Tracking Michael Seifert, The Beast Of Bolzano
NEAL CONAN, Host:
For 50 years, Michael Seifert lived a quiet life in Canada. He worked at a lumber mill in Vancouver until he retired, but he kept another identity secret. During World War II, he worked for the SS as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp in Italy, where he earned a reputation as the Beast of Bolzano. After a case that lasted many years, Canada expelled Seifert. After a trial, an Italian court convicted him, and he began to serve out a life sentence two years ago. He died on Saturday at the age of 86.
Bernie Farber is the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and joins us now from a studio at the CBC's Ottawa bureau. And thanks very much for being with us today.
BERNIE FARBER: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And let's start at the beginning. Who's Michael Seifert?
FARBER: Well, Michael Seifert was an SS corporal, a guard at two prison camps, actually: the first one in Fossoli di Carpi, and the second in Bolzano, located in northern Italy. These were actually transit points for - mostly for Jews, for some Italian resistance fighters and others deemed undesirable, a transit point prior to training them off to usually Auschwitz or Treblinka.
CONAN: So these were places where the Jews of Italy were transported on to the death camps in Germany and Poland?
FARBER: That is correct. And Mr. Seifert served as a guard. He's originally from the Ukraine. And the judges actually - and the military tribunal held after the war in which Mr. Seifert was actually convicted in absentia spoke really of the unspeakable horrors that Mr. Seifert inflicted on some of the prisoners in - especially in the Bolzano camp. That's why he became known as the Butcher of Bolzano.
CONAN: And he was later convicted of crimes including rape and torture and, well, as you say, unspeakable things.
FARBER: Well - yeah. Let's understand exactly what this man did. He - it is alleged he murdered - you know, the numbers are varying, interestingly enough - but between 11 and 17 individuals. But he did so by torturing them and, as the court papers say - and I'll expand a little bit on this - with fire, broken bottles, clubs and freezing water.
So what does that mean? With fire basically means that they would create hot coals and burn their victims all over their body, third and fourth- degree burns that would be horrendously painful. We couldn't even imagine the pain. Broken bottles, well, you don't have to be a genius to figure this one out. Bottles would be broken and tears into the skin, ruptures into the skin, pulling out body parts would be very common in terms of what has been recorded at these camps. Clubs, of course. And freezing water, basically, people would be dumped naked into a vat of ice-cold water, maintained from the neck down.
This was depravity at its highest order. And I think one other thing that we also have to remember, he's also accused and was convicted of raping a pregnant woman who was detained in an isolation cell. He raped her, and then he murdered her. And in one other case, he had left a 15- year-old Jewish boy, a Jewish prisoner, just to die of hunger.
And if I can ask your listeners to picture just for a moment, we all have sons and we all have daughters. Think for a moment who you would feel if you knew that a person was involved in the rape and torture and murder of your daughter, or leaving your 15-year-old son to die naked in a jail cell simply because he may have been a Jew or a resistance fighter, or what have you. These were terrible, terrible crimes.
CONAN: And even against the awful scale of the Holocaust, where, of course, many millions were killed, these crimes must be pursued and must be punished if the person can be identified. But, as you say, this was a tribunal held after the war. He was tried in absentia. How was Michael Seifert discovered many years later in Canada?
FARBER: Well, it's a kind of a long and almost a sad story. Canada, after the war, while it had its doors shut to Jewish refugees seeking comfort and shelter there during the war, opened its doors wide in 1947. But it opened its doors so wide that amongst the Jewish refugees that were seeking shelter in Canada after the war came many, many alleged Nazi war criminals. It is estimated upwards to maybe 5,000 Nazi war criminals came into Canada.
The sad story is that for 30 years, Canada virtually did nothing. Unlike United States, which took action through its Office of Special Investigations, we did nothing until 1984, where a special commission was set up to identify some of these alleged Nazi war criminals. To this day, we have a very, very sad record.
Mr. Seifert is only one of maybe three or four that Canada has taken action against. The rest lived their lives very comfortably. But he was identified living in Vancouver, British Columbia as a train worker. He was, at first, tried under Canada's immigrations laws, which are quite specific. And it was difficult to obtain the kind of information that was needed to strip him of his Canadian citizenship and, therefore, that case got lost. However, shortly thereafter, the Italian courts, the military courts finally asked for an extradition of Mr. Seifert. They, indeed, had all the information.
And for those that don't think Mr. Seifert had fair justice here in Canada, if only the - some of the victims of the Holocaust had a 10th of the justice Mr. Seifert had, they would be alive today. He was tried in the lower court in terms of the extradition - well, first, he had an extradition hearing. That hearing then went to the lower court appeal, and then it went to the middle and high court appeal. It went to the Supreme of Court of B.C., and then it went to the Supreme Court of Canada. That's why it took so long to finally extradite Mr. Seifert in 2008.
CONAN: Some people would say, after all that time - indeed, some people have said, researchers say - after all that time, these allegations amount to no more than gossip and innuendo, allegations, that there's little real proof.
FARBER: Well, I know that his own lawyer has said that. And I suppose we have to trust the justice system. That's all we have to live by. Italy is a democratic nation with democratic laws. They run a justice system not dissimilar to the ones we have in the United States and Canada. And it was through that justice system that he was found to be guilty. Now, we have extradition laws, and those extraditions laws have to be met, and they were met.
