Bringing aging Nazi war criminals to justice

DEU 201201000069BERLIN – German prosecutors are intensifying their hunt for Nazi war criminals still at large by expanding investigations to the German death squads known as the "Einsatzgruppen," who are responsible for more than a million murders.

As of July, prosecutors had launched investigations into three suspected members of these death squads who they say took part in some of the most notorious massacres of World War Two.

The effort, coming more than 70 years since the end of the war and as the youngest survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust enter their 90s, underscores how the race to find the remaining Nazi war criminals is intensifying.

This attempt to bring them to justice is providing long-awaited vindication, said survivors' families.

"In a way, when the Nazis said that they would create a thousand-year empire, they weren't wrong – what they did will be felt for the next thousand years," said Rabbi Daniel Fabian of the Kahal Adass Jisroel Jewish community center and synagogue in Berlin, whose grandmother was in Auschwitz.

"For the 95-year-old men who are being tried, perhaps this is a distant memory," he added. "But for people like myself and my parents, it's still something that's very palpable."

During the six years of World War Two, Nazis systematically murdered some 6 million Jews and countless others. Horrific scenes from death camps like Auschwitz persist in history books and films. But little is taught about the brutal shooting squads known as the Einsatzgruppen.

In the war’s early years, Nazi death squads tore through villages of the former Soviet Union in the wake of German troops, killing mass numbers of Jewish and other people before Adolf Hitler established death camps like Birkenau and Auschwitz.

Some estimate that the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for more than 1 million murders, including the two-day massacre of more than 33,000 mostly Jewish people at Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine.

Efforts to find members of that group after so many years has become pivotal in seeking justice for the Holocaust, some say.

"The camps liberated by the Western Allies, they're the iconic images of the Holocaust," Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, an international Jewish human rights organization, told USA Today. "But the truth of the matter is that the greatest horrors of the Holocaust are really the murders by shooting."

While Allied forces tried and convicted a few dozen members of the Einsatzgruppen during the Nuremberg Trials after the war, only a handful of death squad members have been tried since then, said Zuroff. None have been brought to justice in the past 40 years.

Initially, German prosecutors targeted the death squad leaders instead of rank-and-file members due to the sheer number of those involved in the genocide. The strategy was logical given the desire to bring prominent Nazis to justice, but the implications of ignoring those killers were troubling, said Zuroff.

"People who were out there shooting and murdering innocent people…day in, day out, were basically ignored," he said.

It’s also difficult to prove if suspected Einsatzgruppen members had actually pulled the trigger because the killing squads were constantly on the move, Jens Rommel, who heads up the German federal prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi war crimes, told USA Today.

But after groundbreaking cases in 2011 and 2015, everything changed, said Rommel.

First, in 2011, John Demjanjuk, a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in modern-day Poland who had become an American citizen in the 1950s, was convicted as an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews. Then, in 2015, Oskar Gröning, a junior squad leader at Auschwitz, was convicted as an accessory to 300,000 murders.

Prosecutors now had new legal precedent to go after suspected Einsatzgruppen members, too: They could now indict low-level abettors of atrocities just by proving they were active Nazis at the time.

That's when Zuroff got to work. Combing through archives, he compiled a list of 79 people who were known members of the killing squads and suspected to be alive.

Zuroff's work now has German authorities looking into three suspects in the cities of Kassel, Osnabrück and Braunschweig, though no formal charges have been filed yet, said Rommel.

All three men – 95-year-old Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister, 94-year-old Kurt Gosdek and 96-year-old Herbert Wahler – are all suspected of having belonged to Einsatzgruppe C, the group responsible for the murders at Babi Yar, the Associated Press reported.

"Finding these people has been one of the most satisfying results of my work over the years," said Zuroff, who's been hunting down Nazis since the 1970s. "When they're brought to justice, there will be no person happier than me."

Some 70 years after the war, as perpetrators of the Holocaust and those who survived the Nazis' terror decrease in number, prosecutors are increasingly under pressure to bring suspected perpetrators to justice, said Rommel.

"We don't conduct historical investigations but rather criminal ones, meaning that we need the accused to be living," he said. "We cannot prosecute the dead."

Despite the difficulties of bringing such individuals to justice, the final-hour effort is welcome by victims of the Nazis and their living family members, as well as Germany's Jewish community.

"Even if these perpetrators are already very old today, it's a gesture of latent justice," said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

With that gesture, added Rabbi Fabian, the arduous process of forcing the German nation – and the world – to atone for the Holocaust has found new energy.

"It brings uncomfortable memories back to the surface," he said. "But in order to come to terms with the horrors of the past, it's both necessary and important."

Photo: September 10, 2012 - Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany - Anti-Nazi sticker on a lamp pole in the state capital Schwerin.
Credit: Harald Franzen/ARA Network Inc. (09/10/12)

Story/photo published date: 07/18/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
You are here: Home Newsroom Europe / Caucasus Bringing aging Nazi war criminals to justice