Time is running out for the last surviving Nazi war criminals to be brought to justice. Hubert Zafke, 95, is one of them, among perhaps a dozen more cases in various stages of investigation.
For Holocaust survivors and their children, that men like Zafke have waited decades for their role in the murder of 1.1 million Jews in concentration camps is a “late justice,” Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, told Time.
During World War II, men like Hubert were young, in their 20s, but are now nearly 100 years old. Zafke is said to be suffering from dementia and it’s likely his trial — which will be held from February to March — will include regular breaks and medical care in recognition of his “cognitive impairment and low physical capacity,” the Local added.
Zafke is standing trial for his involvement in the deaths of 3,681 people during one month in 1944 at Auschwitz, the Associated Press reported. He worked as a medical orderly in an SS hospital and therefore contributed to the functioning of the death camp, according to prosecutors.
Hubert worked at Auschwitz in the same month that teenage diarist Anne Frank arrived on one of 14 trains that pulled into the camp between August 15 and September 14, 1944, BBC noted. Many of these people were eventually killed in the camp’s gas chambers. He served in a different part of the complex during that time, however.
During the trial, prosecutors will point out that Hubert was not ignorant to Auschwitz’s purpose as an “industrial-scale mass murder site;” he was also well aware of its structure, like most SS guards.
“Given his awareness, the accused lent support to the organization of the camp and was thereby both involved in and advanced the extermination,” prosecutors said when they charged Zafke for his involvement in the “cruel and insidious killings” of over 3,000 people.
Hubert’s attorney denies that he did anything criminal during his month at Auschwitz.
Zafke’s case is unique because, thanks to past convictions, prosecutors can take anyone who participated in the function of a concentration camp — whether or not they killed anyone — to trial for their involvement. And Hubert’s trial doesn’t include any charges that he murdered people directly.
Before 2009, only Nazi war criminals who’d committed a specific crime against a specific victim were convicted. Prosecutors had to prove that their crime was motivated by racial hatred, as well, which is hard to prove.
Then came the trial of the wheelchair-bound John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who served as a guard at the Sobibor camp. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison — at age 91 — for contributing to the deaths thousands of Jews. His trial set a precedent that has led to the convictions of people who had indirect roles at the camps, most often guards.
And then this summer, the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” Oskar Groening, was convicted for his role: counting the money stolen from prisoners. His involvement was even more indirect than Demjanjuk’s, and paved the way for more cases.
“You don’t have to prove a determined act that directly leads to a killing,” said public prosecutor Jens Rommel. “The mere presence, the mere support of the whole system of a [death] camp is punishable.”
More cases will follow Hubert Zafke’s. Four trials are scheduled this year in Germany; a half-dozen cases are in the investigation phase; and seven more are in a pre-investigation phase. Rommel said he likely has nine years left to pursue war criminals; in a decade, many of them will be 100.
But bringing these men, like Hubert, to justice provides closure for Holocaust survivors and their families. Even though this justice is coming very late, it’s important, Heubner said. Unfortunately, many Nazis have died right before their trials, said Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff.
“They are in their 90s. This is a very small window of opportunity for the people who are involved in hunting Nazis, so to speak. Sometimes say jokingly that I’m the only Jew in the world that prays for the good health of Nazi war criminals.”
Hubert Zafke’s trial begins February 29.
[Photo by Ricardo Hernandez/Shutterstock]