The news that Austria is re-opening the case of Erna Wallisch, a female guard at the Majdanek death camp, currently residing in Vienna, was accompanied in many media outlets by a photograph of an elderly, rather disoriented housewife - who looked as if she had been awaken from a deep sleep.
Indeed it appeared on the surface quite difficult to connect the subject of the photograph to the content of the news story. And that in a microcosm, is a significant element of the problems we face in our efforts to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, more than six decades after they committed their crimes.
Due to the advanced age of the suspects, there is more than a little scepticism as to the value of such prosecutions.
In that context, it is important to reiterate the four basic principles which guide us in our efforts to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable for their crimes – and which have motivated the launch of our 'Operation: Last Chance' project, which seeks to maximize prosecution by offering financial rewards for information which helps facilitate the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals.
The first principle is that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators. If someone committed a crime in 1941 or 1942 and is not caught, he or she is just as guilty today as they were six decades ago.
The second principle is that murderers do not deserve a prize for longevity. The fact that a killer reached an elderly age should not afford them any special consideration.
The third principle is that if we were to institute a chronological limit on prosecution of Nazi war criminals, it would mean on a practical level that we were allowing people to get away with genocide since the basic implication of such a limit would be that if a killer was rich enough, smart enough or lucky enough to elude justice until he or she reached the age limit - they would escape punishment. To create such a situation would obviously be unthinkable from a moral and judicial standpoint.
The last principle relates to the victims. One of the points always stressed by the late Simon Wiesenthal was that the post-Holocaust generation has an obligation to the victims to make every effort to hold their murderers accountable. On a more personal level, if someone had murdered your grandmother and the killer was only found forty or fifty years later, the fact that many years had passed since the crime would not in any way diminish your natural desire that the murderer of your grandmother be punished for that terrible crime. And in that respect we must remember that every one of the Nazis’ victims was someone’s grandmother or grandfather, father or mother, son or daughter. Hence every one of those victims deserves that an effort be made to find their murderers and hold them accountable.
The moral arguments listed above are complemented by several statistics which underscore the validity of the contemporary efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Thus during that period from April 1 2006 until March 31 2007, a total of 21 individuals who either participated in Nazi war crimes during World War II or actively collaborated with Nazi forces were convicted, and since January 1 2001, 69 such convictions have been obtained. As of April 1, 2007, there were at least 1019 ongoing investigations in fourteen different countries of individuals suspected of Nazi war crimes.
These figures reflect two important phenomena – the increased sensitivity of certain governments to the significance of Holocaust crimes and the obvious necessity of trying to achieve justice while it is still possible. Having said that, it would be naïve to attribute all the investigations currently underway solely to these factors since it is clear that numerous governments lack the requisite political will to prosecute the criminals of World War II and often open investigations primarily to deflect possible public criticism and delay unpopular prosecutions.
In this context, it is important to note that contrary to common popular perception, the biggest obstacle to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the 21st century is not finding them or the evidence against them - but rather combating the lack of political will in numerous countries which refuse to take the necessary legal measures to hold Holocaust criminals accountable. For example, two out of the four strongest cases developed in the framework of 'Operation: Last Chance' are currently bogged down in extradition problems, which have so far prevented the prosecution of Croatian police chief Milivoj Ašner and Hungarian officer Charles Zentai, both of whom are wanted in the countries in which they committed their crimes (Croatia and Hungary respectively).
An important component of our efforts in the Wallisch case will be to 'train' people to look at her and see the Majdanek guard who took people to be gassed as opposed to the elderly Vienna housewife. That may not be easy, but it is part of our obligation to her victims and an important part of the fight for justice.
You can find out more about Operation Last Chance at the project's website.