Sol Littman, a former Jewish communal professional who tracked Nazi war criminals and once served as a top editor at The CJN, died Jan. 2 at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 96.
Littman combined advocacy and journalism as few today could. He worked as a journalist at the Toronto Star and CBC Television. He was also briefly director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith Canada and later served as the high-profile Canadian director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, back when its main mandate was pursuing Nazi war criminals in this country.
Littman “was a passionate defender of the Jewish community,” said Avi Benlolo, CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. “He fought valiantly to bring attention to Nazi war criminals residing in Canada and to memorialize the Holocaust. For this, the Jewish community salutes him.”
Littman created a national furor in January 1985, when he called a press conference in Toronto to announce that newly-unearthed U.S. documents showed that Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who sent some 400,000 Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz, tried to immigrate to Canada from Buenos Aires in 1962 and may have actually spent time here.
The shocking allegation, which received major play in the national media in Canada, even making the pages of the New York Times, was said to have outraged the Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney. A month later, the Tories announced the formation of the Deschenes Commission of inquiry into Nazi war criminals in Canada.
The inquiry’s 1,000-page report, released in 1987, devoted a 15-page chapter to the Mengele allegation, concluding there was not “a shred of evidence” to support it. The report was also critical of Littman for having made the charge.
Littman was unruffled, saying that finally, Canada was taking the issue of Nazi war criminals seriously.
But some years later, he rued that Ottawa seemed to be almost deliberately overcautious in its investigations. At the time, Littman said there were about 2,000 Nazi war criminals still in Canada, and it was “unlikely that more than 10” would ever go to court.
“I’m not convinced of the government’s enthusiasm of the task and their commitment to it,” he said. “I can’t prove it, but I believe the government hopes these people will be dead and buried before they get around to prosecuting them.”
When Simon Wiesenthal died in 2005, Littman said the famous Nazi hunter had all but dismissed Canada’s seriousness on the file. In fact, Wiesenthal refused to set foot in Canada beginning in the early 1980s.
“We had very limited success, not only in Canada,” Littman told the Globe and Mail, adding that Nazi hunters had “virtually no success” for several years in other countries, too.
“You have to understand that Nazi hunting is not a game. No one is standing around in a trench coat under a lamp post with a spy glass watching people. It is largely a question of finding documentation and witnesses and then providing them to the proper government so there can be justice and due process,” Littman said.
A profile of Wiesenthal in the Western Standard said Littman “embarrassed” Ottawa by tracking down nearly 30 suspected war criminals that justice officials claimed they could not locate “by looking them up in the Toronto phone book and checking their social insurance numbers.”
Littman published numerous articles and authored two books on the subject, War Criminal on Trial: Rauca of Kaunas, about Canada’s 1983 extradition of accused Nazi war criminal Helmut Rauca to Germany, and Pure Soldiers or Sinister Legion: The Ukrainian 14th Waffen-SS Division, about how thousands of members of the Nazi-led division entered North America after the war.
Solomon Israel Littman was born in Toronto on May 18, 1920. He studied sociology at the University of Toronto and did graduate studies in the subject at State College of Washington and the University of Wisconsin.
When a group of community leaders purchased The CJN from the paper’s founder, Meyer Nurenberger, in 1971, Littman was named managing editor.
“Within weeks of the new ownership, Littman dumped most of the columns and features of the Nurenberger paper and introduced a completely redesigned, visually attractive CJN with the slogan, ‘an independent community newspaper serving as a forum for diverse viewpoints,’” wrote former CJN assistant editor Lewis Levendel in his book A Century of the Canadian Jewish Press.
But Littman lasted just 20 months on the job. Retired Globe and Mail reporter Ralph Hyman was named editor in 1972, and tensions between the two men were such that Littman was let go by the paper’s board of directors, Levendel wrote.
Littman and his wife moved to Arizona in the mid-1990s, where he became a visiting scholar and co-ordinator of the University of Arizona’s Judaic studies’ Sekhel VeLev (Mind and Heart) program from 2000 to 2013.
He is survived by his wife Mildred; two sisters; daughters Deborah and Nina; six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.