Jasenovac
Ustasha Fascists conduct an execution at the Jasenovac camp.Wikipedia

This year, as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I would like to share a personal story with our readers.

I am often asked how I deal with the numerous obstacles obstructing justice and the frustrations of seeing so many Nazi war criminals who committed terrible crimes and whom we were finally able to track down and expose, escape trial and punishment due to lack of political will or because of illness and/or death.

That is certainly a pertinent question in the 21st century, in a world in which most countries prefer to let elderly Holocaust perpetrators die in peace and tranquillity, knowing full well that all they have to do to avoid prosecutions is drag out the legal procedures until such time as the criminals become medically unfit or pass away.

My response to such questions is to emphasise the tremendous suffering inflicted on the victims of the Holocaust by these criminals and to relate one story, which continues to inspire and motivate me, many years after it took place.

The most important case I dealt with in the more than 30 years of Nazi-hunting was that of Dinko Sakic, one of five commanders of the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp established by the Croatian satellite state of Nazi Germany in 1941, where tens of thousands of innocent Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians were murdered by the Ustasha Croatian fascists who ran the camp.

Nicknamed the "Auschwitz of the Balkans," Jasenovac was a camp notorious for the cruelty of the commanders and the guards , who routinely tortured the inmates and invented unique murder methods to increase the suffering of their victims.

With the help of Argentinian journalist Jorge Camarasa, we were able to track Sakic down to Santa Teresita in Argentina, and our efforts to get him extradited and prosecuted in his homeland were ultimately successful. The trial opened in Zagreb before a panel of judges in March 1999, and week after week witnesses related how Sakic had mistreated the inmates, personally murdered prisoners and overseen the hanging of at least 20 persons incarcerated in the camp.

Although there was much evidence and testimony regarding Sakic's crimes, the outcome of his trial was not certain, as the president of Croatia at the time was Franjo Tudjman, the only Western head of state to ever deny the Holocaust, and there was abundant sympathy for Sakic in large segments of Croatian society, which considered the Ustasha heroic patriots, not war criminals.

Former Yugoslavia monuments
The 'stone flower' monument to detainees of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Jasenovac, Croatia, designed by Bogdan Bogdanović and unveiled in 1966. It is thought that around 100,000 Serbs, Jews and gypsies were killed at the extermination camp during WWIIAntonio Bronic/Reuters

It was therefore with great trepidation that I entered the Zagreb courtroom on 4 October 1999, and awaited the verdict with bated breath. The courtroom was filled to capacity, with half of those in attendance supporters of Sakic, while the other half prayed for his conviction and maximum punishment.

Pandemonium

Judge Drazen Tripalo decided not to hold us in suspense and began by informing the courtroom that Sakic was found guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Pandemonium broke loose, joy on one side and anger and frustration on the other. After the full verdict was read and the people in the courtroom began to leave, there were scuffles between Sakic's supporters and his detractors, and very heated arguments regarding the verdict and the events of World War II.

I was frankly overjoyed by the result, and was fairly oblivious to the events in the courtroom. Not understanding Croatian made it easier, but then someone came over to me and told me in perfect American English that I should go back to Israel and deal with the Palestinians. Before I could even think of responding, I was stopped by a tall well-dressed gentleman, who introduced himself and told me that he had only one word which he wanted to tell me.

The word was Hvala, Croatian for thank you, because, as he explained, "without you, this trial would never have taken place." I thanked him, but it took a few moments for me to understand who he was, and to be overcome by emotion in response to his gratitude.

The person in question was the brother of Dr. Milan Boskovic, a doctor from Montenegro, who was a member of a group of inmates who tried to obtain more food, and whom Sakic ordered to be hung. Facing death, Milan Boskovic told Sakic that his tradition did not allow him to be hung and on the spot Sakic took out his pistol and shot him in the head.

The verdict was the ultimate closure for Dr. Boskovic's brother, who never dreamt that the day would come when his brother's murderer would be punished severely in a Croatian democracy. And his words and gratitude underscore for me one of the main motivations to keep trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. The obligation we, the generation after the Holocaust, owe the victims, the responsibility to make a serious effort to track down those who turned so many innocent men, women, and children into victims, simply because they were classified as enemies of the Reich, or in this case of the Ustasha.

So when the going gets rough, and the frustrations mount, I think back to the Boskovic family and remember that one of the greatest Mitzvot (good deeds) a Jew can do is to fulfill that obligation to as many of the victims as possible.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book is "Operation Last Chance:One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Crimials to Justice." His websites are www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com He can be reached on Twitter @EZuroff as well as on Facebook.