When she appeared in a German court last month, Irmgard Furchner sat in a wheelchair clutching her handbag. Her mask and kerchief made it difficult to see the face of the 97-year-old — who has been charged with more than 11,000 counts of “aiding and abetting” murder during the Holocaust.
The nursing-home resident was a secretary in the commandant’s office of the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, and is now among the latest former Nazis to be prosecuted in Germany.
The defendants are in their late 90s or even centenarians, but German prosecutors and a Nazi hunter are determined that they face justice for the murder of six million Jews.
Last month, 101-year-old Josef Schuetz became the oldest former Nazi to be prosecuted. He was convicted for the murder of more than 3,500 Jews, minorities and political prisoners while he served as a concentration camp guard at the Sachsenhausen death camp between 1942 and 1945. A regional German court sentenced him to five years in prison although he is not expected to serve time due to poor health, according to reports. Schuetz, who is known in Germany as Josef S. due to privacy laws in the country, has repeatedly denied the charges. His lawyer told AFP that he would appeal a guilty verdict.
Schuetz’s prosecution was made possible after the German government changed its policy on Nazi war criminals more than a decade ago. Previously, prosecutors had to prove a specific crime against a specific victim. But in the last several years, Germany has allowed for prosecutions of Nazis who served in death camps or mobile killing units, “based on their service alone,” said Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff.
“In the past, Germany has failed miserably in terms of Nazi prosecutions,” said Zuroff, who heads up the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and is the director of its Eastern European Affairs division. Zuroff, 73, has been hunting Nazis for more than 40 years.
Between 1949 and 1985, there were 200,000 investigations and 120,000 indictments of former Nazis in Germany, but less than 7,000 convictions, Zuroff told The Post. “And the punishments were ludicrous,” Zuroff continued. “People who served in Treblinka [death camp] got three years.”
There are now six prosecutions going on in Germany against those who worked in death camps during the war, although that number can change as prosecutors continue to track down and build cases against others, according to chief public prosecutor Thomas Will, who heads up the Central office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg.
“According to German law, there is no statute of limitations for murder and also for aiding and abetting it,” Will told The Post, adding that his agency investigates suspected Nazis and then turns over the cases to local prosecutors in the areas where the crimes took place or where the suspects currently live.
Since the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, an Ohio autoworker who was convicted in Munich of being a low-level guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, prosecutors in Germany have focused on “systematic mass killings in concentration camps and now also in prisoner of war camps,” Will said.
For Will and his agency, age is not an issue unless the accused is too feeble to stand trial, he said.
“It is not possible by law to refrain from prosecution in individual cases — for example because of the age of the accused — since the necessary enforcement of criminal law in the case of murder does not allow any discretion,” he told The Post. “However, an indispensable prerequisite for any criminal conviction is the ability of the accused to stand trial. This must be checked carefully over and over again, especially in the case of very old people. If there is a lack of this ability to negotiate, no criminal proceedings can take place.”
The six suspects his office recently investigated range in ages between 96 and 100, he said. Because the investigations are ongoing, Will said he cannot confirm the identities of the suspects — who include guards who worked at death camps such as Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Stalag I-B Hohenstein, a prisoner of war camp in former East Prussia (now Poland) which housed both Allied and Soviet soldiers.
That camp was known for its harsh conditions and repeated typhoid epidemics. Between 1941 and 1942 more than 25,000 soldiers, most of them Soviets, died in the POW camp, according to reports.
“The main perpetrators are criminally classified as murderers, and their supporters are guilty of aiding and abetting murder,” Will said. “The prerequisite, however, is that these helpers were involved in the processes and also recognized the consequences of their actions, and were witness to mass murder.”
Zuroff, who has brought numerous cases to Will’s agency, is hoping that German prosecutors will continue to investigate Herbert Wahler, a former medic who was allegedly part of the mobile killing unit Einzatgruppe C, which slaughtered 33,771 Jewish men, women and children at Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Ukraine’s capital in 1941.
A regional German court in Kassel first took up that case a few years ago, but closed it down for lack of evidence in 2020.
Still, said Zuroff: “Why do you need a medic in a massacre?”
“What has been, has been; it’s over,” Wahler told German broadcaster ARD in 2017 when asked about his time during World War II.
Now a descendant of a Babyn Yar victim has applied to reopen Wahler’s case. For Zuroff, who tracked down Wahler along with other alleged members of the Einzatzgruppen still living in Germany a few years ago, the prosecution represents a final opportunity to bring both the perpetrators and accessories of mass murder to justice for their WWII-era crimes.
Will refused comment on the Wahler case.
“As long as any of the members of the Einzatzgruppen are alive, they can’t be allowed to live in peace,” said Zuroff.
It’s a view shared by the descendants of Holocaust survivors. Last December, on the day that Herbert Wahler celebrated his 100th birthday in Meslungen, a quiet spa town in central Germany, a group of protestors arrived on his doorstep.
Holding large portraits of Jews who perished during the Holocaust, they surrounded Wahler’s home, demanding that German authorities prosecute one of its last living Nazis.
Wahler allegedly initially served in a Waffen-S.S. unit — the combat branch of Hitler’s elite forces which, in late July 1941, was assigned to Einsatzgruppen C. That unit traveled from place to place, murdering Jews and civilians. By the fall of 1941, Zuroff estimated, some 78,000 people were murdered by the mobile killing units. The massacre at Babyn Yar on the outskirts of Kyiv was “the largest mass murder in the history of the Holocaust,” he said.
In addition to hunting down Wahler — one of thousands of Nazis that Adolf Hitler allegedly dispatched into Ukraine to kill Jews — the New York-born Zuroff, who has a PhD in European history, has been instrumental in finding Nazis who fled to South America, Australia, the US and Canada. He famously tracked down Aribert Heim, an Austrian SS doctor known as “Dr. Death” and the “Butcher of Mauthausen,” living in Egypt. But Heim died in 1992 before Zuroff could bring him to justice.
Zuroff, who has been hunting Nazis since 1978, estimates that some 10,000 Nazi collaborators entered the US illegally after WWII, and there may be hundreds still scattered around the world, with most of them living in Austria and Germany.
“Austria hasn’t prosecuted any Nazis for more than 45 years,” he said, adding that many countries around the world lacked the political will to go after war criminals after the war.
Zuroff, who has written several books on his Nazi hunting adventures and other Holocaust-related issues, refuses to give up.
“They may be old, but they’re still guilty,” he said.
Last month, Furchner, who has denied having any role in the murder of more than 11,000 prisoners at the camp where she worked as a stenographer, faced one of her accusers in the courtroom via videolink.
Halina Strnad, 95, and now a resident of Melbourne, Australia, laid out in graphic detail what it is was like to be a prisoner at Stutthof in 1944. “I was hit, I was kicked, I was spat on,” she said.
Strnad went on to describe how nearly all the women prisoners in her barracks had contracted typhus, including herself. Her mother died in her arms, she said and most of the dead were burned in a pit.
She told the court of Furchner: “I can’t imagine how it was possible not to know what happened.”