It was the spring of 1987 and the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department’s Nazi prosecution unit, which I headed at the time, was in the midst of one of our most productive and historic periods. On April 27, as a result of an in-depth OSI investigation and despite resistance at the State Department, Austrian President and former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who had served as an officer in the Nazi army, was barred from setting foot ever again on U.S. soil.
One week earlier, after eight years of bruising litigation, we deported to the Soviet Union one Karl Linnas, who had been chief of a Nazi concentration camp in Estonia. To do so, we had to outmaneuver concerted attempts to block the deportation by Patrick Buchanan, the Reagan White House’s communications director, and my boss, U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese.
A month later, OSI announced the loss of citizenship and removal from the United States of a former Chicago resident. Martin Bartesch admitted to our office and the court that he had voluntarily joined the Waffen SS and had served in the notorious SS Death’s Head Division at the Mauthausen concentration camp where, at the hands of Bartesch and his cohorts, many thousands of prisoners were gassed, shot, starved and worked to death. He also confessed to having concealed his service at the infamous camp from U.S. immigration officials.
In Bartesch’s case, OSI researchers uncovered iron-clad documentary evidence of his direct, hands-on role in the Nazi genocide. Among the SS documents captured by American forces when they liberated Mauthausen was what we described as the Unnatural Death Book, a register of prisoners killed, along with the identity of the SS guard responsible for the murder.
So powerful was this evidence that, in postwar trials conducted by the U.S. military, the book served as the basis for execution or long prison sentences for many identified SS guards.
An entry on Oct. 20, 1943, registers the shooting death of Max Oschorn, a French Jewish prisoner. His murderer was also recorded: SS man Martin Bartesch. It was a most chilling document.
Bartesch’s family and “supporters,” seeking special relief, launched a campaign to discredit OSI while trying to garner political support. Indeed, OSI received numerous inquiries from members of Congress who had been approached.
After we explained the facts of the case, however, the matter inevitably was dropped; no one urged that Bartesch or his family be accorded any special treatment.
Well, there was one exception — Jimmy Carter.
In September 1987, after all of the gruesome details of the case had been made public and widely reported in the media, I received a letter sent by Bartesch’s daughter to the former president. Citing groups that had been exposed for their anti-Semitism, it was an all-out assault against OSI as unfair, “un-American” and interested only in “vengeance” against innocent family members.
It’s axiomatic that the families of every person prosecuted under the criminal or immigration laws are affected and subjected to hardship. It was obvious, I thought to myself, that no reasonable person could genuinely believe that the Bartesch case was worthy of special dispensation.
On the contrary, it would be a perversion of justice to accede to the family’s demands and grant Bartesch relief to which no one else would be entitled. Not even the staunchest and most sincere devotee to humanitarian causes could legitimately claim that an SS murderer who deceived authorities to obtain a visa and citizenship was somehow deserving of exceptional treatment.
That’s why I was so taken aback by the personal, handwritten note Jimmy Carter sent to me seeking “special consideration” for this Nazi SS murderer. There on the upper-right corner of Bartesch’s daughter’s letter was a note to me in the former president’s handwriting, and with his signature, urging that “in cases such as this, special consideration can be given to the families for humanitarian reasons.”
Unlike members of Congress who inquired about the facts, Carter blindly accepted at face value the daughter’s self-serving (and disingenuous) assertions.
As disturbing as I found Carter’s plea, and although his attempted intervention has always gnawed at me, I chalked it up at the time to a certain naivete on the part of the former president. But now, in light of Carter’s most recent writings and comments, I am left to wonder whether it was I who was naive simply to dismiss his knee-jerk appeal as the instinctive reaction of a well-meaning but misguided humanitarian.
His latest book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” and his subsequent defense of it, leaves no doubt that Carter has a problem with Israel and its American Jewish supporters. His blame-Israel approach through the distortion of easily verifiable facts; his whining about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby; and even the whiff of plagiarism have been exposed and are now spread upon the public record for all to see.
Kenneth Stein, who resigned his 23-year association with the Carter Center at Emory University, described it this way: Carter’s book “is not based on unvarnished analyses; it is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.”
Some believe that there’s a venal element at work. To be sure, Carter and his publisher and editor knew that, if nothing else, the intentionally provocative, misleading and insulting title would be good for sales.
Moreover, Carter and his center appear to care little about how they fill their coffers. After all, among the most generous contributors to the Carter Center — at least a million dollars each, according to the center’s published accountings — are Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz, best known for having offered $10 million to New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks, an offer that was rejected by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the prince implied that the attacks may have been justified because of U.S. support for Israel; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the Saudi Fund for Development; and, most interestingly, the Bin Laden Group.
Make no mistake, these are not simply benevolent donors looking for a good cause; they expect something in return. And Carter gave them exactly what they paid for: an unequivocal stamp of approval from a former, if failed, U.S. president for their decades of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic ramblings. It’s a diplomatic and public-relations dividend that likely will far exceed their investment.
The exposure of Carter’s views on Israel and the Jewish lobby has shed a clearer light on his attempt to influence me in the Bartesch case. We know from his own confession that he has had lust in his heart. Unfortunately, he has given us ample reason to wonder what else is lurking there.
Neal Sher, a New York attorney, previously served as director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and is a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.