July 22, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT pbs.org
Nazi hunter targets 90-year-old former labor camp guard in Denmark

A leading Nazi hunter has urged authorities in Denmark to investigate 90-year-old Helmuth Rasboel, who was a guard at a forced labor camp where hundreds of Jews were murdered during World War II. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant talks with the former guard about the accusations, as well as Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff about why he believes in pursuing old Nazis to the grave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the world’s leading Nazi hunters set his targets this week on a 90-year old man in Denmark.

Efraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Center has accused Danish authorities of being reluctant to act against a former guard who served at a forced labor camp where hundreds of Jews were murdered during World War II.

NewsHour special correspondent Malcolm Brabant takes an inside look at Zuroff’s quest and hears from the accused firsthand.

MALCOLM BRABANT: After pursuing war criminals around the world and securing a string of successful prosecutions, Efraim Zuroff’s latest mission brought him to Copenhagen.

EFRAIM ZUROFF, Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jerusalem: I hope to see to it that an official government investigation will be initiated against this person who served with the Danish troops, S.S., Waffen-S.S., in Belarus, and was serving at a camp in which 90 percent of the Jews who were in that camp were murdered or died because of difficult conditions during the period that the Danish troops were in charge of the camp and were guarding the camp.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And this is Zuroff’s target, Helmuth Rasboel, who, as a 17-year-old, voluntarily joined the Danish Free Corps, one of the Nazi battalions from countries occupied by the Germans.

Zuroff’s case against Rasboel is largely based on new evidence gathered by historian Dennis Larsen. The two men spent several hours poring over documentation and maps of the camp in Belarus.

DENNIS LARSEN, Historian and co-author, “School of Violence”: The gallows were there, and the tree where hangings were conducted is there. And every morning, there was a selection, and to see if the Jews could work or not. And they were actually starving so often, they could not. And when you couldn’t work anymore, you were taken by the S.S. down to the gravel pit and they were shot.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And these are believed to have been some of the victims of the Bobruisk camp, 100 miles from the Belarusian capital, Minsk. This is a German propaganda film. These are Polish Jews who were transported from the Warsaw ghetto. They were in poor physical shape when they left the ghetto.

According to historians, 1,400 Jews lost their lives in this labor camp.

DENNIS LARSEN: The Danish S.S. Freikorps, Denmark’s S.S. company, were in fact guards. And it’s a fact they were — they guarded these Jews in this camp in the period of 1942 and 1943.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Fellow historian and co-author Therkel Straede says there is evidence that guards carried out atrocities against Jewish slave laborers, although nothing specific linking the Dane at the center of this case.

THERKEL STRAEDE, Historian: It’s definitely justified to file charges against somebody who was a guard in an annihilation camp. This is one of the smaller ones, which is not very known, but it was — you could say the atrocities that were committed there was just as bad as in Auschwitz.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Armed with the authors’ evidence, Zuroff went to a downtown police station to file his complaint and to urge the Danish authorities to expand their investigation. He believes this case is the tip of the iceberg and there may be up to 30 Danish Nazis still alive who are guilty of war crimes.

EFRAIM ZUROFF: OK, first of all, we handed in quite a bit of information. To be perfectly honest, I’m not so expert in the workings of the Danish Justice Ministry to be able to say that I am confident. All I can say is that we will do whatever we can do try and encourage a serious investigation, an in-depth investigation. It’s the good guys against the bad guys.

Ninety-year-old Helmuth Rasboel invited us into his apartment to tell his side of the story. He says his Nazi uncle pressured him to join the Free Corps. He admits that, as a young recruit, he patrolled the camp perimeter. His drawing is different from the historians’ map. But Rasboel insists he committed no crime.

HELMUTH RASBOEL, Former Nazi and member of the Danish Free Corps (through interpreter): The Germans treated the Jews very badly, which we could not help but see, but we had no influence over it. When you were 17 years old, what can you do? I can tell you that it was unpleasant to watch. They beat them up with bats. But I had never seen the Germans kill Jews. I did see some of the Jews lying dead.

QUESTION (through interpreter): A complaint has been filed against you. How do you feel about that.

HELMUTH RASBOEL (through interpreter): You know what? I am 90 years old. What the hell are they going to do? Even if they prosecute me, before they even get started on that, I am going to be dead and buried. I have never even touched the hair on the head of any Jew. In my opinion, a war criminal is someone who goes after civilians.

I have never done anything to any civilians. What does a 17-year-old know about politics? Nothing. Had I not lived with that uncle, may he rest in peace, had I not lived with him, it would never have happened. Then, perhaps, I would have been in the resistance.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Last week, Oskar Groening, age 94, the former Nazi S.S. officer known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, was sentenced to four years in prison. He counted the bank notes confiscated from Jewish prisoners. This was expected to be one of the last Holocaust trials.

Efraim Zuroff believes in pursuing old Nazis to the grave.

EFRAIM ZUROFF: First of all, the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Second of all, old age doesn’t turn people who committed murder into righteous Gentiles.

Third is the fact of our obligation to the victims. In other words, our obligation is to try and find the people who turned innocent men, women and children into victims simply because they were classified as enemies of the Third Reich.

And I would add, also, that a continuing search for these people is an indication of the seriousness and horror of Holocaust crimes. The trials are important to fight against Holocaust denial and distortion. And, quite frankly, these are the last people on Earth who deserve any sympathy, because they had absolutely no sympathy for their victims.

MALCOLM BRABANT: If this case was being tried in Germany, there would be more chance of success, because there guards of death camps can be prosecuted. But, in Denmark, the criteria is completely different.

According to leading law experts, being a witness to a crime doesn’t make a person an accessory. One professor of law told me that she doubted that this case would go to trial because of the lack of eyewitnesses, because of Rasboel’s age at the time, and also because the Danish wartime government, which at first collaborated with the Germans, encouraged youths to join the Nazi battalions.

Helmuth Rasboel’s secret past has now been exposed and one of his biggest fears is that his Jewish friends will now disown him.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.