Germany's central office for investigating Nazi war crimes announced Tuesday that it was recommending the prosecution of 30 alleged former guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for being accessories to murder, including one Israeli resident, according to a report in the German daily Der Spiegel.
The announcement was made by Kurt Schrimm, head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg, which focuses on German crimes during World War II.
In the spring, according to the report, Schrimm announced that his office had launched a major push to bring former camp guards to justice. Tuesday's recommendation relates only to those who could be identified as having worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, in southern Poland. Additional investigations by Schrimm's office will focus on those who may have worked at other death camps, starting with Majdanek, Der Spiegel reported.
Schrimm told reporters on Tuesday that it remained unclear whether charges could be pressed in all cases.
"I want to warn against excessive expectations," he said. "We don't know anything about the health of those in question. It could be that only a few can really be charged."
Initially, Schrimm's office was able to identify 49 suspected former Auschwitz-Birkenau guards. Nine of them, however, have died in the meantime. Another seven live overseas -- he specifically mentioned Austria, Brazil, Croatia, the U.S., Poland and Israel -- and are still under investigation. Two could not be found and a final case has already been sent to prosecutors, reported Der Spiegel.
The suspects were all born between 1916 and 1926, but Schrimm declined to provide further details about them.
The late push has been made possible by the conviction of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty of accessory to murder in 2011 solely on the basis of having served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp. He died last year while appealing that conviction. The court ruled that simply being a guard, absent evidence of direct involvement in murder, was enough for a conviction.
On Tuesday, Schrimm noted that the ruling meant that even those who only worked in the kitchens of death camps could be held liable for being part of the machinery of murder. "We are currently searching through the archives in Russia, Belarus and Brazil for additional names of possible perpetrators," he said.
In addition to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where some 1.5 million people were murdered during the Holocaust, and Sobibor, Schrimm's office plans to focus on the death camps Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek and Treblinka, Der Spiegel reported. He noted that there were no plans to broaden the investigation to include concentration camps such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and others because, although tens of thousands of people died in those places, they were not established solely for the purpose of extermination, making the application of the Demjanjuk precedent doubtful.
On its website, the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed satisfaction at the announcement. A statement by its chief Nazi-hunter, Israel director Dr. Efraim Zuroff, praised the initiative, while expressing regret that such legal reasoning had not been previously applied in such cases for many years.
"Today's announcement marks an important milestone in the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in the Federal Republic [of Germany], and the Central Prosecution Office deserves full credit for this important initiative," Zuroff said. "At the same time, today's positive development underscores the failure to take such measures during the past five decades, a decision which allowed thousands of the worst hands-on killers to elude justice."