Whenever I watch a documentary on the Holocaust like "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State," I see survivors and often the perpetrators themselves give accounts of their experiences. I always wonder exactly how many of those responsible managed to escape prosecution and, having gone on to live their lives, appear in these documentaries. One such individual is Oskar Groening, now 94, he served as the S.S. book keeper of the Auschwitz death camp and on July 15th, 2015 he was finally sentenced, albeit to only four years in prison, for his role. The sentence may not be so harsh but the conviction itself matters coming though it may, so many years later.
Auschwitz is in the news again as a yet to be named 91 year old German woman has been arrested and charged with 260,000 counts of accessory to murder. Like Oskar Groening, she served in the camp in an administrative role as a radio operator, albeit for three months in 1944. These recent prosecutions represent a cathartic chapter in the holocaust, one in which the German judicial system has been persuaded into action by persistent calls from organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to act on detailed Nazi records which have been preserved since the war.
It remains one of the macabre yet fortunate traits of Nazi bureaucracy that meticulous paper trails were maintained at every level of the Third Reich from Hermann Goering’s signature on directives for the exploitation of occupied territories and slave labour, down to the day to day staffing of the concentration camps.
It is in these thousands upon thousands of documents that investigators from across the world and down through the decades have made the connections and been able to identify many of the perpetrators who escaped in the chaotic years following the end of the conflict.
The search has taken on a new urgency as Efraim Zuroff told The Independent “There is a feeling that time is running out and that it is necessary to pursue the last war criminals before they die.” Zuroff has been part of the Centre’s Operation Last chance, an initiative in recent years to bring surviving Nazis to justice.
As memories fade over time and the events of history are told and brought to life in films, novels and documentaries, the events can come to viewed almost as some kind of postmodern mythology. For people like Zuroff and countless others who continue this struggle for justice, part of their job involves keeping the narrative grounded in reality. A quick look at many of the comments on the story of the 91 year old radio operator show a large sentiment questioning the need to put elderly grandfathers and grandmothers behind bars for their final years. Zuroff addressed this in an interview with The Daily Mailback in 2013 in light of prosecutions including that of 98 year old Laszlo Csatary, alleged to have been involved in deporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz:
This also is an important contribution against forgetfulness of future generations...The advanced age of the perpetrators should not be a reason to discontinue prosecution, since the passage of time in no way diminishes their guilt, and old age should not protect murderers.
...What I tell the people is, do not think of some old frail person, think of someone who, at the height of his physical powers, used all his energy to kill innocent men, women and children.
In the case of the accused 91 year old radio operator at Auschwitz, culpability cannot be mitigated by placement in the pecking order. The rejection of this defense was a fundamental principle put forth in 1946 by the Nuremberg Trials. It is true that a radio operator or an accountant, or a cook are but cogs in a larger machinery, but the entire Third Reich functioned on a partitioning of responsibility from the highest levels of power on down. In his defense, Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer declared to the surprise of prosecutors and the shock of his co-defendants:
What was morally true at the time of the atrocities remains so in the present day. No Nazi indicted then or now, in person, in absentia or posthumously, will find shelter behind the words "just following orders."