A German official who prosecutes Nazi war crimes has recommended that prosecutors in Germany lay charges against 30 men and women who worked as guards in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where 1.5 million people, mainly Jews, were ruthlessly killed.
“This is really an important milestone in the effort to bring Nazis to justice,” observed Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Kurt Schrimm, a top official at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, started the ball rolling when he decreed recently that watchmen and sentries in concentration camps had committed punishable crimes.
He reached this conclusion in the wake of the John Demjanuk trial in Munich. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who immigrated to the United States after World War II, was convicted of having been an accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews in the Sobibor camp.
His conviction set the stage for the prosecution of a much greater number of lower-level perpetrators.
Lower-level personnel were tried in the so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which took place in phases from 1963 to 1965 and again from 1965 to 1966 and 1967 to 1968. The defendants in these proceedings, SS members and privileged prisoners (kapos), were largely convicted and given fairly lengthy prison sentences.
Since Nazi war crimes trials in Germany (the Nuremberg tribunal), Poland (the Rudolf Hoss case) and Israel (the Eichmann trial) have historically focused on high-level criminals, Schrimm’s decision to ask state prosecutors in 11 of Germany’s 16 states to charge 30 former guards is a commendable and important one.
As he put it in an interview with Reuters, “We take the view that this job, regardless of what they can be individually accused of, makes them guilty of complicity in murder.”
It will now be up to prosecutors to ascertain whether these former guards, who range in age from 86 to 97, are medically fit to stand trial and whether there is a sufficient body of iron-clad evidence to convict them.
If justice is to be done, every single person who ever served in a Nazi camp should be tried. By all accounts, however, only about 15% have faced a judge and a jury. This is scandalous and shameful.
According to reports, Schrimm intends to widen the search for guards who worked in five of the other Nazi death camps in Poland: Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Chelmno, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on an industrial scale over a brief period of time.
Schrimm has undertaken an immensely difficult task, but he and his colleagues deserve our support and gratitude.