As the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” is sentenced to prison, dedicated investigators are still working to bring the last surviving Nazi criminals to justice .
Seventy years on from the death of Hitler, the horrors of the Holocaust have become a chapter in history. The Jewish population is nearly the same size as it was before six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and the genocide faced by our grandparents’ generation is now a mandatory school subject.
But some of the men and women responsible for Nazi crimes – people who burnt down synagogues, tortured children and sent thousands of Jews to walk towards their deaths in gas chambers – are still alive. Some Nazi criminals have managed to escape their past and evade justice for more than 70 years.
Investigators have not forgotten these 90-something war criminals. Though the crimes may be old and the culprits in their last decade of life, there are still dedicated Nazi hunters who work to track down the murderers of the Second World War.
Dr Effraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the US-based Simon Weisenthal Centre, and Kurt Schrimm, head of the German office responsible for investigating Nazi crimes, work in separate countries but towards a common goal: to bring the 90-year-old Nazis to justice.
Never forget: why we should still prosecute Nazi criminals
After the holocaust, political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil”: the many Nazis who committed countless murders not out of psychotic hatred, but a sense of duty towards their jobs. But while Nazi criminals may have been tools of a political system, they are not absolved of guilt, says Dr Effraim Zuroff.
“One of the most upsetting and disturbing facts I’ve learned in the course of the last 35 years is that most of the people who committed Holocaust crimes were perfectly normal,” says Zuroff. “But what are you going to do – let them off because most people would have done it? No, that would be absurd. Imagine if they accepted superior orders as a defence – there would be no Nazi war criminals, only Hitler.”
Zuroff has had many decades to reflect on why it’s important to prosecute Nazis, and says that he can recite the “spiel” in his sleep. He reels off a list of reasons, including the importance of showing the world that heinous crimes will not be forgotten, that old age offers no protection from justice, and that the passage of time does not diminish guilt. Zuroff says that the trials are uniquely important given widespread Holocaust denial in Eastern Europe, and that international law from the Nuremburg trials recognises individual criminal responsibility.
“Finally, these are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy because they had absolutely no sympathy for their victims – some of whom were older than the criminals are today,” he adds.
In Germany, where there is a state-funded department dedicated to investigating Nazi crimes, Kurt Schrimm believes that there’s a national duty to prosecute the World War Two criminals.
“The Holocaust was not a single crime, it was an organised crime of the state,” he says. “Our state has inherited this history and cannot ignore it. We have a responsibility to go back and correct the actions of our predecessors.”
Scrimm previously worked in public prosecutions and was assigned his role as a Nazi hunter – “Nobody asked me if I wanted to do this. They said I had to do it” – and views his work as a service to his country. When I ask whether he’s emotional about Nazi atrocities, he says, “These people have damaged the reputation of Germany over a series of decades and I’m personally upset about that” – though he adds that “of course” he’s angry about the people killed.
But like Zuroff, Schrimm insists that the passage of time does not weaken the necessity of his work. “These are one of a kind crimes in modern history,” says Schrimm. “You can’t say that it’s been over 70 years and we just don’t have to do anything any more. You can’t say that.”
Anger and regret: the Nazis who escape justice
Most of the surviving war criminals were relatively minor figures within the Nazi party, and prosecution can be frustrating work.
Both Schrimm and Zuroff have spent many years investigating men who died before they were brought to justice. They devoted a great deal of time to finding SS doctor Aribert Heim, who was known as “Dr Death”, and Eichmann’s assistant Alois Brunner, but the men died before they were discovered.
“I’m jealous of Weisenthal and other people who started when almost all these killers were still alive. The big ones, you know? By the time I started, many decades afterwards, there weren’t cases of that stature,” says Zuroff. “The most notorious Nazi that Weinsenthal caught was Franz Stangl, the commander of Treblinka – a person who bore responsibility for 800,000 Jews murdered. He had the deaths of maybe a million people on his non-existent conscience. Think of being able to bring a person like that to justice. It’s the most rewarding thing imaginable. But I wasn’t able to do that because I started too late. Listen, I was born after the war for god’s sake.”
