BERLIN — The Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday launched an 11th-hour drive to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals while they are still alive, saying a new legal precedent in Germany could make it possible to bring dozens of suspects to trial.
Efraim Zuroff, the center's top Nazi-hunter, told reporters in Berlin that "Operation Last Chance II" would provide up to €25,000 ($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.
The effort comes after German prosecutors said in October 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.
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 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.
He said the precedent set in the Demjanjuk case could also be applied to other units known to have been involved in war crimes, noting that prosecutors in Dortmund 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.
The Wiesenthal Center is asking for tips to be called in to a new hotline in Germany with as much information as possible. Though the focus of the investigation is Germany, Zuroff said suspects could live anywhere in the world.
A reward of €5,000 will be paid for the information upon the indictment of a suspect, another €5,000 upon conviction, and a further €100 euros per day spent in prison — up to 150 days — for a total of €25,000, Zuroff said.
The center's original "Operation Last Chance" was launched in 2002 and targeted primarily eastern European countries, and ended up with 102 suspects' names being turned over to prosecutors. Of those only a handful were ever indicted or tried, Zuroff said.
At this late stage, with few witnesses left and suspects' health often preventing them from being brought to trial, Zuroff said 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.
But he said the effort was still a worthy one.
"The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers," he said.