A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter dwells in our midst.
Debbie Cenziper came to Montgomery County in 2007 upon taking a job with The Washington Post. Pulitzer already in hand for a series about affordable housing corruption that she wrote for The Miami Herald, the Philadelphia native and University of Florida graduate worked full-time on the Post’s investigative staff while she and her husband raised their family.
“I am proud that my work has had impact in terms of corru
pt people going to jail, changing laws and prompting FBI and Congressional investigations,” Cenziper said. Her Pulitzer-winning articles, for example, led to convictions of “corrupt developers who took government money intended for housing the working poor.” She derived “great satisfaction from seeing Habitat for Humanity and the City of Miami actually build the houses,” recalling her joy at “seeing a nurse get her first house.”
Cenziper keeps a photograph of another new homeowner, a cafeteria cook, on her mantel “to remind me of why I wanted to be an investigative reporter,” she said. “I spent 20 years writing about wrongs, about making things right, about something working, about people who move the needle in the right direction.”
After two decades of investigative reporting—for which she was honored with multiple awards and celebrated in two documentaries—the Gaithersburg-area resident opted to switch gears. Cenziper continues to write part-time for the Post, but also has written two nonfiction books and recently became director of investigative reporting at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University’s D.C. campus.
The idea for Cenziper’s first book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” published on June 14, 2016, “the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling,” she said, “fell into my lap. I knew the main plaintiff.” That plaintiff, Jim Obergefell, co-authored “Love Wins.”
For a reporter whose previous work often focused on corruption, Cenziper said, this “love story was a nice change of pace. The civil rights lawyers and couples who came forward moved and inspired me.”
Cenziper’s second book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” published Nov. 16, began with a conversation “in the last hour of 2016 at a New Year’s Eve party in Rockville.”
With disco music blaring in the background and her husband waiting, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer introduced Cenziper to the compelling story of the Justice Department unit that continued to hunt for Nazis in the United States 70 years after World War II.
“I was fascinated by the work of these historians and prosecutors to find the lost Nazis, how they toiled behind the scenes for years without recognition,” she said, noting that “the investigators could have had more financially rewarding careers in the private sector, but chose instead to probe the darkest moments in history for delayed justice.”
It took the author nearly three years to produce “Citizen 865,” which included hundreds of hours retracing the steps of the historians in four countries. In 1990, Cenziper said, two of these American historians found the original 1945 roster of the 5,000 Nazi collaborators known as Trawniki Men in a Prague basement. The Nazis had recruited and trained these non-ethnic Germans in a “school for mass murder” that was located in the farming village south of Warsaw from which they got their name.
“Deployed throughout occupied Poland, these foot soldiers liquidated the ghettos, operated the death camps and mass shootings, and ended up killing 1.7 million Jews in fewer than 20 months,” Cenziper said.
What the investigators learned was that “more than a dozen of the Trawniki managed to slip into the United States alongside survivors,” she said. Among them was the “Citizen 865” of the book’s title, Jacob Reimer, a “most trusted collaborator” who blended into his American community. For decades after the war, he lived in Queens and owned a Wise Potato Chip franchise in Brooklyn. Investigators found him, age 95, retired in Lake Carmel, New York.
“There is some sense of these war criminals being brought to justice and accountability—within limits—under U.S. law,” Cenziper said, reinforcing that “there is still law; there is still right and wrong. There is no statute of limitations on mass murder.”
Cenziper described the book as narrative nonfiction that is appropriate for mainstream readers. “It’s a thriller, it’s a love story,” she said.
While her own two sons are in college—with no interest in studying journalism—Cenziper is passing on her skills to a new generation through her new director of investigative reporting position. In an investigative lab focusing on social justice, she works with students on long-term projects, going through all aspects of the process—from story conception to investigation, fact-checking and writing. Together, they produce pieces for which they receive a co-byline when published in The Washington Post or other publications. “I recently worked with two students on a piece about opioid abuse in West Virginia. They learned what they could not in a traditional classroom,” Cenziper said.
With the completion of “Citizen 865,” and in between teaching and speaking engagements, Cenziper has scheduled a much-needed winter family vacation.
“Finally, I will have no laptop with me, and I have a list of books to read (for pleasure),” she said. Still, the intrepid journalist acknowledged that her mind will not be completely at rest as she is “debating three ideas for my next book.”