On Yom HaShoah, remember America's flaws—and its triumphs
The population of Pottsville, Pennsylvania was no more than 22,000 in 1949. The town jeweler, Julius Styler, had come to America at the turn of the century—and for that he was lucky. Styler was a Litvak, a Lithuanian Jew, and it was well known that the plight of Litvaks during World War II was especially devastating. 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. In Vilnius, the city once known to Jews as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and the city the Stylers once called home, 55,000 of its 60,000 Jews were slaughtered. This near-total destruction of Litvaks was due in part to the role of local collaborators, many of whom worked enthusiastically alongside the Nazis in their campaign of mass violence.
But the war had ended, and the world was moving on. Styler’s questions about the fate of his family went unanswered.
Jonas Stelmokas, a thirty-three-year-old teacher and Lithuanian émigré, had just moved to Pottsville in 1949, and would go on to achieve the American Dream. He earned a degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately settled in Philadelphia where he enjoyed a long career. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955 and, over the years, became a fixture of Pennsylvania’s Lithuanian community.
Despite their different dispositions in the postwar years, Stelmokas and Styler for a brief moment were Pottsville neighbors. Both Lithuanian men shared the privileges that came with having an American passport. They both lived quiet lives in their adopted country. Neither ever bothered anyone, nor were they bothered by anyone—until one of them was, by the Office of Special Investigations, the United States’ “Nazi hunting unit.”
Tasked with the mandate to find Nazi war persecutors living in the United States, the Office discovered that Stelmokas “illegally procured” his U.S. citizenship, and that the story he told U.S. immigration authorities half a century before was a lie. OSI investigators found that the seemingly ordinary Pennsylvania man was not a teacher during the war, but actually a war criminal. They discovered that Stelmokas had collaborated with the Germans by serving as a platoon commander in the Nazi-backed 3rd Lithuanian Schutzmannschaft Battalion. After poring over troves of archives and bureaucratic documentation, OSI historians found that the retired architect once guarded the Kaunas Ghetto, where Jews “were subject to extreme deprivation, brutality, and arbitrary shootings.” They found proof that Stelmokas “assisted, participated, and acquiesced” in the Grosse Aktion—the single largest act of mass murder carried out in all of Lithuania during WWII, in which 9,200 Jews, among them 4,273 children, were methodically shot to death in a twenty-four-hour period. For however unremarkable Jonas Stelmokas seemed in the time he lived beside his Jewish Pottsville neighbor Julius Styler, the OSI revealed him to be culpable for remarkable crimes that contributed to the all but total demise of Lithuania’s Jews.
Armed with these facts and the power of its prosecutorial mandate, the OSI lawyers brought the seventy-eight-year-old Stelmokas to court in 1995. Years later, Stemolkas was denaturalized, stripped of his American citizenship, and ordered to be deported back to Lithuania, where half a century earlier he had helped rid the country of its Jews, among them the friends and relatives of his once Pottsville neighbor Julius Styler.
Stelmokas’ denaturalization was only one in a long list of OSI accomplishments. Established in 1979 to identify and bring legal action against perpetrators of Nazi-sponsored crimes, the Office of Special Investigations exacted justice against thousands of war persecutors like Stelmokas, who made their way to America after the war and obtained U.S. citizenship, and who believed that consigning their crimes to a past life in the Old World would provide them with impunity.
The OSI is widely regarded as the most successful law enforcement unit of its kind in the world. In its decades-long campaign of civil litigation, the OSI prevailed against 109 Nazi war criminals and collaborators—more than the total Nazi-related prosecution victories for all other countries in the world combined. Many of the cases resulted in the denaturalization and/or extradition of former persecutors, so it’s not surprising that the OSI has cemented its legacy as the world’s “most aggressive and effective Nazi-hunting operation.”
