The wheels of West German justice often turn painfully slowly. But they have finally reached three former SS men who now are going to prison for periods of up to 12 years for aiding and abetting the murder of more than 50,000 French Jews between 1942 and 1944.
Not one of three men convicted apparently ever personally laid a hand, or held a gun, on a Jew. Like Adolf Eichmann, their superior in Berlin, they were writing-desk murderers -- signing the papers and organizing the trains of boxcars that carried the French Jews to auschwitz.
In most cases, the Auschwitz guards marched the French Jews straight from the arriving trains to the gas chambers.
Cologne Judge Ernst Fassbender ordered these sentences:
* Ten years in prison for Kurt Lischka, former SS lieutenant colonel, deputy commander of the Nazi security police, and director of the French police in occupied Paris.
* Twelve years in prison for Herbert-Martin Hagen, former SS major and personal aide to it. Gen. Carl-albrecht Oberg, SS commander in occupied France.
* Six years in prison for Ernst Heinrichsohn, former SS sergeant in Lischka's office, who was detailed to arrange the pickup of the French Jews and their transportation eastward.
Their trial began in October, lasting through 30 sessions -- a fraction of the time such cases normally require.
In Dusseldorf, by comparison, the trial of men and women SS guards at the Maidanek concentration camp has gone on for four years and more than 380 sessions, with no end in sight.
The difference in this latest case is that the prosecution was able to produce documentary evidence bearing the signatures of the accused, while in the other trial the prosecution has the vastly more difficult task of proving, for example, that a certain guard personally killed a certain prisoner on a specific day more than 36 years ago.
Since the Nazi defeat, West German prosecutors have instituted proceedings against more than 85,000 named Nazis suspected of murder, usually mass murder. About 6,500 Nazis have been sentenced.
Last year, the West German Parliament repealed the statute of limitations on murder, expressly to insure that no Nazi killer living undetected under another name since 1945 could surface now and go free.
Nonetheless, identifying and locating dwindling numbers of Nazis as well as producing proof of atrocities so long after the fact, makes the arduous task of prosecution even more difficult.