Eli Rosenbaum takes skills honed Nazi-hunting to investigating war crimes in Ukraine

World News

WASHINGTON (JTA) –– During the 35 years Eli Rosenbaum spent hunting Nazis, he always looked up to his forebears in the profession. But it was only recently, as he ventured into Ukraine to track down Russian war criminals, that he felt a personal connection with the investigators who pursued Adolf Hitler’s henchmen in the years following World War II.

For the first time in his career, Rosenbaum was seeking evidence of crimes as soon as, or almost as soon as, they were committed.

“I’m accustomed to working on atrocity crimes when the conflict is over — World War II, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, et cetera,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently. “But in this case, the atrocities are being committed every day.”

Rosenbaum said he has been working “if not 24/7, 20/7” since June, when Merrick Garland, the Jewish U.S. attorney-general, named him to lead the Justice Department’s War Crimes Accountability Team in Ukraine. Rosenbaum had previously spent the bulk of his career in the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which he directed from 1995 to 2010. The OSI tracked down and deported 70 Nazis hiding in the United States. In 2004, it expanded its purview to track down war criminals from other conflicts who had entered the United States.

Rosenbaum’s current team, he said in congressional testimony in September, “provides Ukrainian authorities with wide-ranging technical assistance, including operational assistance and advice regarding criminal prosecutions, evidence collection, forensics, and relevant legal analysis.”

Rosenbaum rattles off names and events in the evolution of war crimes prosecution in a way that sends a listener scrambling to a search engine. He’s been a war crimes geek since college, when he took a film course and a professor screened Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will.”

Rosenbaum told his parents about the movie. His father, Irving, a refugee from Nazi Germany who enlisted in the U.S. Army, had been tapped to interrogate Nazis and their enablers after the war because he spoke German.

“I mentioned to my dad that I was taking this course and we had just seen this film. And my father said, ‘Oh, Leni Riefenstahl. I questioned her after the war.’ I [said], ‘Oh, my God. Really?’”

Rosenbaum recalls his father responding, “Yeah, and I have the report on it. Might your professor want to see it?”

As a student at Harvard Law School, Rosenbaum interned in 1979 for the then-just-established OSI, where he spent the next three decades. Garland, in naming Rosenbaum, said that made him a natural fit for the Ukraine job, noting at the time Rosenbaum’s experience in coordinating among different U.S. government departments.

Describing his work to JTA, Rosenbaum repeatedly circled back to the pioneers of war crimes prosecution, among them, Aron Trainin, the Soviet Jewish scholar, and Robert Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who established the framework for prosecuting Nazis for the “crime of aggression” at the Nuremberg trials, a concept unknown until then.

The relevance of their theories persists, he said, because Russia is not a signatory to the agreement that established the International Criminal Court, making it difficult to prosecute Russians in that body. Instead, Ukraine wants to set up a special tribunal to try Russians, modeling it on the proceedings at Nuremberg.

“We look to Nuremberg routinely, it is the mother of all trials for international crimes,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s in many ways the origin of international criminal law.”

Rosenbaum feels the “crime of aggression” is particularly relevant in the Ukraine case because Russia’s invasion was unprovoked. He described how the “crime of aggression” became, with President Harry Truman’s blessing, part of the canon in international law enshrined in the principles framing the Nuremberg trial, and then in the United Nations charter.

Rosenbaum is awed by Jackson and his intellectual journey.

“There’s an amazing letter that he wrote to Harry Truman, which I just reread the other day, in the course of my Ukraine work, in which he explains to the president why …  there’s no precedent for prosecuting aggression.  In the old days, this was how nations behaved. They attacked one another and, under international law, they were considered to have equal standing,” Rosenbaum said. “So [Jackson] said that had to end, and he persuaded President Truman, and now we have that crime in international law.”

Rosenbaum says Ukraine proves Jackson’s prescience. He quoted Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg trials: “What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust.”

Rosenbaum, like Jackson before him, is appealing to the U.S. government to expand its capacity to prosecute war crimes. In his congressional testimony, Rosenbaum described one area of frustration: Unlike crimes of genocide, war crimes must have a U.S. party (as perpetrator or victim) to be prosecutable in a U.S. court.

Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy and counselor for War Crimes Accountability at the US Department of Justice, testifies about the war in Ukraine during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “From Nuremberg to Ukraine: Accountability for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,” Sept. 28, 2022. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

“This means that if a war criminal from the current conflict in Ukraine were, for example, to come to the United States today and were subsequently identified, our war crimes statute would not apply, thus potentially allowing that war criminal and others to walk the streets of our country without fear of prosecution,” Rosenbaum said in his congressional testimony.

Another parallel with World War II that has surprised Rosenbaum is that he is getting reports from survivors of Russian atrocities who are gathering evidence in real time. He mentioned two men he admires: Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, Slovak Jews who fled Auschwitz and were the first to describe, in a detailed report, the mechanics of the Nazi genocide to the outside world.

“I got to meet Rudolf Vrba, who was a witness for [the OSI] in our very first case that was going to trial — eventually it didn’t go to trial, the defendant gave up — but it was an Auschwitz case in Chicago, and Rudolf came out there,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s just amazing that we have his analogs in people who are gathering evidence, people are escaping from Russian captivity.”

Another pair of Nuremberg trials-era researchers that Rosenbaum names as relevant again are Budd and Stuart Schulberg, Jewish brothers who worked for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA under legendary Hollywood director John Ford. The brothers tracked down films of atrocities that the Nazis themselves had produced, which the Schulbergs then compiled for presentation at the trials. (Budd Schulberg went on to be a celebrated novelist and screenwriter.)

Rosenbaum is a contributing expert to a just-released hour-long documentary on the brothers, titled “Filmmakers for the Prosecution.”

“The Schulberg brothers really pioneered something that’s extremely important in the history of law enforcement and accountability in courts, [which] is something we take for granted here in the 21st century, and that is the presentation of full-motion film [and] video evidence in courts of law,” he said.

Such evidence-gathering is happening today in Ukraine as well, Rosenbaum said.

“The Ukrainian authorities with which we work very closely have a website onto which the public or to which the public can upload their own videos,” he said. “And now that everybody who has a cell phone, has a video camera…so much evidence of the aftermath of atrocities and even the perpetration of atrocities has been captured via moving images.,”

He says he has been rattled at times by researching war crimes as they happen, especially during his visits to Ukraine.

“It was an unforgettably moving experience to meet our colleagues in the middle of a war in Ukraine,” he said. “One of the senior prosecutors was actually in his military fatigues, because he had taken off briefly from his unit for this meeting, and then he went right back.”