'Repentance' from Germany offers new hope for justice

November 24, 2016 23:18

The announcement that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has submitted the names of 80 of the youngest men and women who served in the infamous Einsatzgruppen to the German authorities was not purposely planned for the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

However, the 10 days of repentance are an appropriate time for such a move. The only reason there is any hope for successful results in these cases, is because of a fundamental change in Germany's policy on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals - an example, you could say, of collective legal teshuva (repentance).

For almost 50 years before Sobibor death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk went on trial in 2009, a Nazi war criminal could only be convicted in Germany if the prosecution could prove that he or she had committed a specific crime against a specific victim. It was a scenario that became harder and harder as time went by and the number of potential witnesses got smaller and smaller.

In the case against Demjanjuk, however, the prosecution argued that based on service alone, which was proven by documents in the absence of survivors who could identify him, the SS armed guard should be convicted for at least accessory to murder.

When the court in Munich found Demjanjuk guilty of that crime in May 2011, it established the principle that anyone who served in Sobibor, or any of the other death camps whose primary purpose was the mass murder of Jews, could be convicted, even if there was no evidence that they had committed premeditated murder against an identifiable victim.

This landmark decision created a totally different legal landscape in Germany as far as Holocaust perpetrators were concerned, and not only with death-camp guards.

In summer 2011, at a meeting with Kurt Schrimm, the director of Germany's Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes, I learned that, as I had hoped, the new policy should also apply to those who served in the Einsatzgruppen - the mobile death squads - had officially been adopted by the German judicial authorities.

It was on that basis that in December of that year, the Wiesenthal Center launched Operation Last Chance II, which offers rewards of up to 25,000 euros for information which would facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals in Germany.

In the meantime, the change in German policy has already yielded significant practical results as far as death-camp guards are concerned. During the past year, Kurt Schrimm has announced that his office has located 37 men and women who served in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, as well as an additional 17 who served in Majdanek.

And although it is obvious that not all of these suspects will be brought to trial, since old age and illness are likely to reduce their number, these efforts are worthy and deserve full support. The new approach reflects a much more accurate picture of the reality of those death factories than the previous policy which severely limited the number of perpetrators who could be punished.

In one respect, however, no tangible results have yet been achieved. To date, the German authorities have yet to announce any cases of those who served in the mobile killing squads, which is the reason that I decided to provide the information in the centre's archives on Einsatzgruppen members to the German prosecutors.

It turns out that we possessed the names of close to half of the men and women who served in the Einsatzgruppen (1,293 of approximately 2,950), and in most of the cases (1,069) the data included their date of birth.

The information enabled us to find the individuals most likely to be alive, in this case those 80 persons born in 1920 or later, the youngest of whom were born in 1924.

Due to the stringency of German laws on personal data, we were unable to determine which of the people are alive and their current whereabouts, but this is information which is readily accessible to German officials.

In this context, it is extremely important to note the critical role played by the mobile killing units in the implementation of the Final Solution. The units in question (Einsatzgruppen A, B, C, and D) were the ones who began the systematic annihilation of European Jewry following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, as they followed the Wehrmacht into eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In the course of the years 1941-1943, they murdered well over a million Jews and numerous other innocent civilans categorised as "enemies of the Reich."

For a variety of reasons, this aspect of the Holocaust is far less known than the atrocities which took place in the death camps, and in the concentration camps in Germany, which were liberated by the Western Allies. Future trials of these perpetrators will have an important educational dimension.

Also of importance, will be the fact that these trials will expose the role played in these murders by local, East European collaborators. In countries like the Baltics and the Ukraine, there are currently systematic efforts currently being made to falsify the historical record to hide or severely minimise the role of local killers.

At this point, Germany is doing more than any other country to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Let us hope that the final effort will be successful and that a maximum number of perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.

November 24, 2016 23:18

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