The Race Against Time to Convict Surviving Nazis

The 2011 conviction of death camp guard John Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder opened the door to more cases Michael Dalder/Reuters

Martin Uebele has dealt with some horrific cases in his role as chief prosecutor in the east German city of Görlitz – but none as shocking as his current investigation of a local man accused of murdering thousands of innocent civilians more than 70 years ago.

Uebele soon hopes to put the 90-year-old man on trial for his role in the shooting of 18,000 Jewish inmates on 3 November 1943 at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. At the time, the man – whose identity cannot be revealed until he is convicted – was 19 years old and working as an SS guard. He didn't shoot but he did nothing to stop the massacre either.

A court-appointed physician is currently evaluating the man's health, with a decision expected shortly as to whether he is fit enough to face a court.

"As a guard, he was part of the killing machine, which makes him an accessory to murder," says Uebele tells Newsweek. "If he is incapable of participating in the court proceedings I will have to close the case."

The mass murder at Majdanek, dubbed Operation Harvest Festival by the Germans, is an undisputed event. Yet for nearly seven decades German prosecutors were unable to bring charges against guards who were present at such killings.

But the case of John Demjanjuk four years ago changed that, and now the race is on to hunt down alleged Nazis associated with mass killings.

A court in Munich ruled that although there wasn't enough evidence to convict the 91-year-old Demjanjuk of murder, he was an accessory to the crime. He was sentenced to five years in prison but died while appealing the verdict.

The passage of time means there won't be many more opportunities to bring Nazi war criminals to court – earlier this month one of the most wanted remaining Nazis, Soren Kam, died unpunished in Denmark – but without the landmark Demjanjuk ruling, most would likely not be happening at all.

Prosecutors no longer need proof that each guard personally participated in murder. Charges can be filed against them merely for their presence at the time of the killings.

Dr Efraim Zuroff, a Brooklyn-born Jew who is the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's chief Nazi-hunter, is determined to round up as many suspects as possible in what he calls Operation Last Chance.

"Life expectancy is working in our favour," says Zuroff, who now lives in Israel. "Germany has good healthcare. These war criminals have the bad fortune of being alive."

Zuroff knows he won't find anyone as important as Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution, which allowed for the transportation of Europe's Jews to concentration camps. Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961 and executed the following year.

"The people we're chasing now were guards, they drove trains and buses," he says.

"It's not possible to prove they're guilty of murder, but thanks to Demjanjuk the bar is much lower."

Zuroff receives many leads, which he passes on to Germany's official Nazi-hunting agency, the Zentrale Stelle, which is obliged to act on information from the public.

"What we have to prove is that the person was serving at the extermination camp while people were being sent to the gas chambers," says Kurt Schrimm, the Zentrale Stelle's chief prosecutor. "And we have to prove the nature of their duties. A camp cook was less involved in war crimes than a camp guard."

Schrimm took over as head of the Zentrale Stelle 15 years ago and has been combing through the agency's 1.6 million cards containing information about some 100,000 suspected war criminals.

On 21 April, a 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard called Oska Gröning goes on trial in Lüneburg, 45 minutes south-east of Hamburg, accused of assisting in the murders of 300,000 inmates between

May and July 1944. Gröning's duties allegedly involved sorting the money inmates had brought with them.

During those two months, at least 137 trains carrying Hungarian Jews arrived at the camp, and the prosecution alleges that Gröning personally supervised the ransacking of their belongings on at least one occasion. He also knew that the inmates would encounter gas, not water in the shower rooms.

In accordance with German law, Gröning isn't named in the court documents but he has identified himself, describing his recurring nightmares of watching another guard hurl a newly arrived baby against a wall until it died. He argues that his guilt is different from those who killed. He just watched.

Later this spring, another 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard, accused of assisting in the murders of 170,000 inmates will go on trial for overseeing 92 trains containing Hungarian Jews arriving at the death camp. The arrivals were classified as usable and unusable. The unusable ones were sent to their death in the gas chamber. But some of them tried to escape, and prosecutors accuse the SS officer of having participated in "brutally ending their escape".

And in Neubrandenburg, an eastern German city two hours north of Berlin, a 94-year-old Auschwitz SS medic is about to go on trial, accused of assisting in the murders of 3,681 inmates between August and September 1944.

"The failures after the war were simply too big. Many, many culprits got away," says Dr Josef Schuster, president of Germany's Jewish association. He believes there's a public benefit to the trials because they deliver invaluable material about the Nazi regime to future generations of historians.

Before Christmas, Martin Uebele, the chief prosecutor in Görlitz, searched the 90-year-old man's home and read the accusation to him. Now, the doctor's report awaits. If it gets to court, there'll be some sympathy for the man, given his age and health – but it won't be forthcoming from Wilhelm Wolff, a German Jew who fled with his parents to Britain in 1933 but is now back in Germany serving as a rabbi.

"Every person who's committed a crime has to defend himself in front of a court. It doesn't matter how old you are," he says.

Nobody knows how many Nazi war criminals are still at large. The overshadowing matter is who's alive. Currently, some 30 death camp guards are under investigation by prosecutors in cities including Stuttgart, Munich, Mainz, Leipzig, Kiel, Nuremberg and Frankfurt. The Zentrale Stelle has also identified seven suspects living abroad, including one in Israel.

For the Nazi hunters and prosecutors, it's a race against time. They know better than anyone that the race can't be won, but nothing will dampen their fervour.