BERLIN – Nazis in their 90s accused of mass murder during World War II are the target of an intensified hunt by German prosecutors who want to punish them before they die.
Three suspected members of the Nazimobile death squads known as the "Einsatzgruppen" are being investigated, according toGerman federal prosecutors. The Einsatzgruppen were responsible for more than 1 million shooting massacres of civilians.
The effort comes 73 years after the war ended and as the youngest perpetrators of the Holocaust turn 90, underscoring the limited time left to find the remaining Nazi war criminals.
Though there are no precise counts, Nazi hunters estimate dozens who served in the Einsatzgruppen are still alive, along with as many as several thousand Nazis who committed war atrocities against civilians.
"In a way, when the Nazis said that they would create a thousand-year empire, they weren't wrong. What they did will be felt for the next thousand years," said Rabbi Daniel Fabian of the Kahal Adass Jisroel synagogue in Berlin.
His grandmother survived in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, in which Nazis systematically murdered 6 million Jews and countless others.
"For the 95-year-old men who are being tried, perhaps this is a distant memory," Fabian said. "But for people like myself and my parents, it's still something that's very palpable."
Horrific scenes from Auschwitz and other death camps are prominent in history books and films, but little is taught about the brutal Einsatzgruppen shooting squads.
In the war’s early years, Nazi death squads tore through villages of the Soviet Union behind German troops, killing mass numbers of Jews and others before Adolf Hitler established concentration camps such as Birkenau and Auschwitz.
One of the most notorious incidents by the Einsatzgruppen was the two-day massacre in 1941 of more than 33,000 people, mostly Jews, at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, Ukraine.
"The camps liberated by the Western Allies, they're the iconic images of the Holocaust," Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told USA TODAY. "But the truth of the matter is that the greatest horrors of the Holocaust are really the murders by shooting."
Allied forces tried and convicted a few dozen members of the Einsatzgruppen during the Nuremberg trials after the war, but only a handful of death squad members have been tried since then, Zuroff said. None was brought to justice in the past 40 years.
German prosecutors initially targeted the death squad leaders instead of rank-and-file members because of the sheer number of those involved in the genocide. The strategy was logical, given the desire to bring prominent Nazis to justice, but the implications of ignoring those killers were troubling, Zuroff said.
"People who were out there shooting and murdering innocent people ... day in, day out, were basically ignored," he said.
It’s difficult to prove whether suspected Einsatzgruppen members actually pulled the trigger because the killing squads were constantly on the move, said Jens Rommel, who heads the German federal prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi war crimes.
Rommel said that changed after groundbreaking cases in 2011 and 2015.
First was the conviction in 2011 of John Demjanjuk, a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland who became an American citizen in the 1950s, for being an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews. Then in 2015, Oskar Gröning, a junior squad leader at Auschwitz, was convicted as an accessory to 300,000 murders.
Those convictions gave prosecutors a legal precedent to go after suspected Einsatzgruppen members, because they could indict low-level abettors of atrocities just by proving the men were active Nazis at the time.
That's when Zuroff got to work. Combing through archives, he compiled a list of 79 members of the killing squads likely to still be alive.
Zuroff's work led German authorities to look into three suspects in the cities of Braunschweig, Celle and Kassel, though no formal charges have been filed, according to Rommel.
The three men, ages 94 to 96, have been widely identified in the German news media, but prosecutors declined to identify the suspects, citing privacy laws.
"Finding these people has been one of the most satisfying results of my work over the years," said Zuroff, who has hunted Nazis since the 1970s. "When they're brought to justice, there will be no person happier than me."
Despite the difficulties of bringing such individuals to justice, the final-hour effort is welcomed by victims of the Nazis, as well as Germany's Jewish community. "Even if these perpetrators are already very old today, it's a gesture of latent justice," said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
With that gesture, Rabbi Fabian said, the arduous process of forcing the German nation – and the world – to atone for the Holocaust has found new energy.
"It brings uncomfortable memories back to the surface," he said. "But in order to come to terms with the horrors of the past, it's both necessary and important."