NEW YORK — In the waning days of World War II, Waffen SS general Karl Wolff, made a deal with the American intelligence operative Allen Dulles that he would surrender his men in Northern Italy in exchange for immunity from war crimes. With the imminent collapse of the Third Reich, Wolff had more to gain from this understanding than Washington, but Dulles kept his promise, protecting Wolff from prosecutors at Nuremberg.
This was the beginning of a dutiful friendship, not just between these two men but among the interests they represented. It serves as prologue to “The Nazis Next Door,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, $28) Eric Lichtblau’s riveting account of how America became a refuge for war criminals with the collusion of US agencies who recruited them for the Cold War and then sought to insulate them from justice.
While aspects of this story are known, the significant contribution made by Lichtblau, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, is to piece it all together through declassified files and extensive interviews in a devastating indictment of an American intelligence and military establishment that made a pact with the devil — a bad bargain in terms of espionage results but one that encompassed mass murderers, run-of-the-mill killers and assorted collaborators.
In the end, a reinvigorated Justice Department successfully prosecuted, denaturalized and deported more than 100 of them but, according to Lichtblau, an estimated 10,000 “with clear ties to the Nazis” lived freely in the U.S. to the end of their days, hiding in plain sight as factory workers, janitors and car salesmen.
While many lesser fry slipped by a porous immigration system through their own devious means, Lichtblau focuses on a cluster of Nazis who entered the US with a little help from their friends in the CIA. He follows several notorious figures who lived successful lives in this country and, even when exposed, managed to evade the full consequences of their pasts. The book traces them through decades of deception from the early postwar era to the Reagan years.
Among Lichtblau’s cast of characters:
Hubertus Strughold, who took part in gruesome medical experiments for the Luftwaffe using human guinea pigs for tests on how the body could withstand ice-cold waters and sudden changes in air pressure. Strughold was spirited to an Air Force base in San Antonio where he was venerated as “the living sage of space medicine.”
Arthur Rudolph, who managed Hitler’s V-2 rocket facility at Dora-Mittelwerk for Wernher von Braun where thousands of prisoners were beaten, starved, executed and worked to death. Rudolph arrived in the US as part of “Project Paperclip” — a stratagem that brought 1,600 German scientists to America — and became the leading engineer on the Saturn V space program which brought him the sobriquet “Mr. Saturn.”
Otto von Bolschwing, an early influence on Adolf Eichmann in the Nazi Jewish Affairs office, and the author of a white paper on “The Jewish Problem” that served as a blueprint for the despoliation of German Jews. His handiwork included instigating a horrendous pogrom in Bucharest in which hundreds of Jews were butchered. After the war, von Bolschwing ran an anti-Soviet spy network for the CIA that later brought him to America first-class on the Andrea Doria and got him a State Department agency job.
For Jews, a very different fate
And while the CIA was providing red carpet treatment for the perpetrators what was the fate of the Jews who had survived their onslaught?
While prominent Nazis were prepared for the fall of the Third Reich with exit routes to South America and the Middle East, their victims were not. Between 1946 and 1948 little more than 40,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S., two-thirds of them Jewish, a remnant of the remnant that had survived.
For the most part, the rest languished for years in Displaced Persons camps in Europe, often living in abject misery alongside the very Nazis who had victimized them. General Patton, who commanded the American zone in Bavaria, held them in disdain. And stateside, the plight of Jewish DPs evoked little sympathy. A postwar survey showed that 72 percent of Americans did not want the survivors in the U.S.
As for the Nazis, it took years before the political climate changed and their pasts caught up with them. Early whistle-blowers were treated as outliers and themselves harassed by the FBI for seeking to blow the cover of the war criminals who were by now established as US citizens. One of the activists was Chuck Allen, a left-wing journalist. For his pains, Allen was designated a national security threat by J. Edgar Hoover.
It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the tide turned, culminating in 1979 with the creation of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in the Justice Department after Congressional hearings in 1977-78. The unit had been forged through the efforts of people like Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, a Brooklyn Democrat, who had fought for seven years to bring hidden Nazis to justice.
But prosecutors seeking to denaturalize and deport them faced legal stumbling blocks. In one case, Tom Soobzokov, a former CIA recruit and a prominent citizen in Paterson, N.J., implicated in war crimes in the Black Sea region of Krasnodar, acknowledged that he was a member of the Waffen SS. His defense was that he’d told this to the American authorities when he entered the US, thereby demonstrating that although he was a Nazi collaborator, he hadn’t lied about it, a Catch-22 loophole that saved him from deportation.
Nazi-hunters tilting at ghosts
But the tide was turning. TV series such as “Holocaust,” and best-sellers like Howard Blum’s “Wanted,” brought the face of genocide and the shame of ex-Nazis in our midst to public attention. The CIA was no longer the sacred cow it had once been and neither was the FBI any longer in very good odor. Moreover, a new cadre of prosecutors in Germany had shown an interest in going after war criminals.
A determined team of Nazi hunters in the Justice Department went after their quarry with real teeth in tightened regulations and procedures. The heroes of Lichtblau’s chronicle are these men — Neal Sher, Eli Rosenbaum, Mike MacQueen — led by Allan Ryan, who relentlessly pursued those who for decades had felt impervious to retribution.
By then, however, the Nazi-hunters were virtually tilting at ghosts as their quarries aged and died. Arthur Rudolph, when confronted with the evidence linking him to the underground slave labor factory at Dora-Mittelwerk renounced his U.S. citizenship and voluntarily exiled himself to West Germany rather than face a public scandal.
Otto von Bolschwing admitted to investigators that he’d been a high-ranking Nazi and agreed to surrender his citizenship but, in failing health, was allowed to remain in the country.
As for Huburtus Strughold, OSI lawyers were preparing to confront him, but death reached him first. His legacy by then had been tarnished, but not completely. It was only last year that the Space Medicine Association agreed to withdraw presentation of its annual Strughold Award named for its patron saint.
Age did not provide an escape for everyone. Aleksandras Lileikis, living quietly for 35 years in a Boston suburb, was unearthed as chief of the security police in Vilnius who had turned over thousands of Jews to their Nazi executioners at the death pits of Ponary.
Despite Lileikis’s stonewalling, determined sleuthing by Mike MacQueen turned up documents linking him to the massacres. Lileikis was one of the many Nazi henchmen recruited after the war by the CIA, which later resettled him in the U.S. He was deported to Lithuania in 1996 and died there at 93 awaiting a verdict on genocide charges.
Lichtblau’s well-documented account might have been augmented with a fuller exploration of the altered social and political conditions that ultimately brought some of these men to justice: The Israeli triumph in the Six-Day War which provided a new assertiveness to a younger generation of American Jews, together with the civil-rights movement of the 60s that inspired them to activism on behalf of their own people. The flowering of Jewish studies programs in the early 70s and its sub-set of Holocaust studies, turning a spotlight on a once taboo subject; Watergate which had alerted the public to Government malfeasance and cover-ups, and a surfeit of films and literature — Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” and Elie Wiesel’s “Night” — that captured the public imagination.
This aside, Lichtblau has provided a compelling account of American complicity in recruiting Nazi war criminals, bringing them to our shores, cleansing their records and shielding them from justice. Lichtblau cites a 2010 internal Justice Department study that he wrote about for The Times as providing the impetus for his book.
The report acknowledges that “America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became — in some measure — a safe haven for persecutors as well.”
How this came to be is the burden of Lichtblau’s gripping chronicle, informed by the reportorial skills of a journalist and impelled by the moral imperative to bear witness.
The author is the former Book Editor of Newsday.