Hunting for Nazis in Canada

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In the fading twilight of a chilly Canadian evening, New York private eye Steve Rambam drops into the passenger seat of his rental car, runs a quick inventory of his eavesdropping equipment, looks over the map of southern Ontario and pronounces himself ready for the night’s Nazi-hunting expedition.

Rambam directs the sedan up an unlighted driveway toward the home of a man he has identified as an officer of a World War II collaborationist unit responsible for rounding up Jews, gypsies and Communists in Latvia.

Adolf Hitler’s government so appreciated the man’s work on behalf of the Third Reich that it awarded him the Iron Cross, one of Germany’s highest decorations. But after the war he, like hundreds and perhaps thousands of other concentration camp guards, collaborators and SS members, easily gained admission to Canada, where he has lived openly ever since.


“Canada is where the Nazis are,” Rambam says. “Canada is the unknown haven for Nazis. Everybody knows about Argentina, but nobody knows about Canada.”

On this night, Rambam, 39, is outfitted with a wireless transmitter disguised as a fountain pen and carries a phony passport and other documents identifying him as a professor at a fictitious Central American university. He intends to interview the man with a ruse--a method he has used on 61 other alleged war criminals he says he has tracked down in Canada over the past two years.

Spinning an elaborate cover story involving academic research, Rambam has wheedled what he terms incriminating admissions out of seven of them, and given secretly made tape recordings of five of those interviews to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Whether any of the recorded statements can be presented as evidence in deportation and court hearings is of some question in Canadian legal circles. But Rambam, a onetime Jewish militant who makes occasional practice jumps with Israeli paratroopers, is engaged in more than a search for justice, however much delayed.

He is trying to publicly embarrass Canada, a country that Toronto historian Irving Abella calls one of the world’s “most generous and hospitable” sanctuaries for war criminals.

Canadian Justice Department officials scoff at some of Rambam’s allegations but admit to a spotty record of war crimes investigations. Moreover, they have agreed to review his potential evidence. John Sims, an assistant deputy attorney general who has listened to some of Rambam’s tapes, says they “may be useful on an investigative level.”


In the only recording Rambam has made public, a man that the detective identifies as Antanas Kenstavicius, 90, of Hope, British Columbia, starkly describes the roundup of thousands of Lithuanian Jews who were herded into a forest, lined up in front of freshly dug trenches, stripped naked and shot to death, although he does not acknowledge pulling the trigger himself.

“Ten guys stay on the ditch, and then coming the commander: ‘Bang,’ and they fall down. Some time, they repeat, ‘pow, pow,’ and they fall in the ditch, all the day,” says the heavily accented voice on the tape. “. . . And then, 9 Oct., 1941, no more Jews.”

The Canadian government was first informed in 1949 of incriminating testimony against Kenstavicius, who was deputy chief and then chief of a collaborationist police unit from 1941 to 1944. But authorities failed to seek his deportation until last year.

Kenstavicius’ wife has denied that he is guilty of anything, and Kenstavicius has not responded publicly to Rambam’s allegations.

The Canadian Jewish Congress and others who have tried for decades to draw attention to this issue point to the long delay as typical of Ottawa’s reluctance to confront alleged war criminals, mainly Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian collaborators who entered the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s after escaping communism.

Since the end of World War II, Canada has deported just one man for war crimes. In 1992, Dutch collaborator Jacob Luitjens was returned to the Netherlands, where he had been convicted in absentia 44 years earlier. That nation had been seeking his extradition since 1983, when a journalist discovered him living in Vancouver. Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal long has refused to set foot in Canada as his way of protesting government inaction.


Nine men suspected of working with the Nazis, including Kenstavicius, have been issued deportation or denaturalization orders in the past few months in what the Canadian Justice Department describes as a renewed effort to expel war criminals. Three others are under investigation. All 12 suspects are elderly, however, and their lawyers may be able to forestall deportation long enough for them to live out their days in Canada.

One Last Chance

Activists here say the arrival of the brash Rambam, and the publicity he has generated in Canada, have given the government one last chance to act aggressively.

“As Rambam and others have made clear, there are a lot more than a dozen war criminals here,” said Abella, a history professor at York University in Toronto. “After the war, it was easier to come to Canada if you had been a Nazi than it was if you were a Jewish refugee. . . . That’s mainly because we were looking for anti-Communists, and the best way to prove you were an anti-Communist was to show you’d been a Nazi.”

He contrasts Canada’s effort with the American record. The Office of Special Investigations of the U.S. Justice Department has denaturalized 57 alleged war criminals since it was established in 1979; 48 have been deported or have left the United States. Three hundred other cases are being investigated.

Rambam estimates that as many as 5,000 alleged war criminals live in Canada, but others suggest that figure is greatly exaggerated. Abella, who chairs the Canadian Jewish Congress committee on war crimes, places the number “in the hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand.”

In 1986, a special Canadian commission that studied the issue recommended immediate government action against 20 suspected war criminals and further investigation of 227 others, none of whom were identified publicly. A few years later, the government reported that hundreds of war crimes investigations were underway, yet there is little to show for this activity.


The Justice Department’s official explanation for why so many war criminals have escaped justice for so long centers on Canada’s national reverence for fair play and due process.

Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Canada was reluctant to rely on evidence gathered from behind the Iron Curtain or to deport suspected war criminals back to places such as Latvia or Lithuania to face Communist courts. Then, a 1994 Canadian Supreme Court decision set such a high standard of proof in war crimes cases that it became virtually impossible to convict suspects in Canada for past atrocities. Among other findings, the court ruled that defendants could plead that they were just following orders.

But there is also an unofficial explanation for Canadian inaction: Going after war criminals was not good politics.

“We’re not talking about German nationals here. You’re talking about nationalities that have political constituencies in Canada,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. Over the years, Hier said, the center has turned over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police “hundreds and hundreds of names” of suspected war criminals living in Canada, to little avail.

Government officials acknowledge privately that political concerns about offending East European and Baltic ethnic groups may have played a role in the prosecution of war crimes at one time, but they deny that still is the case. And they contend that the Canadian record is no worse than that of Britain or Australia.

Bernard Farber, national director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, credits Justice Minister Allan Rock, who took office in November 1993, with greater willingness to pursue war criminals than any of his predecessors.


In moving against nine men last year, the government abandoned efforts to prosecute them in Canadian courts and instead adopted the more expeditious American approach of seeking to strip them of citizenship and deport them.

“The government is embarrassed by this, especially by the international attention. Their inactivity has come back to haunt them,” Farber said.

An Obsessive Quest

The way Rambam tells it, his investigation began in 1994 with an offhand effort to see how many alleged war criminals in Canada he could locate using just the telephone in his New York office. But it quickly developed into an obsessive quest.

He manufactured a false identity: “Salvatore Romano,” a professor at “St. Paul’s University of the Americas” in Belize. Rambam printed business cards carrying a working telephone number complete with voice mail. He even had T-shirts and sweatshirts silk-screened with the fictitious school’s coat of arms and a motto in Latin (“Seek knowledge, find justice”).

“It was as close as we could find to ‘Investigate and nail ‘em,’ ” he explained.

At first, he operated in his spare time at his own expense, but eventually he received support from the Jeff Weltman Memorial Fund, a small, Florida-based organization that provides financing for Jewish causes.

He dropped his undercover efforts last month and went public with his findings with a series of media appearances in Canada and the publication of a report in the Jerusalem Post Sunday magazine by two Israeli journalists who accompanied him on some of his investigations. He says, however, that he and the Canadian Jewish Congress are continuing to gather evidence about war criminals living in Canada.


Rambam has more than 15 years’ experience as a private investigator specializing in missing persons and fraud, including a recent undercover operation in tandem with the Secret Service in Southern California. But, in searching for war crimes suspects identified by Holocaust scholars in Israel, survivor groups and the Wiesenthal Center, Rambam often needed no more investigative prowess than it takes to open the telephone book.

His academic cover was research on the cooperation of police and military units during wartime, a subject he selected because some of his targets had been soldiers and some police officers. His journey took him to cities, suburbs and small towns across Canada.

Coaxing His Way In

Once he made it to the front door, it became a question of whether he could coax his way inside for a face-to-face conversation while a Canadian associate, Joey Schachter of Toronto, remained in the car and recorded the exchange from the microphone concealed in Rambam’s pocket pen.

Only a few refused to speak to him. One was the Iron Cross recipient living outside Toronto, whose wife appeared on that chilly evening, on a second-floor balcony hung with a Latvian flag, to relay his regrets.

Most of those interviewed, however, acknowledged their wartime affiliations and even warmed to their recollections, Rambam said. Sometimes he was invited back for a second interview.

Almost always, they described themselves as witnesses to wartime atrocities rather than participants. Only two people have acknowledged shooting civilians, Rambam said. One is a Ukrainian who said that as a wartime police officer he shot Jews who resisted being rounded up. The other is an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who lives alone in a filthy Toronto apartment with a photograph of Hitler taped to the refrigerator.


Other statements that Rambam classifies as confessions, including the graphic descriptions by Kenstavicius, are admissions that the men were members of units that committed war crimes. These distinctions, as well as Rambam’s undercover methods and his past association with the militant Jewish Defense League, make prosecutors cautious about the admissibility of his tape recordings in court.

For Rambam, such caution is further evidence of Canada’s wrongheaded priorities.

“The government sees these as political problems to be solved, not as murder cases,” he complained during a break in speaking engagements to Jewish groups and others last month in Montreal.

A Teenage Activist

Rambam discusses his own controversial background with reluctance. As a teenager, he was an activist on behalf of Soviet Jews and was arrested on an explosives charge that later was expunged from his record. He said he long ago broke with the Jewish Defense League and points to his periodic work with police agencies in the United States and Israel as evidence that his militant past is long behind him.

In the early 1980s, he did occasional security work for Benjamin Netanyahu when the rightist Israeli prime minister was his country’s ambassador to the United Nations.

His background has given even supporters pause. Rambam has an on-again, off-again working relationship with the Wiesenthal Center, and Farber said the Canadian Jewish Congress took a long look at his past before endorsing his findings. In the end, Rambam’s story--and the attention it could command--was too powerful to ignore, Farber said.

Moreover, the advancing age of Canada’s war crimes suspects underlines the need to focus on the issue now, Abella noted.


“This is the last chance,” he said. “If the government doesn’t act, it’s too late because the biological clock will have run out.”

Times staff writer Paul Lieberman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.