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Germany charges 88-year-old in Nazi-era murders

The world's third-most-wanted Nazi suspect has been charged in Germany with participation in the murder of 430,000 Jews at the Belzec death camp and other crimes during the Third Reich, officials said Wednesday.
Image: Memorial to WWII victims in Poland
Polish soldiers holding eternal flames stand in front of a wall during the inauguration at the vast new memorial for the victims of the Belzec Nazi death camp in Belzec, Poland, on June 3, 2004. Czarek Sokolowski / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world's third most-wanted Nazi suspect, who lived undisturbed for decades after World War II, has been charged in Germany with participating in the murder of 430,000 Jews while serving as a low-ranking guard at a death camp.

Samuel Kunz, 88, had long been ignored by the German justice system, partly because of a lack of interest in going after relatively minor Nazi figures. But in the past 10 years, a younger generation of prosecutors has sought to bring all surviving suspects to justice.

Authorities recently stumbled over Kunz's case as they were studying old documents from German post-wars trials about an SS training camp named Trawniki. The papers were being reviewed in connection with the trial of John Demjanjuk, the 90-year-old retired autoworker on trial in Munich for allegedly serving as a guard at the infamous Sobibor camp.

Kunz was named the No. 3 suspect in April by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He ranked fairly low in the Nazi hierarchy, but he was among the most-wanted suspects because of the large number of Jews he is accused of helping to kill.

Kunz had been living quietly at his home near the western city of Bonn. He received a letter last week saying he had been charged with three different cases of participating in the murder of Jews, authorities said.

He allegedly served as a guard at the Belzec camp in occupied Poland from January 1942 to July 1943.

In addition to those charges, he is accused of fatally shooting 10 Jews in two other incidents related to unspecified "personal excesses," prosecutor Christoph Goeke told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Prosecutors allege both Kunz and the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, who was deported to Germany from the U.S. last year, trained as guards at Trawniki. In the 1960s, Kunz testified about his time there in a different trial, but he was never indicted himself.

Reached by phone at his home, Kunz said he did not want to talk about the allegations against him and hung up.

Kunz was not detained because officials who interviewed him did not believe he would try to flee, a person familiar with the case said. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of the investigation.

At the top of the Wiesenthal Center list of most-wanted Nazis is Sandor Kepiro, a former Hungarian gendarmerie officer accused of involvement in the deaths of 1,200 civilians in Serbia. He was questioned in September by prosecutors in Budapest, where he lives across the street from a synagogue.

Second on the list is Milivoj Asner, who served as police chief in Croatia during the war. He now lives in Austria, which has refused to extradite him to Croatia on medical grounds.

Kunz's case has been sent to the state court in Bonn, where officials were considering whether to hold a trial — a standard procedural step in Germany, Goeke said from Dortmund.

A spokesman for the Bonn court declined to comment on the matter.

Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Wiesenthal Center, said Kunz participated in the so-called Operation Reinhard to wipe out Polish Jews.

The indictment "is a very positive development," Zuroff told the AP from Jerusalem. "It reflects recent changes in the German prosecution policy, which have significantly enlarged the number of suspects who will be brought to justice."

Kunz, an ethnic German, was born in August 1921 on Russia's Volga River. As a soldier with the Red Army during World War II, he was captured by the Germans and given the choice of either staying at the Chelm prisoner of war camp or cooperating with the Nazis, according to Klaus Hillenbrand, an expert who has written several books on the Nazi period.

Kunz agreed to work with the Nazis and, after he was trained at Trawniki, was transferred to Belzec where he served as a camp guard, Hillenbrand said.

After the war, he moved to Bonn, worked for many years at a federal ministry and was granted German citizenship.

After several German media outlets recently reported Kunz's alleged Nazi past in connection with the Demjanjuk trial, the Dortmund prosecutor's office started an investigation into the allegations, Hillenbrand said.

Despite a recent push by prosecutors to bring charges against Nazi suspects, their efforts often come too late.

Former Nazi SS Capt. Erich Steidtmann died Sunday from a heart attack at his home in Hannover. He had been investigated several times, including for alleged involvement in killings at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, but authorities never had sufficient proof to charge him.

Adolf Storms, a 90-year-old former SS sergeant who was No. 4 on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazi war crimes suspects, died earlier this month before he could be brought to trial.

Prosecutors were investigating Storms in connection with 58 counts of murder for his alleged involvement in a massacre of Jewish forced laborers in a forest near the Austrian village of Deutsch Schuetzen.