Obituaries Obituaries

Neal Sher transformed the U.S. Nazi-hunting system

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Neal Sher, who as the U.S.’s chief Nazi hunter established the formula that led to the deportation of dozens of Nazis, died Sunday, Oct. 3 in Manhattan. He was 74. 

Sher led the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations for 11 years, where he unveiled the discovery of monsters disguised as working men living contented lives in American suburbia. During his years at the OSI, first as a litigator when he joined in 1979, and then as its director from 1983-1994, he transformed the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting system from one that had relied on tips to one which systematically checked Nazi-era German records against U.S. immigration records. Under his system, the office has removed 69 former Nazis, in most cases revoking their citizenship for lying about their Nazi past when immigrating to the United States. In one explosive episode, Sher, citing evidence that former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had not disclosed his past as a Nazi officer, got the U.S. government to ban his entry to the United States. Sher’s doggedness also led to the discovery of major figures, such as Archbishop Valerian Trifa, who had instigated a pogrom against Bucharest’s Jews; and Arthur Rudolph, the NASA scientist deported to Germany after Sher showed that he had directed a German wartime factory where he worked Jews to death.

There were occasional flubs: The OSI’s efforts led to the extradition in 1986 of Nazi camp guard John Demjanjuk to Israel; the OSI identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, the mass murderer at Sobibor, and it was for those crimes Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in an Israeli court. An Israeli appeals court in 1993 established that Demjanjuk was not Ivan, and returned him to the U.S. The OSI continued to pursue the case, noting the overwhelming evidence that Demjanjuk was a lower level camp guard implicated in the murder of thousands, and he was deported to Germany in 2009, where he was tried and convicted. He died in 2012. Sher’s relentlessness infuriated the leaders of Ukrainian, Polish and Romanian communities in the United States who said that the old men should be left alone decades after the crime. Sher rejected those objections. 

“There’s no statute of limitations for mass murder,” Sher said on CBS.

Sher became AIPAC’s executive director in 1994 but lasted in the job for only two years. Both sides said it was not a good fit. “We mourn the passing of Neal Sher, who led a life dedicated to the pursuit of justice and the defense of the Jewish people,” AIPAC said Thursday in a statement.

In 1998, Sher became the first chief of staff for the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, the body established to extract claims that insurance companies had resisted disbursing to the survivors of clients murdered in the Holocaust. He was forced to resign in 2002 after filing more than $100,000 in false expenses. He repaid the fees, was disbarred in Washington D.C. and was suspended by the New York Bar. His New York Bar status restored, he offered legal representation for the families of victims of a 2009 terrorist shooting at Forth Hood in Texas. The army characterized the killings, carried out by a psychiatrist who became an Islamist, as “workplace killings.” Sher’s relentless advocacy led Congress to pass legislation in 2015 that allowed the Purple Heart to be awarded to those killed and wounded in the attack.

Main Photo: Neal Sher, left, addresses the London Conference on Nazi Gold with Elan Steinberg, center, and Stephen Ward, right. (Mathieu Polak/Sygma/ Sygma via Getty Images)

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