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Efraim Zuroff: «I dreamed of being not a hunter of Nazis, and player in the NBA». Interview

On the occasion of the Hebrew publisher of «Yediot Ahronot» books «Journey with the enemy» Rue Vanagaite and Ephraim Zuroff (in Lithuanian the book is called «Mūsiškiai» «Our»), in February there will be meetings with authors of the book in Jerusalem and tel Aviv. Here is an interview on the eve of these meetings, Dr. history by Ephraim Sarofim, head of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, «the hunter for Nazis» in the Baltic States.

Talked Masha Khinich.

Start with a question that surely you have often asked, but I can’t not to ask again – why are the Baltic States? Your ancestors – grandparents come from Lithuania?

Yes, my mother’s parents.

Do you know where? From what place? Preserved some documents?

Of course, I know all about the parents of my mother. My grandfather was born in the town, which in Yiddish is called Lime, in Lithuanian it is called today Liminis. My grandmother was born in the town, which was called Sedova. They are both before the First world war she moved from Lithuania to America, where he married, was born there, my mother and I was born there. My connection with Lithuania is strong because my Lithuanian grandfather was the most dominant figure in our family. He is the eldest of six brothers – was well known in the Jewish American community, especially among religious Zionists, led by the movement «Mizrachi» in America and became one of the founders of Yeshiva University in the United States.

A graduate of this University you are…


What was the name of your grandfather?

Shmuel Saar. But in America it was called the Saar. All of his brothers who moved to live in other countries, was called the Saar, and for some reason he was the Saar. One of the brothers went to Scotland, the second – in the land of Israel, two in South Africa, and the youngest remained in Lithuania. He was the head of the yeshiva and was afraid of emigration. And he was killed in Vilna with his wife White. His name was Ephraim, and I was named in his honor. I wonder what I was supposed to be called otherwise. That day when I was born, my dad sent a telegram to the grandfather in Europe, where he was delegated with the mission of the JDC to aid Holocaust survivors. The telegram was this: «Esther gave birth to a son.» Grandfather sent the response telegram: «Call it Ephraim». And, although my parents chose for me another name, they obeyed. The irony lies in the fact that in the end I most of the time their work was carried out in Lithuania, although in General visited hundreds of places.

You devoted yourself to the study of the history of the Disaster, although after the Department of history at Yeshiva University could take any area… But you have chosen for their research, this particular page of history. Why?

I never wanted to be a historian. But I always wanted to do something related to the Jewish people. My parents said – you can’t afford to stay all my life with the first degree, is required to obtain the second degree…

Like any Jewish family…

Even with my Jewish mother… I was looking for something that would allow me to delve into the study of Jewish topics. And found the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Institute for modern Judaism, where he studied the history of the Jewish people of the twentieth century. Repatriated received a grant. But when I arrived, I realized that such knowledge has no practical application, students are not prepared to work in «Dry», the foreign Ministry or some other organization where I was aiming. It was prepared scientists «crackers», the academic researchers. And I realized that must take place within these walls for five years!

During my studies, I have to ask how the Catastrophe happened? How did this happen?! In those years I was very active in the political sense – actively advocated for Israel, for the rights of Soviet Jews. I was very interested in all questions associated with it, for example – behave like American Jews during the Holocaust, what did they do? What they knew about the Crash? And that’s why I chose this topic. Also for me it was just easier – no need to learn Russian.

For practical reasons? I’m kidding, of course.

I could not compete with Jews from Russia (and they had just started to arrive) in the study of Russian Jewry! This is absurd! So I decided to learn German and to study the history of the Disaster. To me it was really interesting… I didn’t plan to become a «hunter of Nazis». This was not my dream. I wanted to be the first religious Jew who plays for the NBA, not the historian and not the «hunter of Nazis». I always played basketball in high school for the school team, then the team of the University, a few years playing in the Israeli League. Basketball is my main hobby. But what to do – I wasn’t good enough for the NBA.

Last time, you often go back to one subject – the fact that today it is very fashionable to rewrite history, in particular Ukraine and the Baltic States. Do you have fears that Israel is to happen in relation to the Disaster or to other historical phenomena?

