The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, by Eric Lichtblau. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 266 pages. $25.
If you’re feeling chilly these winter nights, grab a copy of Eric Lichtblau’s new book, The Nazis Next Door, and get your blood boiling.
In the first half, Lichtblau describes how, as Jews still languished in DP camps, even some of the worst Nazis and collaborators began new lives in the United States: They were imported by the U.S. Army to work on rocket programs; allowed in with biographies sanitized by the CIA, which used them as spies; or simply let in by indifferent or ignorant immigration workers.
The Army knew the truth about SS Maj. Wernher von Braun and about Arthur Rudolph, who ran the factory that worked thousands of slave laborers to death making von Braun’s V-2 rockets. Other Nazis falsely claimed innocuous wartime work or anti-Nazi beliefs, or gave truthful statements of ardent opposition to Communism. Often, the last seemed to suffice.
America’s swift postwar loss of interest in Nazi atrocities and its hysteria over Communism led the CIA and FBI to protect their supposed assets, hiding and denying knowledge of their wartime activities and killing investigations into their pasts.
“The true number of [Nazi] fugitives may never be known, but the number of postwar immigrants with clear ties to the Nazis likely surpassed 10,000,” Lichtblau says.
“Only grudgingly, in the late 1970s … would the nation begin to wake up to the reality that there were indeed legions of ex-Nazis living freely in their adopted homeland,” he says. Attention was accelerated by Howard Blum’s 1977 bestseller, Wanted!: The search for Nazis in America. Lichtblau describes “Project Paperclip,” the U.S. import of 1,600 German scientists, including V-2 engineers and the acclaimed “father of space medicine,” who Lichtblau says gathered his data on loss of air pressure and hypothermia by fatally exposing prisoners.
The second half of Lichtblau’s book is somewhat more calming: After hearings by U.S. Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman and Joshua Eilberg shamed the government, Congress forced the Justice Department to create the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in 1979.
The work seldom is easy or quick. More than a decade was needed for Aleksandrus Lileikis, who “lived an unremarkable life in Massachusetts” for decades, Lichtblau says. As security police chief in Vilnius, Lithuania, he ordered Jews handed over to Nazis for killing at nearby, notorious Ponary.
His name surfaced as a possible war criminal in 1982, Lichtblau says, but he challenged OSI investigators to “show me something that I signed.” After the Soviet empire collapsed, an investigator found the signatures in “long hidden archives.”
Just as OSI was writing the final charges, a CIA lawyer called saying not to file the case because Lileikis had been a Nazi postwar espionage agent and the CIA “did not want to risk seeing classified records…spilling into public view,” Lichtblau says. Likeikis finally was stripped of citizenship in a Boston courtroom and in 1996, deported to Lithuania, where he died in 2000, still awaiting a verdict on genocide charges.
But there were failures, including the misidentification of John Demjanjuk as Treblinka’s “Ivan the Terrible.” Tried in Israel, his conviction was dismissed by the Israeli Supreme Court after subsequent, convincing evidence of misidentification. Demjanjuk later was convicted in Germany of being a guard at the Sobibor death camp.
Not all of The Nazis Next Door is new, but even things once familiar no longer are so, and Lichtblau, a New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, does a nice job of painting the larger picture while focusing on six notorious individuals and neither dodging nor dwelling on unpleasant details.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.