Steve Rambam: Tracking Nazi-era war criminals

Steve Rambam

Steve Rambam, a blunt-spoken New York private eye, created a media sensation in late 1996. Armed with the names of some 160 suspected Nazi war criminals and collaborators living in Canada, Rambam posed as a professor from a fictitious Central American university to gather evidence recorded with a hidden device. 

Claiming to have found many suspects with little more than a phone book, Rambam interviewed 62 of them and said he obtained confessions from 58 accused, including seven who admitted to having killed Jews. Most of these men were not German nationals, but Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians who, as local police officers or soldiers in those countries, helped the Third Reich round up and kill thousands of Jews. 

Rambam exposed more suspected Nazi-era war criminals in Canada than Ottawa had in the 50 preceding years. “It has really been very embarrassing for the government,” remarked historian and former Canadian Jewish Congress president Irving Abella at the time. Rambam’s exploits landed him a much-seen segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes, among other media attention.

Still a private investigator in New York, Rambam will speak in Toronto on June 24 at 8 p.m. at 15 Hove St. for United Chesed of Toronto (, a non-profit agency that helps Toronto Jews living in poverty. The CJN interviewed him via telephone.

What happened to the confessions you obtained from suspected Nazi war criminals?

The RCMP were not happy with what I did and not happy with the confessions. They did everything they could do to minimize them and minimize the work that I did, and the small parts of the Jewish community that were working with me did.

The very first interview I did was in Hope, B.C,, with Antanas Kenstavicius [a police chief in his native Lithuania alleged to have participated in the murder of 5,500 Jews]. He detailed, in excruciating detail, the crimes that he and his unit had committed, even down to the moment and time of day when there were no more Jews – when all the Jews had been killed. It was a tough, ugly interview and he definitely gave a courtroom-ready confession. The RCMP minimized it. They took the confession and said, “Well, it’s useless.” And then, the Canadian ministry of justice introduced it as evidence at his trial. The right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. [Kenstavicius died in 1997 awaiting a hearing. It was Rambam's only case to be investigated by Canadian authorities.]

So your evidence was taken seriously.

Well, it was taken very seriously by the people who really mattered. which is your legislators, your MPs and senators. They heard the tapes and were outraged, and they began to pressure the war crimes unit. And in that sense, it was an absolute success. It terms of Antanas Ceponis [alleged to have played an active role in the murder of Jews in Lithuania] being prosecuted, he confessed to chasing Jews with guns, pointing guns at Jews and occasionally having shot at someone. He never actually said, “I raised my weapon and shot a Jew,” but he certainly was oppressing and terrorizing the civilian population, and he admitted his membership in a Nazi-like unit. They never went after him.

What happened to his file?

I gave it to the RCMP, along with a copy of the recording. They visited him at home, took away his rifle and they never bothered him again.

There were almost 70 [suspected Nazi war criminals] whom I interviewed, and with the exception of one person, every single one of those admitted they were members of killing units. Every single one. Not every single one admitted to actual war crimes. Only seven did, and those are the seven I turned over to the RCMP. The Canadian government knew very well who these men were.

What do you think was behind the RCMP’s inaction?

I think the RCMP did not see this as a matter of the remotest interest for Canadian law enforcement. Despite the fact that these were, in every sense of the label, mass murderers, people who committed murders of innocent people, men women and children, Canadian law enforcement did not see this as a criminal matter. They saw this as a political matter. If they had treated them as criminals, they could have easily gathered sufficient evidence for prosecution or, the very least, deportation. 

If I had been the commander of the RCMP’s War Crimes Unit, I would have rounded up every man I knew [who had been] in the Arajs Kommando and I would have said: “We’ve got three slots for witnesses, everybody else gets prosecuted. If we believe you’ll be useful, maybe you’ll be one of the three.” I guarantee you these people would have been tripping over themselves to avoid being deported back to Latvia or prosecuted.

In fact, when I set up an informant line at the Canadian Jewish Congress during that brief, one-month period when the CJC was actually willing to assist with investigations, within the first week, we got testimony on three cases.

How would you describe the pace of prosecutions of alleged Nazi war criminals in Canada, versus elsewhere? Is the record in the United States any better?

It’s horrible everywhere. The United States successfully pursued approximately 100 [Nazi] war criminals out of thousands who came to America. Something is better than nothing, and the U.S. did better than everyone else, but the U.S. also has a fairly pitiful record. Pitiful is an understatement. The U.S. knew who every one of these war criminals was and what they did and what units they were in. There was no issue regarding identification or records keeping. It’s shameful that the U.S. also did not proceed against these war criminals.

What is left to do on the Nazi file?

If you are a murderer of Jews who came to Canada, America, the U.K., Australia or anywhere in the West the bulk of these war criminals came to, you cheated the hangman. Perhaps one per cent of the war criminals who went to the West were brought to justice. The rest felt perfectly comfortable, not just coming to the West, but settling next door to their victims, in many cases, settling in Jewish communities, and laughing at the Jews. And they were right to laugh at the Jews because the Jews did nothing.

Twenty years before I did what I did, the Canadian Jewish Congress or B’nai Brith or any other group of Canadians who cared about the presence of these mass murderers in your country could have put together an investigative unit, could have identified these people, gathered evidence when it was still the right time to prosecute them. Now, the last remaining war criminals are extremely old. They will almost certainly never make it to trial, even if they’re charged tomorrow. And you might have the disgusting result of engendering sympathy for these people. This is, more than anything, a mark of shame for the Jewish community.

Some say the emphasis should now shift to tracking down Islamic extremists.

They’re absolutely right. And if any Jewish organization anywhere in Canada comes forward and says, “Steve, if you donate your time, we will put forth the infrastructure and funding to set up an investigative unit that will actually take steps to identify and investigate people in Canada who today want to murder Jews,” I would immediately and gleefully volunteer my time. But there is no such Jewish group. The Jewish Defense League is a scam. Its very name is a scam. The CJC has disbanded. [It was replaced by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs]. I mean, who will do it? 

I don’t think that it’s appropriate for me to come up there as a troublemaking American again. I did it in the ’90s because I was compelled to. I was aware of the presence of murderers of Jews and I had the ability to find them, document and expose them. I had an absolute obligation to do what I did. I had no choice.

For us even to be discussing this is a disgrace. Why is the Canadian Jewish community not doing this? They have the funding and infrastructure. Are you saying to me that Canadian Jewish groups don’t know where to find indigenous, competent investigators? Why is this not being done? No Jewish person in Canada has an answer. The question you should be asking is, “what the heck are the Jewish organizations doing? What is their reason for even existing?”

What do you make of the recent massive global survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which found that only 54 percent of those polled ever heard of the Holocaust, and 32 percent believe it has been greatly exaggerated or a myth?

I think the first statistic is inaccurate. I think the second is definitely under-reported. Right now, you see the results of that second statistic in Europe. There is no capital city in Europe where someone who is obviously Jewish can walk safely from one side to the other. And once again, this is a matter that is not being addressed by the so-called self-defence or anti-defamation organizations or anti-Nazi organizations. Nobody is exposing them. Nobody.