Earlier this year, a former Nazi prison guard was convicted of being an accessory to murder. As a result of this precedent, German prosecutors are reopening hundreds investigations into hundreds of other cases. By REBECCA DAVIS.
John Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943, where an estimated 150,000 Jews were murdered. After Demjanjuk was tracked down by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre – whose job it is to hunt for former Nazis – he was extradited from the USA to Germany to stand trial in 2009. After 18 months in court, Demjanjuk was convicted in May of this year of being an accessory to 28,060 counts of murder for his role as a guard. He is currently appealing the verdict.
Now German prosecutors are going through their books to open other cases involving former prison guards. The Demjanjuk case was important because only senior Nazis have previously been seriously targeted by the courts. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s chief Nazi-hunter, Efraim Zuroff, told the Guardian that people “shouldn’t be let off if they’re less than Mengele, less than Himmler”. Zuroff says there were an estimated 4,000 people who worked at the four death camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka, though the majority of those will now be dead.
That’s the one problem the prosecutors do face: the average age of the perpetrators. The youngest of the guards is in his 80s, and the rest are well into the 90s. As a result, death may take them before the courts do. It will be interesting to see if these German cases have any wider application, such as whether they might be used as a precedent for genocide hearings – into Rwanda, for instance – by the International Criminal Court. DM
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