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Nazi hunters boost drive to find aging war criminals before they die

Gero Breloer / AP

Efraim Zuroff, chief-Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Center's Jerusalem Office, announces on Wednesday the launching of "Operation Last Chance II" during a news conference in Berlin, Germany.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday launched a new race against time to prosecute Nazi war criminals still alive 66 years after the end of World War II.

Efraim Zuroff, the center's top Nazi-hunter, told reporters in Berlin that "Operation Last Chance II" would provide up to 25,000 euros ($32,900) in reward money for information that leads to the investigation and prosecution of war criminals.


"Whatever can be done has to be done very promptly and as quickly as possible because time is running out," Zuroff said, claiming the passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers.

The effort comes after German prosecutors said in October that the successful conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk had set a precedent that allowed them to reopen hundreds of dormant investigations.

Demjanjuk, 91, was convicted in May of thousands of counts of accessory to murder after a Munich court found he served as a death camp guard — the first time a suspect had been found guilty without evidence of a specific crime. The court ruled that any guard at a Nazi camp whose sole purpose was to kill people could be convicted of accessory to murder.

John Demjanjuk emerges from a Munich, Germany, court on May 12, 2011, after a judge sentenced him to 5 years in prison for charges related to 28,060 counts of accessory to murder.

Demjanjuk denies having ever served as a guard and is appealing the verdict.

"What this conviction does is set a legal precedent that should pave the way for the prosecution of many people who were on a daily basis over a prolonged period of time involved in mass murder but who had been ignored," Zuroff said.

About 4,000 people were either guards at the four Nazi camps used only for killings — Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Treblinka — or members of the Einsatzgruppen death squads responsible for mass killings, particularly early in the war before the death camps were established.

Zuroff said that he did not know how many were still alive — the youngest would now be in their 80s — but that he guessed conservatively there could be 80 or more.

"I think it's not a gross exaggeration to assume that 2 percent are still probably alive," he said.

Zuroff said a high-ranking living Nazi is in sights but he cannot reveal his name because of an ongoing criminal investigation, the Jerusalem Post reported.

"I am not saying who because he’s a flight risk," Zuroff said. "This person was a commander and involved in very serious actions against Jews."

Zuroff also said Klaas Farber, an alleged SS hitman in Holland, was the most senior Nazi known to be alive today. Faber lives in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, Germany. He was sentenced in a Dutch court in 1947 was convicted of murdering 22 Jews in the occupied Netherlands during WWII, but he escaped prison in 1952.

Prosecutors in Dortmund also are currently investigating six former members of an SS armored division that was responsible for the largest massacre in Nazi-occupied France under the same theory that led to Demjanjuk’s prosecution.

The Wiesenthal Center is asking for tips to a new hotline in Germany. Though the focus of the investigation is Germany, Zuroff said suspects could live anywhere in the world.

A reward of 5,000 euros will be paid for the information upon the indictment of a suspect, another 5,000 euros upon conviction, and a further 100 euros per day spent in prison — up to 150 days — for a total of 25,000 euros, Zuroff said.

The center's original "Operation Last Chance" was launched in 2002 and targeted primarily eastern European countries. It ended up with 102 suspects' names being turned over to prosecutors. Of those, only a handful were ever indicted or tried, Zuroff said.

Zuroff said that at this late stage, with few witnesses left and suspects' health often preventing them from being brought to trial, he measures success in six stages: exposure; official investigation; indictment; trial; conviction; and punishment.

"It's very hard today to get to stage six," he said.

"The answer is very simple," Zuroff said. "One, the passage in time does not diminish guilt of killers. Two, old age does not afford protection to murderers. Three, all the victims deserve efforts to find their killers. Four, it sends an important message to those today that they are being brought to justice."

Former Ohio resident John Demjanjuk is found guilty for his involvement in thousands of deaths at a Nazi death camp during World War II.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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