Lies That Mat­ter: A Fed­er­al Pros­e­cu­tor and Child of Holo­caust Sur­vivors, Tasked with Strip­ping US Cit­i­zen­ship from Aged Nazi Col­lab­o­ra­tors, Finds Him­self Caught in the Middle

Allan Ger­son

  • Review
By – August 16, 2021

Allan Ger­son, an inter­na­tion­al law expert, spent two years work­ing in the U.S. Jus­tice Department’s Office of Spe­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions (OIS), which was cre­at­ed in response to polit­i­cal demands in the late 1970s to fer­ret out those who assist­ed” the Nazis in per­pe­trat­ing the Holo­caust. Most of these tar­gets were elder­ly post-war immi­grants from Nazi-occu­pied East­ern Europe, who had lived qui­et and unas­sum­ing lives in the U.S. for near­ly 30 years. The son of Holo­caust sur­vivors him­self, Ger­son approached the job with the desire to secure jus­tice for the vic­tims of Nazi actions. But the basis on which the tar­gets of the OIS’s efforts were brought to account left Ger­son with many moral qualms, and his own family’s his­to­ry impli­cat­ed him and them in the issues in unex­pect­ed ways.

Gerson’s book, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, blends his account of his time in the OIS with the nar­ra­tive of his par­ents’ Holo­caust expe­ri­ence and their even­tu­al immi­gra­tion to the U.S. (Ger­son was born in a dis­placed per­sons camp in 1945; he died of a brain tumor in 2019.) Alter­nat­ing chap­ters jux­ta­pose Gerson’s grow­ing involve­ment with OIS, and his even­tu­al dis­il­lu­sion­ment with its work, against the sto­ry of his par­ents’ escape from occu­pied Poland just as the Nazis took over. The jux­ta­po­si­tions bring a cer­tain degree of sus­pense to both accounts, even­tu­al­ly cli­max­ing in a major rev­e­la­tion about the means by which the par­ents secured a visa to enter the U.S. in 1950.

This rev­e­la­tion cast a shad­ow over Gerson’s (and OIS’s) remit to use U.S. immi­gra­tion law to pros­e­cute those who served as con­cen­tra­tion camp guards, local aux­il­iary police, or oth­er­wise assist­ed” in the per­se­cu­tion of Jews, who then lied about or hid their involve­ment in order to secure post-war visas for entry into the U.S.

Ger­son con­front­ed moral conun­drums almost as soon as he began his job. While con­vic­tion under U.S. law involved only depor­ta­tion, the con­se­quence of that depor­ta­tion was almost cer­tain death at the hands of the Sovi­et Union. In fact, the infor­ma­tion that led to these peo­ple in the first place usu­al­ly came from the files of the Sovi­et Union. Ger­son would have pre­ferred pur­su­ing cas­es that might expose the degree of vol­un­teer­ing in the actions of those who wound up (often under threat of their own lives) as assis­tants to the Holo­caust. Were they will­ing exe­cu­tion­ers,” as Daniel Gold­ha­gen argued, or invol­un­tary cogs in the Nazi machine? The OSI remit, how­ev­er, focused pri­mar­i­ly on estab­lish­ing that the tar­gets of their inves­ti­ga­tions and pros­e­cu­tions lied on their visa applications.

The issue of the fate of the assis­tants” to the Holo­caust may have become moot by the pas­sage of time; few of these peo­ple remain alive by now. But this book is a pas­sion­ate attempt to under­stand these issues and to lay them out in a coher­ent man­ner since they may con­nect to oth­er issues in immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy that the coun­try con­tin­ues to face. Regret­tably, Ger­son did not live to pur­sue these issues fur­ther. But his book remains to pro­voke thoughts about how jus­tice is secured and how the law oper­ates some­times in ways that don’t ful­ly achieve justice.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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