Despite their late starts, both Schrimm and Zuroff have bought exceptionally sinister Nazi criminals to justice. In 1987, Schrimm spent two years trying to extradite Josef Schwammberger from Argentina to Germany, which cost around £178,500. Schwammberger was found guilty of murdering more than 600 Jewish people in the ghetto Przemyśl and spent the rest of his life in prison before he died in 2004.
In 1998, Zuroff’s work helped imprison the Croatian fascist leader Dinko Šakić, who was commander of the concentration camp Jasenovac, nicknamed “the Auschwitz of the Balkans”. Šakić was proud of the murders he’d committed and, when he died, was cremated in his Ustaše [Croatian fascist] uniform. “He said that the problem with Jasenovac was that they didn’t let us finish the job,” says Zuroff. “That was said more than 50 years afterwards, so he had plenty of time to think about it.”
Meeting such notorious criminals can be a trying experience, but Schrimm and Zuroff have different emotional approaches to their jobs. Schrimm tries to shut off his feelings, saying that they make his job impossible. When he meets Nazi criminals, he says he sees both the person and the crime. “You have to separate the two,” he says.
Zuroff, meanwhile, embraces his emotions. “Of course I feel angry and I should feel angry. I couldn’t do this job otherwise,” he says.
He has looked Nazi criminals in the eyes, and spent a long time talking with the children of Charles Zentai (born Karoly Steiner), a Hungarian-born man who is accused of war crimes and currently lives in Australia.
“They wanted to convince me that their father is not guilty,” says Zuroff. “It was very frustrating because these kids had no idea what their father had done. I told them, ‘Actually, I feel for you. I understand how it must feel when your father was apparently a good parent (of course that’s not the issue, whether he was a good parent or not), and all of a sudden you discover that he’s accused of terrible crimes. You should only know that this happens quite often in many cases, and it’s not your fault’. But it didn’t help. They were intent on getting their father off the hook.”
In 2012, Australia’s highest caught ruled that Zentai would not be extradited because “war crimes” were not an offence under Hungarian law in 1944.
How Nazi criminals are found
Traditional investigative techniques are close to useless when it comes to investigating 70-year-old crimes.
“Police start with a crime and try to find the person who committed the crime. If we were to do that, we’d be wasting 98% of our time because 98% of the people who committed crimes in World War Two are dead,” says Zuroff. “We have to start with a tip – in other words a suspect, against whom there’s an allegation, who is healthy enough to stand trial. That’s a terrible way to work.”
The Simon Weisenthal Centre runs Operation Last Chance, which attempts to find the last remaining Nazi criminals, and offers a reward of $25,000 (£16,000) for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of former Nazis.
There are few surviving witnesses who can give evidence about the crimes, and international extradition is yet another hurdle. If a Nazi criminal is successfully caught, they must then be judged healthy enough to stand trial.
In May, a former SS lieutenant Gerhard Sommer, who is thought to have committed more than 340 murders, avoided prosecution after a German court said that his dementia made him unfit to stand trial. “This guy committed horrific crimes and he managed to elude justice, which is terrible,” says Zuroff.
Despite the obstacles, Schrimm has successfully prosecuted around 10 Nazis in the past two years alone, while Zuroff has helped bring some form of legal action against around three dozen Nazi criminals.
“It’s very hard to be perfectly honest. If I sat here and thought about all the cases that weren't brought to justice, I would just give up,” says Zuroff. “You have to look at it differently and say it was a miracle that anyone was bought to trial.”
The final Nazi trials
Last week, 94-year-old Oskar Groening, who was nicknamed “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, was convicted for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 peopleand was sentenced to four years in prison.
But though one Holocaust survivor labelled it “the trial of the last Nazi”, there are still more Nazis to prosecute. The legal landscape changed as recently as 2011, when John Demjanjuk was convicted for being an accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews in the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. It set a legal precedent, as proving that Demjanjuk was a guard at the camp was enough for a conviction. Prior to that case, prosecutors had to show that a specific crime had been committed against a specific victim.
On Monday, Zuroff flies to Copenhagen, Denmark, hoping to press criminal charges against a 90-year-old Danish man, who is accused of committing mass murders of Jews in Belarus.
And Schrimm agrees that the work will go on. “The chances of finding someone alive and healthy are getting slimmer,” he says. “But we still have work to do, there are still people out there. We’re not giving up.”