Since his shirts were already monogrammed with the letters “S” and “R,” Steven Rambam, a well-known New York-based private investigator, decided his undercover name would be Salvatore Romano.
At the Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor Village on Saturday morning, Mr. Rambam – a Brooklyn man with warm, blue eyes that contrast with his seemingly tough exterior – recounted his covert investigation into Nazi war criminals during the 1990s. In less than four months, he and his small team compiled a list of about 1,100 of them who, after the Holocaust, sought refuge in the west. They lived comfortably without prosecution – or even fear of it.
In the face of rising anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, he told the small crowd at the local Chabad that the lessons from his talk apply today more than ever.
“The truth is, the Jewish community didn’t hunt Nazis, doesn’t hunt Nazis, and 99.9 percent of the people who murdered Jews during the Shoah escaped,” Mr. Rambam said, using another term for the Holocaust. “They came to the exact places as the Jewish refugees – sometimes on the same boats, sometimes pretending to be Jews.”
After being tipped off with a list of 64 Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, Mr. Rambam launched a formal investigation into Nazi war criminals living in the west. His list easily grew to 1,100 with help from phone books, where many of these criminals were hiding in plain sight. He focused on 200 deemed to have committed the worst crimes. One, for example, had “specialized in the murder of children,” Mr. Rambam said.
Salvatore Romano was the star of the investigation. He was a fictitious professor writing his doctoral dissertation on the Holocaust at a phony university in Belize, which Mr. Rambam easily set up himself for a mere $2,500. “I couldn’t go knock on their doors and say, ‘I’m Steve Rambam, a Jewish detective,’” Mr. Rambam reasoned.
He embodied Salvatore Romano instead.
Armed with a pen that doubled as a transmitter, Mr. Rambam and his team ultimately interviewed 67 war criminals themselves – and 11 of them spoke in excruciating detail about murdering Jews.
“Nobody is going to believe this, that you can find a war criminal and go into their house,” Mr. Rambam said he thought at the time. “They’re going to tell you who they are, they’re going to tell you their date of birth, they’re going to proudly say they were part of the unit.” He added that thousands of Nazi war criminals had settled in Canada and, collectively, were responsible for the murder of many Jews, including children, during the Holocaust.
Mr. Rambam recalled the particular story of Antanas Kenstavicius, a former Lithuanian police chief who murdered 5,000 Jews. In an interview at Kenstavicius’s home in Hope, British Columbia, he and his wife divulged gory details about their shared experience in the murders. They rounded up Jews, locked them in stables, and starved them until they gave up all of their belongings.
“You wanted food or water, you had to give him a wedding ring, a jewel, something,” Mr. Rambam said. Only after Jews stopped getting water even for their children did Kenstavicius know that they had no more personal belongings left to give. That’s when, Mr. Rambam added, he shot and killed them all.
“He was like every old guy in World War II, happy to talk about his service, happy to talk about the great things he did for his country,” Mr. Rambam said. “They were proud of what they did. They weren’t afraid because Jews never gave them a reason to be afraid.”
At the end of their discussion with Professor Romano, Kenstavicius and his wife served him cake and schnapps. Canadian authorities ultimately charged Kenstavicius in 1996, but he died before ever making it to court.
Around that time, Mr. Rambam went public with his investigation. He held a press conference, set up a 1-800 number, and advised the public to report any known information on Nazi war criminals. Among the hundreds of calls Mr. Rambam and his team received, one in particular stood out. Adalbert Lallier, a former lieutenant in the SS, reported that his direct commander, Julius Viel, had randomly shot seven Jews in the middle of breakfast at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1945.
“I checked Lallier – I needed to make sure this wasn’t a trick, a provocation, to destroy what we were doing,” Mr. Rambam said, explaining that a previous witness to the Viel case from the 1960s was mysteriously killed after being run over by a car. There was no prosecution at that time.
After checking with Israeli authorities, Mr. Rambam confirmed Lallier as a legitimate witness. Ultimately, Lallier testified against Viel in court in Germany. Viel was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
To this day, Mr. Rambam remains disturbed that it’s been so difficult to prosecute Nazi war criminals living in the west. The Canadian government has dubbed the crimes brought to their attention, according to Mr. Rambam, as “political issues.”
“All the war criminals that we found in Canada were scared for 10 minutes after the news broke,” Mr. Rambam said, “and they all died in their beds.”
Mr. Rambam lamented that the Jewish community did not do enough to get Nazi war criminals prosecuted. “If you want a lesson from the Holocaust,” he told me afterwards, “it’s don’t rely on the authorities.”
Just this weekend, Felix Klein, a federal official in Germany responsible for preventing anti-Semitism, suggested that it is not safe for Jews to wear their kippas everywhere in the country.
“We can never expect to not relive history,” said Rabbi Berel Lerman of the Center for Jewish Life. “There is a rise in anti-Semitism in the world today – we stand up against that.”
“We stand up against any form of bigotry,” he added.
Rabbi Lerman said he believes the way to fight anti-Semitism is with an increased focus on spirituality. “We have to make sure our soul is nurtured,” he said. “We are all spiritually connected.”
Hy Mariampolski, a fulltime resident of Springs who attended the lecture – and does some of the public relations for the Center for Jewish Life on a voluntary basis – said it’s time for the Jewish community to “be much more aware and awake.”
“We need to be much more activated,” he said. “We need to challenge and confront expressions of anti-Semitism as they come up.”