The wheels of justice for the victims of Nazi crimes move in a zig zag and at a frustratingly slow pace, even at this late date in time, when every day that passes can spell the difference between a perpetrator being convicted and punished and a case being dropped for reasons of physical or mental infirmities.
Two decisions by German courts this month reflect the status of the current efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in the Federal Republic, one of the last countries in the world whose judicial authorities are still trying to hold perpetrators of Nazi crimes accountable.
In the first decison, taken a week and a half ago, a court in Cologne threw out a case against Werner C, who was accused of being a member of an execution squad which in 1944, shot 25 men in the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane, and helped blockade and set fire to a church in which dozens of the town's residents were burnt alive, in one of the biggest Nazi atrocities committed in France during World War II.
Although the defendant admitted that he was in Oradour on the day of the massacre, he claimed that he did not not shoot anybody, nor did he participate in any of the murders.
The court ruled in his favor and dismissed the case on the grounds that no corroborative witness testimony or documentary proof had been presented to prove Werner C's personal participation. At the moment, the prosecution is deliberating whether to appeal the decision, but the initial verdict and a decision taken a few days ago in a second Nazi war crimes case clearly delineate the current legal situation vis-a-vis the potential chances for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Germany.
The latter decision, taken just this week, was the acceptance by a court in the northern German city of Lueneburg of an indictment against a former Auschwitz guard named Oskar Groening, who served in the largest of the Nazi death camps from September 1942 until October 1944. During most of this time he was involved in managing the money confiscated from the deportees.
The charges in his case relate to the period from 16 May until 11 July 1944, when 137 trains with approximately 437,000 Jews from Hungary aboard arrived in Auschwitz, of whom at least 300,000 were immediately murdered. Groening was on the ramp during the selection process and assisted in handling the deportees' belongings, a process through which the National Socialist regime gained economically, and which therefore supported the systematic murder of European Jewry being carried out by the Nazis.
The Groening case is very unusual in many respects. Years ago, he gave several interviews, among them for a BBC film and for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, in which he admitted his service in Auschwitz, although he did not confess to any physical crimes, claiming that "legally" he was innocent. He also spoke openly of the terrible crimes he had personally witnessed while at the camp and expressed his willingness to speak out against Holocaust denial.
It was only after the conviction of Sobibor death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk in Munich in 2011, however, that a dramatic change in German prosecution policy has enabled bringing Groening to trial.
Demjanjuk was the first case in Germany in almost fifty years in which a Nazi war criminal/collaborator was charged and convicted, even though no evidence of a specific crime against a specific victim by the defendant (which for the previous almost five decades had been the basic requirement for filing such a case) was submitted to the court.
The verdict against Demjanjuk in effect meant that any person who had served either in one of the six Nazi death camps - Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Majdanek - or in the Einsatzgruppe A,B, C, or D (special mobile killing squads) which operated on the Eastern front, could be convicted of at least accessory to murder, the punishment for which is five years' imprisonment, based on service alone.
There no doubt will be those who wonder what use bringing middle or lower-level Nazis to justice is, when so many higher ranked Holocaust perpetrators eluded justice completely, but ignoring their crimes because of the past failures of the German and Austrian justice systems is only adding more injustice, when the opposite is required, and is an insult to their victims. One can only wonder what a difference the Demjanjuk precedent might have have had on the record of German prosecutions of Nazi war criminals had it been applied not in 2011, but many years earlier.
In the meantime, all we can do is hope that a basis for an appeal against Werner C will be found and that Groening will indeed be prosecuted successfully, and in that respect, every moment counts.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book is "Operation Last Chance:One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Crimials to Justice." His websites are www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com He can be reached on Twitter @EZuroff as well as on Facebook.