Israel and Germany are cooperating in a new legal campaign to find and put on trial thousands of Nazi war criminals. The joint project is the result of a recent precedent-setting ruling in Germany in the case of John Demjanjuk.
There are about 4,000 names on the list of possible defendants, but probably very few are still alive, and many of those may be in no condition to stand trial.
Six weeks ago, the heads of the Simon Wiesenthal Center met with representatives of Germany's Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the implications of Demjanjuk's conviction in the continuing battle to bring former Nazis to justice.
Demjanjuk, now 91, was deported from the United States to Germany in 2009 to stand trial. He was convicted in May of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
He was sentenced to five years in prison.
It was the first time prosecutors were able to convict someone in a Nazi-era case without direct evidence that the suspect participated in a specific killing.
German legal authorities as well as Israeli officials now feel they can step up attempts to locate, investigate and try many who were never considered as suspects before.
The cooperation between the Israelis and Germans is excellent, said the Simon Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi-hunter, Efraim Zuroff, to Haaretz yesterday. Zuroff is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, and has been called the "last of the Nazi hunters." "This ... is a test for the German judicial system to see if they can expedite this in an appropriate manner to enable these cases to go forward," he said.
Kurt Schrimm, the head of the German prosecutors' office dedicated to investigating Nazi war crimes, said his office is going over all of its files to see if others may fit into the same category as Demjanjuk.
He said there were probably "under 1,000" possible suspects who could still be alive and prosecuted, living both in Germany and abroad. He would not give any names. "We have to check everything - from the people who we were aware of in camps like Sobibor ... or also in the Einsatzgruppen," he said, referring to the death squads responsible for mass killings, particularly early in the war before the death camps were established.
Most of the people on the list are Germans or Austrians, and most served in what are called the death camps, such as Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno; and not in concentration or forced labor camps.
A few hundred names on the list are Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans of German origin.
Murder and related offenses are the only charges in Germany that aren't subject to a statute of limitations.
"We're talking about an estimated 4,000 people, to round it off," Zuroff said. "Even if only 2 percent of those people are alive, we're talking 80 people - and let's assume half of them are not medically fit to be brought to justice - that leaves us with 40 people, so there is incredible potential."
Schrimm said it only makes sense to try to bring new cases to trial once the Demjanjuk case is through the appeals process, rather than expend all the resources needed to charge a suspect only to have the case thrown out if Demjanjuk wins. But the appeal could still take at least another six months to a year - or longer - and the suspects are not getting any younger.
"It's very clear that they're old, that's why we're preparing everything now so that as soon as there is a final decision, we can move immediately with charges," Schrimm said.
Zuroff said he hoped that the appeal could somehow be fast-tracked so that new charges against others could be filed before it is too late.
"This ... is a test for the German judicial system to see if they can expedite this in an appropriate manner to enable these cases to go forward," he said.
Working in favor of the new investigators is the fact that most suspects would likely have lived openly under their own names for decades, thinking they had no prosecutions to fear.
Those who are harder to locate will be the focus of the Wiesenthal Center's new appeal, which Zuroff said would include reward money for information that helps uncover a suspect.
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