FARBER: And that is people say to me, well, why now? That these people are old and they're doddering and so many years have gone by. Isn't it time to really forgive and forget? And my answer to that has always been a simple one. And I speak both as a Jewish leader, but more importantly, I speak as a son of a survivor. My father lost his entire family in Poland: his wife, his three children, his parents, six brothers and sisters. I understand his pain and the pain that survivors go through.
And we ought not to think about Mr. Seifert as he was just before he died, an 86-year-old man who was sick and feeble. We ought to remember him as he was in the 1940s: a thug, a murderer, a brute who undertook some of the most torturous ways of murdering people. That's how he has to be remembered. And justice cannot be served unless we battle, really, to the very end to ensure that these people are brought to justice.
CONAN: Some listeners might make the comparison of Mr. Seifert to that of John Demjanjuk, accused at one time of being a notorious death camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, extradited in a trial. And Israel then found that he was not Ivan the Terrible, came back to the United States, and then extradited again, this time to Germany, where he is now, again, on trial. After all that time - much of the time when he's the courtroom, he's either on a gurney or in a hospital bed.
FARBER: Yes. And I understand that, and those images are hard to watch. But once again, people can't look at that and say, oh, what a poor, old guy. He lived to be a poor, old guy and his victims did not. His victims are dead and buried. They didn't have the right to have children, to have family, have their kids kiss them on Christmas or Hanukkah. They lost all that because of Ivan Demjanjuk, who may not have been Ivan the Terrible, but he certainly was Ivan the very, very bad, in our view. And I think he will be found to be that in a German court.
Secondly, you're quite right. He was found, on certain evidence in the United States, to have been Ivan the Terrible. And he was extradited to Israel. Israel has a similar court system to that of Canada, the United States and Italy. And justice, playing its course, found that he was not the man who - it was claimed he was. And therefore, he was set free. That's the beauty of our justice system.
CONAN: As you look back on the story of Michael Seifert and the long story of all those other alleged war criminals who found haven - not just in Canada, but in this country, too, and in other countries - what is the lesson we need to remember?
FARBER: Well, the lesson we need to remember is that justice denied is no justice at all. Now, I - my father used to say to me: How come there'll be justice for the murder of six million people? There could never be real justice. There only can be pieces of justice. And the first time a Nazi war criminal was unmasked here in Canada - this was the year before my father passed away at the age of 94, bright and brilliant to his very last minute. He said to me, ah-ha. I want you to know, when I talked to you about a piece of justice, this is a piece of a justice. He may never serve a day in jail, but his family will know who he is. His neighbors will know who he is. He has been exposed.
So in the long run, Neal, all we get are pieces of justices. However, the lesson of history is that unless we go after these people, unless we never quit until the last Nazi is gone, we teach them the lessons. We say to people that you can commit these horrendous crimes during times of war as your cover, and you can seek solace and quiet in another countries because nobody will come after you. They must understand, whether it's going to be Rwanda or Somalia or any other place, that if you commit these crimes and you come to the United States or you come to Canada, you will be going - gone after. And in the States, I give a lot of credit to my colleague, Eli Rosenbaum, who's the head of the OSI there. He has never flinched. And he is a hero in my eyes for doing exactly the work that Canadian authorities, I wish, would do better.
CONAN: We're talking with Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, about the case of Michael Seifert, aka the Beast of Bolzano, who died after being sentenced to life in military prison in Italy this past weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Until the last Nazi is gone, Bernie Farber. There cannot be many left.
FARBER: Well, there probably aren't. I mean, I think the average age of a Nazi war criminal today would have to be in their late 80's. But, you know, it's an ironic and strange world, Neal. These people have lived way past the time that they should have. Some of them, you know, well into their 80's and 90's, and some in very good health. And we know who they are here. And so in the long run, you know, I need people to reflect on this.
They came here in 1945, after having murdered God knows how many thousands of innocent individuals. And in the end, they maybe changed their lives and gotten remarried and had children and grandchildren, and they were able to live a life that their victims, whose bodies are rotting in mass graves, would never have been able to live. That's the sad story about all of this.
CONAN: There is also, currently, an exhibition in Berlin, at the state museum there of the - about the Hitler cult. And one of the things that these stories also serve to do is to remind people of what happened all those years ago.
FARBER: Well, and that's why when a case like Michael Seifert happens, it's important that we do these kinds of interviews. You know, history has a strange of way of getting away from us. While the war is over now, some 65 years - and in reality, 65 years is only a drop in the bucket. We must remember that there are people in living memory who have lost everything and who came and started their lives again, et cetera.
But in living memory, there was an attempt to wipe out an entire people. And I know we have this saying in our Jewish tradition - after the war, we tried to impose the concept of never again, never again must this happen. And I wish to God I can be sitting here and saying to you, and you know what, Neal? It has been never again. But it's just not true. We've had the Killing Fields of Cambodia. We have had the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. We have had Somalia. We have had Rwanda. We, today, have Darfur. We have this tendency to turn away from this pain. We must confront it, and we must deal with it every time it happens.
CONAN: Bernie Farber, thanks very much for your time today.
FARBER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Bernie Farber, CEO at the Canadian Jewish Congress, joined us from the CBC's bureau in Ottawa.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.