now, in an official capacity, and what he’s up against – he says, “we’re racing against the grim reaper,” but he’s also racing against political apathy around the world.

Over the decades the intent or methods of the Nazi hunters got larded in myth.  Most people, when hear the words Nazi hunter, envision guys in trench coats walking down dark alleys looking for sinister characters. And they think probably of Simon Wiesenthal and a couple of iconic cases. I don’t think they understood what individual investigators and prosecutors actually did.   So, in a sense I wanted to clarify or debunk the myth, and introduce viewers to people they might not have heard of, to bring them closer to the truth.

IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from the film?

JS: I don’t want to be too strident, but I think the line that concludes the film’s introduction is key: enemies of humanity must be pursued if humanity is to survive. I really believe that. You can’t have a functioning society with killers at large.

  • Gilbert Weinstein

    Most Americans are too involved with searching for the rapidly disappearing American dream to be involved in any history at all. The old Nazis are now dying and will continue to vanish dragging their foul, guilt ridden lives behind them without a trace. The War and the millions of murderers and their sympathisers will now just continue to quietly disappear. We will have learned very little. We lived among them until the day they turned and began to kill us. The killers were not all members of any official party and they did not all wear a uniform yet their hatred for us saw no bounds. There should now be a sure swift sentence handed to each although lt will never be enough.

  • Ruth Schwarzhaupt

    I agree with Mr. Weinstein. The Nazis murdered my parents and left their four children orphans. It isn’t only that
    they ultimately murdered people – but they taunted them, persecuted them, took away their dignity, their livelihoods and ultimately, every single possession, apartment, house, furniture, paintings. It is horrifying how easily
    people can be persuaded that other people are, to put it mildly, undesirable and expendable.

  • Arthur P. Zapolski, Esq.

    I am a member of the post war baby boom generation. However I strongly believe on moral and historical grounds we can’t forget or forgive what happened over sixty years ago. We are obligated as a society to hold accountable those who performed the most terrible deeds of the Twentieth Century. Six million Jews and another six million “undesirables” perished because of the Nazis. If a government is willing to go to great lengths to prosecute a single accused for one crime of homicide in our society then there is no excuse for turning a blind eye to aging criminals who killed scores of innocent victims during the course of World War Two. Time does not absolve the wrong-doer of their crimes.

  • paul Georges


  • Francee Leonhard

    We are the fortunate ones, the souls who are privileged to live and breathe, but it is our birthright and duty to bring
    a higher level to the world we found before we leave this life. We are all particles, missionaries you might say , sent
    to this earth to make it a better place. and leave a less unjust world for our children.

  • Mark M

    An even larger and more complicated question concerns the culpability and participation of U.S., South American, and European governments in aiding and abetting the escape and new citizenships of KNOWN Nazis and their enablers. There was — still is — a shadow network of espionage and law enforcement who seem to have done far too little to bring regime members, war criminals, sociopaths, psychotics, mass murderers, rapists, treaty violators, and other inhumane low lifes to justice. Why were they left to live in some obscurity, often under an alias, and simply fade away? Why was it often the Nazi hunters and servants of international justice who tracked these people down? Part of the answer may lie in the perverse logic that dead men tell no tales, that they could never testify about their roles in the vast, strange and rather revisionist puzzle of how the Nazis came to power. There was a huge amount of collusion, and very little of it has ever been part of standard history. One misses a key point when assuming that post-war justice rendered, or not, to many Nazis and their minions would be any more honest than the pre-war maneuvers that helped to gear up German industry.

  • Agnes M. Bristel

    As an human being we should: act, if we become aware of anyone we encounter or hear about does deeds that resemble a characteristic that could grow into a repeat situation, such as happened in Germany in the pre-war years, that would end into a another crime against any people. We all are equally responsible to learn from these atrocities, so that it will never ever happen again. “Wir haben es nicht gewust” is no excuse!

  • susan

    This documentary is an unbelievable well thought out body of work & I would like to thank the filmmaker for making it.

  • John Koster

    This harrowing, honest, and well-made documentary delivered some important messages about the politics of who gets away with murder. During the war, the FDR administration pointedly ignored Jan Karski and other messengers who told the U.S. that mass murders were taking place. Felix Frankfurter told Karski that he was not permitted to believe him. (FDR and Churchill took the same attitude toward the murder of Polish officers at Katyn.) The FDR administrations also squelched a deal to trade 10,000 trucks for a million Jews whose lives might have been saved rather than offend the Soviets who — CF R.J. Rummel of Rutgers– killed more innocent people than Hitler did. I’m a veteran and had six relatives in Wolrd War II, but clearly the U.S. was an accessory to genocide both during and after the actual murders. Also, the air raids against German and Japanese civilian targets were clealry war crimes as well. Most people not directly involved understand this.
    One correction. The elderly and psychopathic Dr. Grossman didn’t say “It was a crime” or his murder of helpless children. He said “It was a duty.) (Pflicht) The translation was incorrext, and to me, that’s even more appalling – he still believe he was right.,

  • Dennis Zen

    I was disgusted by the double-standard presented by the former partisans who smugly recalled their attempts at retribution by poisoning POW rations or attempting to poison civilian water supplies. That would be considered a terrorist act in any day and age and certainly puts them at a similar moral level as those whom they regard as “war criminals”. The previous poster John Koster is correct in stating that the allies were no angels themselves.

