Worlds last Nazi hunter calls on NZ to open inquiry into how war criminals came here

The world’s last Nazi hunter has called on the Government to open an inquiry into how suspected war criminals and collaborators were able to sneak into New Zealand and live a quiet life after the atrocities of World War II.

Historian Dr Efraim Zuroff supplied a list of 50 suspected Nazi war criminals and sympathisers to the New Zealand Government in 1990 and 1991 – but no official nor judicial action was taken despite a Kiwi detective tracking down one suspect who said murdered Jews “screamed like geese”.

Details of Mt Hutt ski field “pioneer” Willi Huber later surfaced.

Huber, who died last year aged 97, came to New Zealand to build a new life in the 1953 after lying on his immigration papers, saying he had been a member of the “Austrian army”.

In fact, he was a decorated member of the notorious Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation set up by Heinrich Himmler, the main architect of the Holocaust, which resulted in the systemic murder of millions of Jews.

Zuroff says New Zealand is the “only Anglo-Saxon country” not to take any action on former emigres.

Other countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada and the US, either passed laws allowing criminal prosecution against alleged Nazi war criminals or attempted to prosecute them for immigration violations.

“There was no political will to do it and it sends a terrible message; it basically says, ‘You know what, you were able to make it over here, so we’ll forget about your past; your past doesn’t count’,” Zuroff told the Herald on Sunday from Israel.

“But that’s absurd, because the past is not crossing at a red light or not helping an old lady cross the street – the past is mass murder, in many cases, or individual murder.”

Although most – if not all – of the suspected Nazi collaborators identified by Zuroff three decades ago are no longer alive, he believes it’s not too late for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Government to act.

“It’s important that this scandal be fully investigated and that the truth come out and that the Government admit that a mistake was made. Hopefully, something can be learned from that,” he says.

Responding to questions from Herald on Sunday, Immigration New Zealand was in the dark over Zuroff’s claims.

“Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has no record of visa applications from the individuals listed in your request, nor any other individuals with known records as Nazi war criminals or sympathisers,” said Nicola Hogg, INZ’s general manager of border and visa operations.

“Of course they didn’t say they were Nazi collaborators,” Zuroff says.

“Huber’s immigration records are a perfect example of the ignorance of New Zealand immigration authorities. When asked what he was doing he said he was in the Austrian army – there was no Austrian army.

“Of course, he had to hide it. He was decorated by the Waffen-SS.

“They all lied.”

Austrian-born Huber, a former member of the Hitler Youth who became an officer, denied any knowledge of atrocities carried out by the Waffen-SS or the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust.

“We, as soldiers never, had the slightest inkling — maybe the high command,” he said in a 2017 interview with TVNZ’s Sunday programme, where he also said Hitler was “very clever” and “offered [Austrians] a way out”.

But Zuroff says the “unrepentant Huber”, as someone who served in a Waffen-SS unit on the Eastern Front and won the Iron Cross for his fighting at the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, must have known what was going on.

“As a historian, I can state unequivocally that serving in a Waffen-SS unit on the eastern front, there is no way that Mr Huber could possibly not have been aware of the massive atrocities carried out by the SS and the Wehrmacht in the territories of the Soviet Union, where 1.5 million ‘enemies of the Reich’, primarily Jews, were murdered individually during the years 1941-43,” he said last year.

Ardern’s office passed inquiries over to Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi, who said he has not been briefed on any cases where alleged Nazis or Nazi sympathisers had been identified in New Zealand.

And he doesn’t have plans to request an investigation.

“The Government has not discussed any question of an apology in relation to the matters you have raised,” a spokesman for his office told the Herald on Sunday.

During and after World War II, thousands of Nazis fled Germany along so-called ratlines to avoid standing trial for their war crimes.

Several South American countries, including Argentina, were safe havens for Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, a key organiser of the Holocaust, who would later be tracked down and hanged by Israel in 1962 for his role in the extermination of Jews.

But others went elsewhere, including to the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Self-proclaimed “Nazi hunter” Zuroff, a Brooklyn-born historian who is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, has dedicated his life to trying to find individuals and bring them to justice.

As the Iron Curtain started to crumble, Zuroff compiled lists of suspected Nazi war criminals and sympathisers who might be hiding out in New Zealand.

In August 1990, he made his first submission to the then-Labour New Zealand Government.

It included the names of eight suspects. And then a few days later, another name. The following month, a longer list, with 32 suspects.

More names were provided in August 1991 to Jim Bolger’s National Government.

Willi Huber was not on any of Zuroff’s lists, which ended up with more than 50 suspects.

“These were all eastern Europeans – Lithuanians and Latvians – who either served in police units or vigilantes,” says Zuroff, who has submitted more than 3000 suspects to 20 countries over the past four decades, resulting in some high-profile prosecutions of concentration camp officers and other war criminals.

“In other words, units that participated in the mass murder of Jews, in some cases not only in their own countries.”

In 1992, an official investigation into Zuroff’s claims was launched.

Wellington police detective Wayne Stringer was picked to head a two-person unit looking at 47 people who arrived in New Zealand as displaced persons from former Nazi-occupied countries after the war.

Stringer followed leads across the country and concluded there were likely at least a handful of Nazi war criminals who lived out their lives in New Zealand without having to face justice. Others had already died and been struck from his list.

One of those Stringer tracked down was Jonas Pukas, a Lithuanian who had been living on Auckland’s North Shore since the 1950s.

Pukas allegedly served in the 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, which had been infamous for machine-gunning thousands of Jews in mass pit-killings.

When spoken to by Stringer in 1992, the then 78-year-old Pukas insisted that he had only witnessed the killing of Jews and not been an active participant.

But on tape, he made chilling comments about how the victims had “screamed like geese” and laughed when describing how they “flew in the air” when they were shot.

“For him, that’s what they were – they weren’t humans, they like geese, you can kill easily and with no guilt,” Zuroff says.

But despite Stringer’s findings, authorities decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Pukas with committing any crime.

He died two years later.

Stringer told the Otago Daily Times in 2012 he was confident Pukas was a war criminal and that his comments still haunted him.

“To try to comprehend murder on that scale was amazing. I still can’t do it,” he said.

“In the end, there was just insufficient evidence to take it further.

“It was frustrating, spending all that time on it and nothing happened.”

The New Zealand Jewish community still shares Stringer’s frustrations.

The Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation, Aotearoa New Zealand (HAFANZ) now wants the details and findings of Stringer’s 1990s investigations declassified and made public.

“Most New Zealanders would be gravely concerned to know that Nazis may have been admitted to the country after the Holocaust,” historian and HAFANZ co-founder Dr Sheree Trotter told Herald on Sunday.

“More generally speaking, we think it’s time for a full disclosure of our Government’s past record in its dealing with the Holocaust.

“We know there was a harsh policy towards Jewish refugees with the tiny number of 1100 being accepted into New Zealand while thousands were turned away.

“As a member of the global community that shared a degree of responsibility for the catastrophe of the Holocaust, we believe it’s time for Wellington to wake up, open the appropriate files, and join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.”

Despite 76 years having passed since the end of the Second World War, and most, if not all, suspected Nazi war criminals in New Zealand having already died, Zuroff is adamant it’s not too late to act.

“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers,” he says.

“[Government action] sends a very powerful message that if you commit such crimes many years later you might be held accountable.

“These are the last people on Earth who deserve any sympathy.

“And the last point is, in my experience, in the cases I’ve been very involved in, I have never encountered a case in which a Nazi war criminal expressed any regret or remorse.”

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