These are merely highlights of the whole OSI story, but to understand the OSI in its entirety is to understand what it provides beyond prosecution, and beyond the quantitative measure of its 109 successful cases against Nazi persecutors like Stelmokas. To understand the OSI in its entirety is to realize how its tireless pursuit to expose and tell the truth has powerfully impacted Holocaust memory and victims’ healing. For its intrinsic methodology of truth-seeking and inadvertent outcome of truth-telling, the OSI both embodies and enables a panoply of corrective mechanisms that have not only exacted justice against perpetrators like Stelmokas, but have also realized some modicum of justice for victims like the Stylers and their families.
Julius Styler, my great-grandfather, died in 1972—years before the OSI came into being, and decades before it prevailed against his Pottsville neighbor.
After learning about OSI’s pursuit of Stelmokas, I was immediately taken by the strange coincidence that these two men of similar age, initials, and country of origin lived momentarily in the same inconspicuous Pennsylvania coal town. I never met my great-grandfather, so I’m left wondering what he’d make of Stelmokas. Though I’d presume Julius would share my gamut of emotions—discomfort, shame, humiliation, resentment, anger, desolation—in knowing that he lived so close to a Nazi war criminal who assisted in the near-total destruction of the Litvaks.
That Stelmokas could mask his crimes, evade punishment, and enjoy impunity was entirely incompatible with the idea of America that I had inherited from Julius: the goldene medina, or “golden land.” This was the token of freedom sought by the Stylers of Lithuania, among millions of other Jews, who journeyed to America as they fled anti-Jewish intolerance. To Jews of the diaspora, the goldene medina was the place where President George Washington wrote in a 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island that “may the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.”
But if “the other Inhabitants” included Nazi war criminals like Stelmokas, then was Julius’ idea of the goldene medina true after all? This question still resonates when I look at the U.S. postwar wrong of maintaining laws that made it easier for Nazi persecutors to immigrate to America while severely limiting the entry of hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors left stateless and stranded in displaced persons camps.
That Stelmokas could settle in Pottsville as easily as my great-grandfather is part of America’s history as much as the story of the Office of Special Investigations. Because of the Office, however, Stelmokas and scores of Axis persecutors were brought to justice in the United States. For that, I believe the OSI story reflects all that is righteous and good about this deeply flawed country—traits that are either overlooked, dismissed, or rejected entirely in our cultural and political discourse today. The OSI reminds me that America’s many corrective tools, like fact-finding and truth seeking, and its institutional values of accountability and justice, count for something.
What’s more is that the OSI went after only the perpetrators of Nazi war crimes. This seems so obvious as to appear basic, but the underlying principle is what matters. Whereas today it’s mainstream to typecast, judge, and ascribe blame to whole categories of people based on group belonging, the OSI’s pursuits and prosecutions were centered on holding individuals to account. They never had a political agenda to demonize and delegitimize German Americans as a group, or to selectively target the families of Nazi war criminals.
In that, the Office reflects so much of what is missing today in American civil and political discourse: a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and equal protection under the law. The OSI recognized that every person has a unique identity, and demonstrated as much by judging not based on shared ancestry or other immutable characteristics, but on individual action.
The OSI’s cultural influence runs deep in ways that most people take for granted. In America, “Nazi hunting” and “the Nazi hunter” are cultural vogue, familiar objects of cinema and theater that project the profession and the professional as noble, as pursuing a higher moral good. In America, Eli Rosenbaum—the OSI’s tenacious director for decades—is both the inspiration for Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller and “Person of the Week” on NBC Nightly News. In America, I can learn about the OSI’s prosecution of John Demjanjuk by reading “U.S. v. Demjanjuk” in Federal Supplement or by streaming The Devil Next Door on Netflix.
I wish I could tell my great-grandfather about the U.S. pursuit of his former Pottsville neighbor. I speculate that knowing this chapter in the OSI story would make him feel as I do: Proud that his adopted country pursued justice for Litvaks, and affirmation of his great idea of the goldene medina for what makes America exceptional despite its flaws. If I could, I’d tell my great-grandfather Julius that his leaving Vilnius was not for nothing. Perhaps to that he’d say what most in my family do when things are not for nothing: dayenu—“it would have been enough.”
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