A 90-year-old man in Duisburg has been charged with the murders of 58 Jewish forced laborers in Austria in the final months of World War II. Authorities were alerted to the real identity of the retiree living in North Rhine-Westphalia near the city of Cologne after a professor realized his student had uncovered vital information to the resolution of the deaths near the present day Hungarian border.
Courts in Duisburg were told that the man was one of those who came up with the plan for the killings on March 28, 1945, along with other members of the SS and Hitler Youth. The next day, SS officers took at least 57 Hungarian-Jewish laborers in groups into a wooded area near the small Austrian town of Deutsch Schützen, where they were told to "give up their valuables and kneel by a grave." The officers then shot their victims in the back. The man is also accused of personally shooting a Jewish laborer who struggled to walk during a forced march from Deutsch Schützen to the village of Hartberg near the present day Austrian border with Hungary. Prosecutors say he was shot in the same "cowardly" manner from behind.
Fifty years later, the mass grave was uncovered by the Austrian Jewish Association and is now marked with a plaque. In 2008, prosecutors opened an investigation into the man, a former member of the 5th SS Panzer Division known as "Viking", after being alerted to his presence by the Austrian student. Testimony has been gathered from three former Hitler Youth members in Austria. A fourth, now residing in Canada, will be interviewed this week.
Undetected for Six Decades
Duisburg prosecutor Andreas Brendel told the Associated Press that "there are two who witnessed the shooting of the individual Jewish victim, but there are no people still alive who were part of the other shootings themselves." He added that there are statements from a previous trial of others involved that can be used against the accused.
According to the Austrian press, the man changed the spelling of his name after the war, perhaps aiding him in staying undetected for the last six decades. He had been kept in an American prisoner of war camp following the end of World War II, only to be released in 1946 and slipping back into a society unaware of his past.
It wasn't until University of Vienna student Andreas Forster took on an investigation into the incident via archival files received from Germany that the truth came to light. His professor passed the information along to German authorities, who opened the investigation into the accused. During a December 2008 raid of his home, he said he didn't remember any of the events he was being accused of. Forster's former professor, Walter Manoschek, told AP that the man was mentally fit, but not physically, adding that his health may prevent the case from going to trial.
In the mean time, Duisburg courts now have two weeks to see if the evidence is strong enough to take the man to trial. If the case does go ahead, the maximum penalty is life in prison. The announcement of the arrest comes just 13 days before the trial for John Demjanjuk is set to start in Munich. The 89-year-old is accused of assisting in the deaths of 27,900 people in his role as a Nazi death camp guard at Sobibor concentration camp. He was deported from his adopted home in the US last May to face trial.