Polish authorities have reopened an investigation into Second World War crimes committed at Auschwitz and its satellite camps which was closed in the 1980s because of the country’s isolation behind the Iron Curtain.
One aim of the new probe is to track down any living Nazi perpetrators, according to an announcement today by the Institute of National Remembrance, a state body which investigates Nazi and communist-era crimes.
Nazi Germany opened Auschwitz in 1940, months after it invaded and occupied Poland.
Over the next five years of war, German and Austrian Nazis murdered up to 1.5 million people there at the expanded Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex, most of them Jews from across Europe, but also Poles, Roma, gays and others.
The investigation was opened by a branch of the remembrance institute in Krakow, which is located near Auschwitz.
Germany also operated other death camps across Poland – like Chelmno, Treblinka and Belzec – and it was not immediately clear if new investigations into them are also planned.
A leading international Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, praised Poland’s reopening of the investigation.
He said it “could have tremendous implications” in paving the way for new prosecutions thanks to the precedent set by the conviction of Ohio car worker John Demjanjuk in Germany earlier this year.
Demjanjuk was convicted of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder. It was the first time Germany had convicted someone as a Nazi camp guard based on the theory that, if he worked there, he was part of the extermination process, even without direct proof of any specific killings.
That has opened the door to many more possible prosecutions, and German authorities have since reopened hundreds of dormant investigations of Nazi death camp guards – men who are now so old that time is running out for prosecutors.
Mr Zuroff said that, should the Polish investigation track down any German perpetrators, he would expect them – like Demjanjuk – to be tried in a German court since Berlin requests extradition in such cases.
“I welcome any investigation that could lead to convictions,” Mr Zuroff, the main Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, told The Associated Press.
However, he also noted that Poland is the country with the most ongoing investigations into Nazi crimes, but that these almost never result in prosecutions.
Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance “excels in opening up investigations. They don’t excel in prosecuting Nazi war criminals,” he said.
Poland originally launched investigations into crimes at Auschwitz in the 1960s and 1970s, but closed them in the 1980s without any indictments being made. Poland had difficulty questioning witnesses and perpetrators living abroad because it was cut off behind the Iron Curtain.
The Institute for National Remembrance said it has already begun questioning witnesses as part of the revived investigation. It said the probe is aimed in part at “finding and, if needed, detaining the perpetrators”.
The last time Poland prosecuted anyone for Nazi crimes was in 2001, when a Pole, Henryk Mania, was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking parts in acts of genocide at the death camp of Chelmno.