In the years that followed the end of World War II and the end of the Thousand-Year Reich, members of Nazi military and police units, political bodies and the scientific establishment lived on. With the war concluded and their political project in ruins, they had choices to make about how they would spend the rest of their lives.
In some cases, they remained in Germany, serving in the post-war government; others moved abroad, living in varying degrees of self-imposed obscurity, or even anonymity.
Among the latter group, some of them found safe harbor in the United States, working for the U.S. government through the long-secret Operation Paperclip. Other former Nazis were able to come here through normal immigration procedures. The Office of Special Investigations estimated in 1979 that after the war, around 10,000 Nazis who had committed war crimes entered the United States.
For years, much of the information known today about the existence of Nazi war criminals in the U.S. was unknown outside of the offices of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services. It wasn’t until a campaign by Elizabeth Holtzman, a Brooklyn-born Harvard Law graduate who was only the third Jewish woman to serve in the House of Representatives, that public scrutiny was brought to bear on the phenomenon.
On June 16, Holtzman will deliver the 2021 Sol Feinstone Memorial Lecture on the Meaning of Freedom, an annual address held at Gratz College. Holtzman’s speech, titled “Nazi War Criminals in America: The Historic Forty-plus Year Effort to Bring Them to Justice,” will cover the legal and moral questions that vexed her and those who joined her initially lonely effort to identify and deport Nazi war criminals. The event is free and will be presented online.
Holtzman, counsel and co-chair of the government relations group at Herrick, Feinstein LLP, worked in the administration of John V. Lindsay, a former congressman and New York City mayor, before she ran for Congress in 1972. Holtzman upset 50-year incumbent Emanuel Celler to become, at 31, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. That record held until 2014.
Later in her career, Holtzman, a Democrat, would spend eight years as district attorney of Kings County, the first woman to be elected DA in New York City. She was the first and only woman to be elected comptroller of New York City, ran for Senate on several occasions and served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
A 2020 article in Tablet recounted the beginning of Holtzman’s political career:
“She used her new office to ask ‘unpopular questions’ of those in power, probing the legality of military action in Cambodia ordered by President Richard Nixon and criticizing his deflective use of executive privilege. Sitting on the Judiciary Committee, she played a significant, public role in Nixon’s impeachment.”
In 1973, a man approached Holtzman with a tip. The INS, he said, kept a list of Nazi war criminals living in the country, a list that they were content to keep and do little else with. To this day, Holtzman said, she doesn’t know why she was the one who the man approached with that explosive piece of information.
“I mean, I was one of 535 members of the House and Senate,” Holtzman said.
Incensed, but unsure of what to do with what she’d been told, Holtzman didn’t move on the information until later that year when two articles in The New York Times corroborated the man’s story, according to Tablet. The following April, during a congressional hearing involving INS commissioner Leonard F. Chapman Jr., Holtzman asked him flat-out: Was there a list of Nazi war criminals in the U.S.? He
“I said, ‘OK. I want to see the files,’” Holtzman recalled. “I didn’t take their word for an end. That was just the beginning.”
The following May, Holtzman held a press conference excoriating the laxity of the INS, and called for a task force to be created with the purpose of expelling Nazi war criminals in the U.S., with the goal of seeing them stand trial for war crimes. At first, it was a lonely fight; people simply could not believe that the government had allowed such a thing to happen, Holtzman said. But as her fight grew in prominence, many were willing to lend Holtzman their swords in order to slay the “bureaucratic dragons” that had slowed her down.
It wasn’t until 1978, five years after the initial disclosure of the list, that Holtzman was able to form a Special Litigation Unit. The Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, passed that year, “provided additional grounds for deportation and exclusion for individuals who collaborated with the Nazi government,” according to lawyer Talia Zikel Lissner.
Her work was far from over, as Holtzman knew. The legal process of identifying, trying and deporting Nazi war criminals was a decades-long project. It would eventually outlast her career as an elected official; just last year, a former concentration camp guard named Friedrich Karl Berger was deported from Tennessee, an action made possible by the Holtzman Amendment.
“I’m not someone who gives up,” Holtzman said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. All I know is that I had to keep fighting and pushing and prodding and cajoling and persuading.”
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