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The arrest in Germany late last week of three men aged 88, 92 and 94, who served as guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, has once again raised the issue of the ongoing prosecution of elderly Holocaust perpetrators, almost seven decades after the end of World War II.
In truth, the question is not really new and has been an issue for many years, since elderly Nazis and collaborators have been brought to justice ever since the war ended. What is new, however, is the age of the men currently in detention, as well as other Nazi war criminals who have been investigated and/or prosecuted during the past decade or so, who have been considerably older than those brought to justice in previous decades.
The reason for this is essentially biological and in that respect, the most dramatic development in "Nazi-hunting" has not been changes in legal systems, but rather the significant increase in life expectancy in the Western world, where the overwhelming majority of the surviving unprosecuted Nazi war criminals reside.
Thus the moral, legal and philosophical arguments for continued prosecution remain the same, and can be summarised as follows:
Firstly, the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. If a person committed murder many years ago and has still not been held accountable, he or she is no less guilty today, just because many years have passed since the crime was committed.
Secondly, old age should not afford protection to murderers. Reaching an advanced age does not turn a murderer into a Righteous Among the Nations.
Thirdly, every one of the Nazis' victims deserves that an effort be made to find the person(s) who turned them - innocent men, women, and children - into victims just because they were arbitrarily classified as "enemies of the Reich."
Fourth, the ongoing efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice sends a powerful message, that if one commits such heinous crimes, even decades later the search to hold such persons accountable continues. In this regard, the fact that so many of those who perpetrated the crimes of the Holocaust were able to escape punishment, only made it easier for subsequent tragedies to occur. It must be as clear as possible, that committing such crimes will almost certainly result in swift and severe punishment.
Fifth, trials of Nazi war criminals continue to prove helpful in the fight against Holocaust denial and the recent efforts, primarily in post-Communist Eastern Europe, to rewrite the narrative of World War II to hide or minimise the role of local collaborators in Holocaust crimes, and promote the canard of equivalency between Communist crimes and those of the Nazis.
Finally, it must be noted that since its creation, international law has consistently rejected the "superior orders" defense, which has been used by so many Nazi war criminals, especially of middle and lower ranks who attempted to thereby absolve themselves of any criminal responsibility for their crimes.
All of these arguments continue to be as relevant today, as they have been for decades, but I would like to add two personal observations based on my thirty-three years of experience. Both deal with the emotional heart of this issue, which is the natural sympathy of the average viewer aroused by the sight of elderly defendants who usually try very hard (whether on their own initiative or at the advice of their attorneys) to appear in court as sick and frail as possible. In addition, I realise that many people assume that the passage of so much time since the crime, has led at least some of these criminals to regret their transgressions.
So I believe it is important to note that I have NEVER encountered a single Holocaust perpetrator who ever expressed any regret or remorse. If anything, just the opposite, they are still proud to this day of the crimes they committed, which many continue to portray as their "patriotic" duty. And that is why I continue time after time to remind the skeptics, that the criminals being brought to justice are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy since they had no mercy on their innocent victims, some of whom were even older than they are today.
So when you see one of these Auschwitz guards on TV in the coming weeks, don't be taken in by their frail, sickly appearance. Think of them as they were in the prime of their youth and physical strength, when they devoted all their energy to helping run the largest industrialised mass murder factory in the history of mankind.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book Operation Last Chance; One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan) chronicles the worldwide efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice over the past more than three decades.
The Center's special website for this issue is: www.operationlastchance.org and one can follow Dr. Zuroff on Facebook and Twitter (@EZuroff). Information on the worldwide activities of the Simon Wiesenthal Center can be viewed at www.wiesenthal.com