  • stephen lefrak,MD

    excellent program,. I was involved with the rescinding of an award given to Dr.Friedrich Wegener, which he had received from the ACCP and worked to remove his eponym from a syndrome of granulomatous vasculitis. He was a Lt Col. in the SA and apparently was wanted for war crimes in Poland after he was stationed in the lodz ghettto, although his document folder was found to be empty. Interestingly he still has his defenders who do not understand why we who didn’t think he should be honored by medicine demand “our pound of flesh” to quote one. For every one who supports this superb work here, there are unfortunately many who have a far darker side. Thank you for an excellent program, “anachnu po” indeed.

  • John Koster

    Jonathan Silver stated that he wanted to start the excellent documentary by showing how some of the “avengers” verged over into wanton murderous intention themselves — it was an act of courage and integrity on Silver’s part to denounce this sort of vindictiveness and these people were obviouslt Nazi-style racists themselves. As to the idea of poisoning huge numbers of Germans because of the Nazi murderers…James Byrnes, U.S. Secretary of State, advocated bombing Hiroshima to “avenge Pearl Harbor” — bu Peral Harbor was a purely military attack provoked by members of the FDR administration. Byrnes’ domestic fame was as a defender of lynching of Southern blacks against thehumane initiative of Hamilton Fish, who fought for 20 years of an anti-lynching law and never go one while he was in Congress. Note also that 78 per cent of Americans polled wanted Lt. William Calley pardoned for the point-blank murder of about 500 Vietnamese civilians. One of them was Jimmy Carter. The U.S. hanged about 800 Japanese “Class B” war criminals — and made heroes out of the people who bombed Hiroshima. There can be no double standard for justice. A war crime is a war crime, without regard to the race of the victim. We have our share of Nazi types in America too — let’s all shun them and, when possible, put them on trial.

  • John Broman

    By the end of the war, the ranks of the SS contained members of many European nationalities. Not all who carried out the bloodier aspects of National Socialist ideology were German. War criminals of all nationalities (including US) must be hunted down and prosecuted. There is no American exceptionalism, or Israeli exceptionalism, when it comes to war crimes.

  • gordon

    Mr. Silvers, A person I know lives across town. I saw him in a 3 or 4 part documentary around summer of 2007 or 08. He was photgraphed with 4 SS officers and Hitler. I didn’t hear his real name, but I think he was into document forgery & spy network. About 1973 he told me the camp he was at – Sobibor. In the picture he was the only one wearing a brown uniform with a little bit of red trim(over coat & hatband). I gave additional information to O.S.I.(Office of Special Investigatios) summer of 2009. As well as the Simon Weisenthal Center but have heard nothing yet. Ofcourse he is in denial – his story is he was a Polish youth in forced labor. One time a son said around 1966 that Stefan had changed his name before crossing over from europe. Are there any new ongoing investigations?

  • Lewis

    Gordon, I know the man you speak of. As nine year old I would see him on a rampage through the house; as though he were running a prison. I am wanting to watch “Elusive Justice” to see if that photo is in it. Does anyone know when the show will air again? In the picture he was the one holding his hands behind his back. bluegillrfc@gmail.com if any one finds the next air date.

  • amartin

    John Broman, in his comment above, seems desirous of absolving the Nazis by somehow finding equivalence elsewhere. Shame on you, Mr. Broman.

  • Gordon Buchan

    Dear Sir/Madam, I would be most grateful to you, if you were to be so kind as to advise me of a point of contact, for Mr. Jonathan Silvers, who Produced the Film entitled, Elusive Justice The Search for Nazi War Criminals
    The reason for my request is that I hold World War 11 Authentic Documents and Letters, relating to my Nazi War Criminal Hunting, which I am most desirous of conveying to him.
    Thank you for your help with this matter.
    With all good wishes.
    Gordon Buchan.

  • Gordon Buchan

    Dear Sir/Madam, I would be most grateful to you, if you were to advise me of a pont of contact for Jonathan Silvers.
    My request, further to my last e-mail to you, is reference the fact taht I have Intelligence which I should like to convey to him.
    Many thanks.

    Gordon Buchan.