Elusive Justice: A Q&A with Filmmaker Jonathan Silvers

November 14, 2011
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.