For decades, Zuroff has dedicated his time and resources to bring Nazi war criminals to trial and expose the atrocities they committed, no matter how long ago the Holocaust was or how old the perpetrators might be.
On Wednesday, he brought his message to Northeast Tennessee, speaking to more than 2,000 area students at First Baptist Church in Greeneville.
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the heinousness of their murders,” Zuroff told the crowd. “These are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy, because they had no sympathy for their victims.”
During his talk, Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Weisenthal Center in Jerusalem, shared stories about his life, his unorthodox career and his “most important case”: the trial of Dinko Sakic.
Sakic was a Croatian war criminal who commanded the Jasenovac concentration camp in 1944. Sakic was charged in the deaths of more than 2,000 people who died at the camp under his watch.
Sakic made no effort to hide his past, and claimed he was doing his patriotic duty and that he would do it again. He was also considered a hero in Croatia, which Zuroff said made it all the more important to try him in Croatia.
“This guy was considered a national hero, and that’s exactly why it was so important to put him on trial,” Zuroff said.
Sakic was eventually convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1998 — he died 10 years later as the last living commander of a concentration camp in World War II. During his trial, Sakic’s defense argued he should be acquitted because he was just following orders — something Zuroff said he’s always taken issue with.
“People think those people (the Nazis) had no choice, but that’s not true,” he said. “Everybody has a choice.”
After his lecture, Zuroff discussed the importance of continuing to teach the history of the Holocaust, and the lessons it brings.
“The Holocaust is a tragedy that could’ve been avoided, could have been averted, could have been prevented, but too many good people stood aside and didn’t do anything until it was too late,” Zuroff said. “That’s part of the lesson of the Holocaust.”
Zuroff was in East Tennessee as part of an annual event hosted by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission to help educate students on the history and lessons of the Holocaust.
“The lessons that we can all learn from the Holocaust are about building a more humane society,” said Devora Fish, director of education at the Tennessee Holocaust Commission.
“Every person can find themselves in the stories of the victims of the Holocaust and we can take their message and never let that happen again.”