(Correction: An early version of this post included a reference to a "Polish death camp." It should have said "a Nazi death camp in Poland." CNN regrets the error.)
German prosecutors have reopened¬†hundreds¬†of investigations into suspected Nazi death camp guards, according to the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights organization founded by a camp survivor.
"Though this is¬†late in the game, and those who would be targeted are very old, this is tremendously important," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper. "This signals that there is a new generation of prosecutors who want to take a fresh and serious look, and it means that the larger German bureaucratic machine is paying attention to the importance of finding these criminals."
Germany is making a move now¬†because of an unusual and opportune precedent established by the May 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a¬†guard at a death camp, Cooper explained.¬†There was no direct evidence tying Demjanjuk to crimes, but prosecutors won¬†a conviction on more than 28,000 counts of accessory to murder by demonstrating that he worked at the camp where deaths occurred.
Demjanjuk was¬†deported from the United States in 2009¬†to stand trial in Germany, appearing in court wearing¬†dark eyeglasses and a baseball hat.¬†Demjanjuk¬†has filed an appeal of his conviction.¬†Because of his age and the unlikely flight risk he posed, he was freed but returned to prison in May, prompting¬†German prison officials to search¬†for a short-term nursing home for him.
"Practically speaking, you might have¬†once had¬†thousands of cases, but now you have maybe hundreds [of suspects]," Cooper said. "Factor in advanced age and illness, and then [consider]¬†whether they [suspects]¬†would be capable of defending themselves at trial. The number goes down significantly [of those who could be prosecuted]."
Not all prosecutions have been successful. In July, a Hungarian court acquitted¬†a 97-year-old - accused of being one of the world's most wanted Nazi war suspects - because of lack of evidence.
But even a few¬†convictions will be¬†symbolically important, the rabbi said, and¬†reinforced the words of Simon Wiesenthal who escaped from a camp in 1943. Wiesenthal lost 89 members of his family in the Holocaust, according to the Center's website. "Each trial is an inoculation against hatred," Cooper repeated Wiesenthal's¬†words.
Cooper said that the Wiesenthal Center has a researcher based in Germany dedicated to tracking down former Nazis who communicates with German¬†authorities.¬†And the Center's head Nazi-hunter, Efraim¬†Zuroff, is conducting a campaign called "Operation Last Chance" targeted toward rooting out Nazis in hiding. Read a CNN.com profile¬†of Zuroff.
The Center, however, is not working with German authorities¬†on the newly opened investigations.
"We certainly would like to help,"¬†Cooper said.