Now in their 90s and older those who kept the death camps running don’t deserve to pass away in tranquility

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

(First appeared in The Times of Israel)

The recent death of an elderly German in the small Bavarian town of Coburg is hardly newsworthy, but the demise of Franz  Perlinger, several days after celebrating his 99th birthday, is actually more significant than most people could imagine. Had Perlinger not died two weeks ago, he was scheduled to be put on trial this coming October for accessory to murder in the cases of thousands of inmates in the women’s and the much smaller men’s camp of the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany, to which the Nazis deported more than 130,000, mostly female Polish and Soviet political prisoners.

Escaping Justice. Women inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany where Franz Perlinger served and was to stand trial as an accessory to mass murder.

The case against Perlinger would have been the eighth trial conducted in the wake of a dramatic change in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Holocaust perpetrators, implemented in 2008. Until then, in order to convict a Nazi criminal, the prosecution would have had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, an almost impossible challenge so many years after the crime. But based on the fact that the death camps (those with either gas chambers – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Majdanek – or gas vans – Chelmno) were in effect “death factories”, government prosecutors were persuaded that anyone who served there could be held responsible for the murders and hence be prosecuted for “accessory to murder,” based on service alone, which could be proven by documents. Thus, the campaign to bring to justice guards in death camps, or camps with very high mortality rates was launched regardless of the age of the suspects, who all were already at least in their nineties.

Chasing the Clock. Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s chief Nazi hunter, in front of a placard reading “Operation last chance – late but not too late”, in Berlin. (Photograph: Gero Breloer/AP)

This dramatic change in German policy, spearheaded by prosecutors Thomas Walther and Kirsten Goetze, gave a new lease on life to the efforts to hold Nazi perpetrators accountable. Germany is currently the only country that has achieved multiple convictions of Holocaust criminals during the past decade-and-a- half. This is a welcome development, but having noted this important achievement, it is important to point out several serious flaws in the handling of these cases, which Perlinger’s “premature” death helps highlight.

So far, all of the defendants whose trials had been completed have been convicted, and only one had to be stopped for health reasons. (The case of Johannes Rehbogen who served as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp was suspended because his health deteriorated and he was no longer able to follow the trial.) Unpublicized however, is the fact that between five and seven cases had to be stopped for health reasons, after indictments had been submitted against the suspects.

Killers in Court. German prosecutor Thomas Walther (above) together with Kirsten Goetze have given a new lease on life to the efforts to hold Nazi mass murders accountable.

One would imagine that given the advanced age of both the criminals and the survivors, a “fast track” would be created for these trials, but unfortunately that has not been the case. Thus instead of being exposed, prosecuted, and convicted for his role as an SS guard at Ravensbrück, Perlinger passed away in relative tranquility that he did not deserve.

Mis’trial. Crematorium at Stutthof concentration camp where Johannes Rehbogen served as a guard. Leaving it too late to prosecute as the writer warns, Rehboggen’s case was suspended because his health deteriorated, and he was no longer able to stand trial.

The German justice system should have found a way to expedite these cases. In respect of Perlinger for example, the historian in his case took more than three years to complete the important historical report on the crimes committed in the camp. In addition, the opening date of his trial was scheduled more than a year after he was charged, and the result is not at all surprising. We have already been working on the case for about half a year, and there were still eight months to go before the trial even opened!!

Inspection Tour. SS leader Heinrich Himmler (centre) visited Stutthof where more than 65,000 people died before it was liberated by the Soviet Army on 9 May 1945.

Another problem relates to failure of the German justice system to add additional staff to the Zentrale Stelle (the federal agency that vets each case of a Nazi perpetrator to decide whether the cases have validity and should be brought to trial), to enable the handling of far more cases, since the change in prosecution policy made it possible to prosecute many more persons than was the case previously.

Survived to be Sentenced. In December 2022 at a court in Germany, 97-year-old Irmgard Furchner who worked as the secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp received a two-year suspended sentence for aiding and abetting the murder of 10,505 people and the attempted murder of five inmates.(photo Christian Charisius/Pool via Reuters)

A third problem is the choice of prosecutors. After a case is approved for trial by the experts of the Zentrale Stelle, the file is sent to a prosecutor near the residence of the defendant. None of these prosecutors, or even some of the attorneys representing the survivor witnesses and co-plaintiffs have any experience in handling Nazi perpetrator cases. So while this has some logic in dealing with the logistics of the trial, such as the appearances of the defendants, it often results in serious mistakes. One such example was of a witness, who claimed he was born in Stutthof and that his mother had been tattooed there when inmates of Stutthof did not have numbers tattooed on their arms.

Time is obviously running out, and soon it will no longer be possible to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. We therefore urge the German authorities to take whatever measures possible to expedite these cases promptly, in order to maximize justice.

97-year-old former secretary at a Nazi concentration camp convicted by German court | DW News

About the author:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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