The only issue that will completely end in the near future is that of justice.
Of all the Holocaust-related issues that are important to deal with, only one is definitively limited.
Barring an unprecedented cataclysm that would by far overshadow the Shoah, God forbid, I think that it is fair to predict that the history of the annihilation of European Jewry and its analyses are likely to continue to be written for many years to come, and the days that we set aside to commemorate the tragedy and its implications will likewise remain important dates on the Jewish calendar. The same is also true of education about its lessons and their ramifications. Even restitution can and will continue, even after the demise of all the survivors.The only issue that will completely end in the near future is that of justice. When there are no longer any perpetrators alive and healthy enough to stand trial, the book will be closed on one of the most important responses by the civilized world to the horrors of the Holocaust.
That is why it is important to closely follow this issue, as we have done for the past two decades in our annual reports, and share the information with the wider public, and attempt to draw some important conclusions concerning the state of Holocaust memory, commemoration and education.
I WANT to begin with the results of our latest annual report, which this time covers almost two years, from April 1, 2018, until December 31, 2019.
One of the most surprising things about the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice is that 80 years after the start of the systematic annihilation of European Jewry, which began in late June 1941, with the invasion of the Soviet Union and the mass shooting operations of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), Nazi war criminals are still being prosecuted. Not everywhere that they are living, but at least in Germany, the United States and Canada.
This is first and foremost a result of the extension of life expectancy, but also because there still is a degree of political will in those three countries to continue prosecution.
There are, however, significant differences, in several respects which have to be noted, between these three countries when it comes to prosecution. Of the three, only Germany tries suspected Nazis on criminal charges. Both the United States and Canada try them for immigration and naturalization violations, which are civil offenses. That is because the crimes were committed outside those countries, and the victims were not their nationals. The punishments are denaturalization and deportation, rather than incarceration, but an extradition request takes precedence. In Canada’s case, a bill enabling criminal prosecution was passed in Ottawa in 1987, but the acquittal of the initial suspect, Hungarian gendarmerie officer Imre Finta, based on a defense of “superior orders” (which has never been accepted by any court elsewhere) forced the Canadians to switch to prosecution for the violation of immigration and naturalization laws.
In Germany’s case, a very dramatic change in German prosecution policy has paved the way for a series of trials which otherwise could never have been conducted. Thus, until about a decade ago, in order to prosecute a Nazi war criminal, the prosecution had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, and had been motivated by “racial hatred,” a level of proof that is almost impossible to obtain so many years after the crimes were committed. In the wake of the Demjanjuk case, however, Germany decided that any person who served in a concentration camp with a gas chamber or gas vans or in the Einsatzgruppen could be prosecuted for “accessory to murder,” based on service alone.
Once Demjanjuk was convicted on that basis, Germany began looking for other such cases, and has thus already achieved four convictions, one from Sobibor (Demjanjuk), two from Auschwitz (Groening and Hanning) and, mostly recently, one from Stutthof (Dey). In addition, 14 investigations are currently being conducted in Germany against individuals who committed crimes in Buchenwald (3), Sachsenhausen (8), Mauthausen (1), Munich (1) and Berlin (1).
During the past year, three trials that commenced in 2018 and 2019 were completed with mixed results. One trial of a Stutthof guard (Johannes Rehbogen) was stopped for medical reasons, another Stutthof guard (Bruno Dey) was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but had his sentence suspended because he arrived at Stutthof at the age of 17, and a concentration camp guard living in Tennessee, who had served in a sub-camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp (Karl Friedrich Berger), was ordered deported from the United States.
The trials that were completed provided important history lessons about the horrors and suffering of the inmates of these lesser-known concentration camps.
One hundred-ten thousand men and women were deported to Stutthof, the first concentration camp built by the Nazis outside of the Third Reich, which was originally designated for Polish political and religious leaders and intelligentsia. Close to 50,000 Jews from the Baltics and Hungary were deported there starting in July 1944, a year after the Nazis added a gas chamber and crematorium. The estimated number of victims at Stutthof is 63,000-65,000, among them 28,000 Jews.
In Neuengamme, the verified death toll was 42,900. In addition, the verdict in the Dey case by Judge Meyer-Goering is a very convincing defense of the efforts to prosecute even lower-level Nazi war criminals.
Over the years since the Holocaust, trials have played a major role in educating the public about the horrific crimes committed by the Third Reich and local collaborators. Due to the enormous scope of the crimes, it was obvious from the very beginning that perfect justice could never be achieved. The contemporary efforts to hold lower-level accomplices accountable may seem of little value to some observers, but they continue to serve the important purposes of educating the public about the crimes, demonstrating the importance of the rule of law, and affording a measure of closure to the nations, families, and communities victimized by the Nazis.The writer is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi-hunter and director of its Israel Office and for Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), has been published in Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Russian, Swedish and English. His website is www.swcjerusalem.org and he can be followed on Twitter @EZuroff