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Auschwitz guards could stand trial: Why new trials for old Nazis?

Auschwitz guards, now in their 80s and 90s, should be prosecuted for their role at the death camps, say German prosecutors. A new legal argument says that anyone involved in the operation of a death camp was an accessory to murder, opening the door to prosecuting 30 surviving Auschwitz guards.

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Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said the decision could mean even more cases will be opened against guards at the other five main death camps established by the Nazis.

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"We commend the (prosecutors) for seeking to apply the precedent as widely as possible and hope that they will be able to find as many perpetrators as possible," he said in a telephone interview.

"It's only a shame that this kind of legal reasoning was not applied previously, because it would have led to many, many more cases of people who definitely deserved to be brought to justice."

Schrimm said that even guards who worked in a death camp's kitchens played a role in the facility's function as a site that existed for the purpose of mass murder.

Schrimm cautioned that the health of the suspects — and of possible witnesses — would make bringing them to trial difficult.

"I don't want to raise excessive expectations," he said.

The Nazis built six main death camps, all in occupied Poland: Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

The Auschwitz and Majdanek complexes also had labor camps associated with them, but Schrimm said the suspects in the current investigation all worked in the main death camp, known as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As part of the investigation prosecutors surveyed anew the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and concluded no one could have been there for more than a day or two without learning that people were being gassed to death and their bodies incinerated at the site, he said.

About 1.5 million people, primarily Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz camp complex alone between 1940 and 1945. Overall, about 6 million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust.

Schrimm's office is now focusing on the other death camps, starting with investigating all former personnel at Majdanek. He said expects to announce results of the Majdanek probe within six months.

Investigators are also looking into former members of the so-called "einsatzgruppen" — death squads that were responsible for mass killings, particularly early in the war before the death camps were established, Schrimm said.

He said he did not see extending the Demjanjuk precedent, however, to the Nazis' network of hundreds of concentration camps — places like Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald — where many tens of thousands died but whose purpose was not solely extermination.

In cases of guards from those camps, prosecutors still need evidence of a specific crime in order to bring charges, he said.

Rising reported from Berlin

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