"A small fish" is one expression whose literal meaning is identical in German and Hebrew. As in the holy tongue, when someone uses the term in German, the reference is to something of little value. The expression refers to someone low on the totem pole - to a person like John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian guard at the Sobibor concentration camp who was convicted last May of abetting the murder of tens of thousands of Jews.
"Yes he is a small fish - of course, that's right. He was at the lowest level of the hierarchy. But from the perspective of my clients, who lost their families in Sobibor, there's no doubt that everybody, big fish or small, who participated in murder of their families should be brought to justice," opines Prof. Cornelius Nestler of Cologne University, who represented the victims' families in the Demjanjuk trial in Germany.
Nestler, who is married to a Jewish woman, visited Israel this week for the first time in his life, as a guest of the Hebrew University's Institute for Advanced Studies, where he delivered a lecture entitled "Demjanjuk Trial: the Voice of the Victims."
The problem prosecutors faced in this Demjanjuk trial, Nestler states, "was not to put him on trial for what he did, but rather to put him on trial after they [the prosecutors] have not prosecuted all sorts of higher ranking Nazi culprits in past decades."
Demjanjuk currently resides in a senior citizens' facility in Germany, pending an appeal of his conviction and five-year prison sentence. The court's decision on his appeal, and whether he gets sent to prison, will not come for another few months.
Meantime, the attorney Nestler is on the prowl for other "small fish." In an interview with Haaretz in Tel Aviv, he relates that he has a list of 28 German guards who were deployed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria. These are persons who were born before 1925, and who are now octogenarians. "Statistically speaking, I would assume that some of them are still alive, and so a prosecutor needs to do his job and find them," Nestler states. "Age doesn't play a role. You cannot run away from your responsibility just because you are getting old."
Between 1938 and 1945 some 97,000 prisoners entered this camp. According to data held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, some 30,000 persons, including 3,515 Jews, perished at this camp and its surrounding facilities. "A person who was a guard at this camp made sure that prisoners couldn't escape, and so he has to be questioned," Nestler says.
Unlike Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who was taken captive by the Nazis, the people on this new list were German citizens. "The German guard could have said 'I don't want to do this, I would rather go to the front,' but they did not make such a request because they didn't want to risk their lives," the attorney opines.
Nestler relayed the new list to the German chief prosecutor in Munich, who is responsible for bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. But then his work hit a snag. "The prosecutor needs to do his work and track down these people. But he isn't really moving forward in the investigation in a timely fashion," Nestler says diplomatically.
Particularly frustrating is the fact that tracking down these suspected death camp guards would not require sophisticated detective work. Phone books and computerized data bases would suffice. "Any policeman in Germany could do this by using information readily available to him," states the attorney.
So why hasn't this happened?
"It seems to us that this is not a matter of a lack of desire to do the work; the problem is lack of resources. There is only one prosecutor who is not at work on at least two large, pending cases."
In addition to the list of suspected death camp guards, the other case involves another elderly Ukrainian, John Kalymon, who was a policeman in Lvov and is suspected of having cooperated with Nazis in the persecution and death-deportation of Jews. Like Demjanjuk, this suspect also drifted into the U.S. after the war. Germany is currently expected to request his extradition.
"All the evidence is available" in this Kalymon case, Nestler insists. "A 200-page report has been compiled, but the prosecutor says he doesn't have enough time to prepare an arrest warrant because he is too busy with other cases."
Nestler is sympathetic regarding the prosecutor's limited resources and wherewithal. His accusation applies to persons higher up the governmental chain: "Of course, most Western societies have cut allocations in the public sector, including funds for prosecutors. But I personally think it is clear to everyone that if these kind of cases are not prosecuted in the next two to four years, they will never happen. The witnesses are still alive, and so you have to do something rather soon."
Despite the red tape and lack of resources, Nestler hasn't quit the chase. In Israel, he met with two elderly people who live in Tel Aviv, and who lost relatives who were from Lvov. These two people discussed the sort of testimony they might provide, if Germany goes ahead and prosecutes this case.
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