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.