No, in Israel, this can not be. Although in General the world is a very dangerous trend. Whenever I give lectures, I begin with the historical context. In every place, in every occupied country, the Nazis sought to mobilize the local population to turn it into accomplices. There were reasons – ideological and practical. Ideological was to prove that the local population supports the Nazis in their fight against Communists, Jews, homosexuals and others. With the «practical side» of the Nazis, there was a shortage of «workforce», because they were dispersed over a vast territory, from Normandy to the outskirts of Moscow, from Norway to the Greek Islands. Naturally, they resorted to the help of the local population. The Nazis arrived, for example, in Lithuania. They don’t know the language or the terrain, they face an unprecedented task – to destroy hundreds of thousands of people, and quickly. So they needed the help of local residents, which they were able to draw everywhere, anywhere, even in Denmark. But there was a big difference between cooperation of the local population with the Nazis in Eastern Europe and in the West.


Only in Eastern Europe, the local inhabitants took active and direct part in regular mass killings of Jews. In France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Norway, the Nazis appealed to the population to kill Jews. There looking for Jews, denounced them, described their property, did not allow Jews to earn a living, sent their trains or ships to concentration camps to die, but not destroyed with his own hands. And in Eastern Europe a different picture – the local population was directly involved in the massacres. In Lithuania, for example, from 220 thousand who lived there during the Nazi occupation were killed according to my 212 thousand Jews, and it is impossible to understand how it could be implemented without the active support of the local population. The same thing happened in Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Croatia. These countries after the war were not democratic. They were supposedly liberated by the Soviet army, and became either Soviet republics or Communist satellites. The Communists were not ready to accept the fact that the destruction of the Jews was one of the goals of the war waged by the Nazis. In the Soviet Union have not even heard of this word «Holocaust» until the mid-1980s.

This aspect of the Second world war never talked at school, only in Jewish families.

In 1985, I came to the Soviet Union and saw the memorial plaque, on which was written «to the victims of fascism». But who was the victim? And who killed him? Nothing was and never could have been written at the time: is Ukrainian or Lithuanian could kill a Jew? It was the brotherhood of Nations, together to build communism! Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union were able to tell the truth, and she was terrible. The Baltic Nations had to admit that they killed all their Jews, moreover, Lithuanian police, formed from the Lithuanians, the Nazis were sent to Belarus, and there they helped in the mass murder of Jews.

Please tell us about the Hebrew translation of a book written with Ruth Vanagaite and named in Hebrew «Journey with the enemy.»

In the summer of 2016 I was in Vilnius. Saturday in the synagogue, I was approached by a man accompanying a group of religious Jews from America, South Africa, Israel, England, Canada – all of them were immigrants from Lithuania. I asked who tells them about the Disaster and about the events that took place here during the Second world war. And he answered: no. I volunteered to talk to them on this subject, we agreed to meet in the Beit Chabad, and I promised to bring my writing partner, with whom we together wrote a book about the murder of Jews by the Lithuanian population – Ruta Vanagaite just was also in Vilnius. So, we arrived, I began speaking first, talked about the historical context, and then start talking root. They cried, listening to her talk about what her relatives were doing in the Disaster and about her project in which she talks Lithuanian students about the history of Lithuanian Jews.
After the lecture I was approached by representatives of this group and asked what they can be useful. And then I said I need money to translate a book from English to Hebrew. These people quickly gathered the required amount. So thanks to meeting at the synagogue this book was published in Hebrew.

How was the translation of the book into Hebrew?

First of all, when we were working on the book, I have my part recorded in English, and their Ruta is Lithuanian. Then we found the man who translated the book into Lithuanian, then translated into English. Hebrew book translated the Cyl Elazar, the famous Israeli translator.

Have you discussed with Zilog Elazar the translation process? What was her reaction?

She really liked the book, was impressed. She came to Jerusalem to meet with us and understand how important it is that this book was published in Hebrew.

The title of the book in Hebrew is very emotional – «Journey with the enemy.» How do you take this name?

