O P I N I O N
by Efraim Zuroff
The following is the original English text, received today from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office in Jerusalem, of its director Efraim Zuroff’s public letter to Croatian authorities, published in Croatian translation on 6 February, and referred to in a press release from SWC earlier today.
I have no doubt that many people in Croatia were very surprised to read last Wednesday in Jutarnji List, that one of the guards from the notorious Auschwitz death camp was alive and had been living in Osijek for many years. The story arouses quite a few questions, among them, how did this all come about?? After all, there were no Ustasha sent to work in the camp, and /or Croatians recruited to serve as death camp guards, as were numerous other Eastern European collaborators? What are the legal options for the Croatian authorities? Can he be extradited to Germany rather than be prosecuted in Croatia?
In order to understand the story of Jakob Dencinger, and his postwar history, we have to return to the events of World War II and its aftermath. First of all, let’s start with Dencinger’s origin. He is not an ethnic Croatian, but rather a Volksdeutsche, a member of a German family which had settled in Eastern Europe, most probably long before he was born. Thus his joining the SS at the young age of eighteen, is not that surprising. Many Volksdeutsche were among the numerous volunteers who joined the German forces, usually the Waffen-SS, and as a member of the Prinz Eugen Division, his assignment to duty in five different concentration camps, among them the Auschwitz death camp, is not at all unusual.
Neither was his emigration several years after World War II to the United States. Dencinger was only one of many thousands of East European Nazi collaborators who fled to the major Anglo-Saxon democracies: the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand, usually via the Displaced Persons camps, posing as innocent refugees running away from the Communists. Although each emigrant had to answer specific questions about their past during World War II, very few of these applicants were caught lying as they all did, and it was only about three decades later that their Nazi pasts were uncovered, initially in the US and later in the other countries.
The responses to these revelations were different. Canada in 1987, Australia in 1989, and Great Britain in 1991 all passed special laws to enable criminal prosecution in those countries. The US, on the other hand, refused to amend its constitution and therefore opted for putting the offenders on trial for immigration and naturalization violations, with the penalties being loss of US citizenship and deportation. Dencinger was one of the persons who faced legal action and chose to leave the United States in the late eighties and return to Croatia, where he resided, undisturbed for many years.
All this changed, however, in the wake of the landmark conviction in Germany of Ukrainian Sobibor death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk in Munich in 2011. This was the first case in more than fifty years in Germany, in which a Nazi war criminal was prosecuted without any evidence being presented to the court that he or she had committed a specific crime against a specific victim. In effect, the court in this case basically determined that service alone in a Nazi “death camp” (a concentration camp with the apparatus for industrialized mass murder, of which there were six-Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Majdanek-all in Poland) was sufficient for a conviction on the grounds of “accessory to murder,” the punishment for which was five years in prison.
In practical terms, his decision totally changed the rules of the legal requirements in Germany for the prosecution of two categories of Nazi war criminals-death camp guards and those who served in the Einsatzgruppen or special mobile killing units which operated in Eastern Europe-which now became much easier. All that had to be done now was to find those still alive. And that is why the German judicial authorities launched an investigation to search for all the men and women who had served in Auschwitz, fifty of whom were reportedly alive in early 2013. Thus this past September 3, Kurt Schrimm, the director of the German Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes announced that he was recommending the prosecution of 31 people living in Germany who served in Auschwitz and that seven additional persons were living in other countries, among them one in Croatia.
The revelation that former Auschwitz guard Jakob Dencinger is alive and living in Osijek, now puts the onus on the Croatian prosecution to investigate the case and decide whether to put him on trial locally or, if Germany seeks his extradition, to send him to trial in the Federal Republic. No matter what decision is made, one thing has to be clear and that is that people who served as guards in the largest mass murder factory in human history, and were among those wanted for that service immediately after the war, do not deserve any sympathy due to age or to frailty. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the those who made the killing possible and old age does not turn criminals into Righteous Gentiles. And most important, the victims of that terrible camp deserve that those who participated in the crimes committed there are neither ignored nor excused.
To its credit, Croatia proved in the Sakic trial that it was capable of prosecuting and punishing Nazi criminals/collaborators and correctly sought the extradition from Austria of Ustasha Pozega police chief Milivoj Asner, but justice can still be achieved in the Dencinger case as well, and the lessons to be derived from such a trial are especially important in the light of resurgent neo-fascism which has once again raised its ugly head in Hrvatska.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff
Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center – Israel office
Coordinator, SWC Nazi war crimes research worldwide
1 Mendele Street
Jerusalem, Israel 92147