We had a lot of discussions on this subject, and came to the conclusion that the name is really very strong, and it should be in accordance with our idea. A simple idea: that people want to read it. This book is really unique: this has not happened to the «Nazi hunter», a descendant of the victims of the Disaster along with the most famous Lithuanian writer, relatives of which were murderers of Jews went together to seek the truth about the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania.

This is a very personal story. However, it is directly connected with the activities of the Wiesenthal Center.

The Wiesenthal center is not only «hunting for Nazis» and not only with issues of contemporary anti-Semitism. I think that anti-Semitism has today taken another form – the form of discussions around the theme of Disaster. And the classic example of this – Lithuania. They are trying to deny the Catastrophe, because they can not admit their own sins. And this is a very dangerous process. The Wiesenthal center surely ought to deal with it. Lithuanians distort the picture by claiming that they didn’t kill anyone. It is not a denial and distortion of history.

I am by profession a historian, not a detective. So to me this activity is very suitable.

Do not you think that in Israel, interest in the Disaster waned, despite an increasing number of documentary evidence films, books, archival materials?

I totally disagree with you. For ten years I lectured IDF soldiers – 1988-1998-th year. The audience was very different – very educated and not educated, erudite and very, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, rich and poor families, and I was pleasantly surprised in the first place their knowledge in this area, and secondly, their level of understanding and sympathy for the victims of the Disaster.

In Israel there have been two important things: the story of the Disaster was one of the subjects for which the exam for matriculation. And the second – the organization of visits in Poland (the interview was taken before the adoption by the Polish Sejm of amendments to the law on the Institute of national remembrance – M. H.).

It is necessary to understand the Disaster touched everyone. Every family has the victims or survivors in a Disaster, every family has a «knot» of the memory. There was a time when Disaster was suppressed in our country – not completely, of course. There were debates about whether to leave this thread on memorial Day, and not to engage in her story constantly. Said: Yes, people have lost entire families who disappeared without a trace, who died. Of course, we have this huge guilt complex, but the philosophy Ben-Gurion proclaimed a «new type of Jew,» he had a certain disregard to the Jews of Galut.

All this led to the fact that before the Disaster involved not so much.
But times change, thank God. Several things have happened. In 1967, the Israelis found that the only one they can count on in this world as allies – it is the Jews of Galut. The whole world turned away from us and only the Jews of the Galut have supported us.

Later, in the Yom Kippur war, our army the best in the world, suddenly began to retreat! We retreated from the Golan, almost lost Kinneret. How so?! We have suddenly ceased to beat! Thus, even if we are proud of the Israelis, trained in military Affairs and equipped with weapons, even if we retreated, what can we demand from those unfortunate Jews who were not military, had no weapons, and who had nowhere to run. Generally it is a miracle that the concentration camps were raised Jewish riots that thousands of Jews hiding in the forests, joined the partisans and fought, joined the Resistance in France and Belgium, dealt with the salvation of his brothers.

So, among young people, more interest in this era, they are not bringing her cargo, the «knot» of memory, or guilt. On the contrary, they want to know.

You want to say that for the younger generation in this topic, the interest of novelty, interest discovery?

Just so. Healthy interest.

Tell us about Rute Vanagaite.

Ruta – an absolutely fantastic lecturer, with an incredible charm. Wherever we were, and we’ve been together already in many countries, its everywhere well accept listeners. It’s amazing. We were together in Poland, in USA, in Moscow, in Croatia, in England. It all fascinates. This is not surprising. She has an amazing story. The man who found out that his parents have sinned, and wants to atone for those sins. She makes a fantastic, heroic job, contrary to public opinion. Like the prophets of Israel – Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu… Ruta is a phenomenon is a special phenomenon. If we had a hundred such Ruth that there would be no boycotts of Israel or anti-Semitism.

I would like to add that what is happening in Lithuania in relation to the Rut, awful. She is persecuted because of this story with a Lithuanian partisan, and the decision of the Lithuanian government in respect to the Rue, from my point of view, cruel and unfair. But I’m sure she will gain new fans, which will compensate for all caused her moral damage in recent months.

I also hope so.

To purchase tickets to the lecture Rue Vanagaite

Efraim Zuroff: «I dreamed of being not a hunter of Nazis, and player in the NBA». Interview 30.01.2018

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