When you think "Nazi hunter," you probably think of a distant historical stereotype—uniformed men chasing each other through the German countryside with antique pistols and leather boots. Basically, Brad Pitt in these two movies. But even though 70 years have passed and both Nazis and their hunters now live in a much different world, the chase continues for some.
Retired 71-year-old judge Thomas Walther "hunts" Nazis, not by foot or by tank, but by making phone calls, writing emails, and documenting evidence from Holocaust survivors who can still remember what they saw. Once a Nazi is linked to murder and identified by the Office of Special Investigations in National Socialist Crimes, Walther uses his networks to get statements from the family members of victims, who are legally recognized as co-plaintiffs in modern court.
Walther's methods may seem less glamourous than those of Nazi hunters of the past, but it's just as crushing—coming down on Nazis guilty of murder with the full, objective force of international justice.
The focus of Walther's current resourcefulness is 93-year old ex-Nazi and German SS officer Oskar Groening. Groening, the so-called "bookkeeper" of Auschwitz, counted the money of dead Jewish people and stood guard as incoming freight trains unloaded their human cargo. Groening is unique in that he claims innocence, despite having overseen the deaths of 300,000 people at Auschwitz. Despite openly speaking about working at the camp and calling it a "horrible but necessary thing," he claims he committed no crime because he didn't directly kill anyone with his hands.
Walther has been in Montreal and Toronto for the past few weeks, speaking with Auschwitz survivors to help build the upcoming case against Groening, which starts April 21st. The Jewish community is deeply invested in and moved by Walther's work.
"My mother is a survivor of the holocaust, and my grandfather perished in a death march," said Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal. "For me it was extremely moving to meet Walther, a German who refuses to bury the past, who insists on pursuing justice on behalf of the six million [Jews who died in the Holocaust]. And I know that many others in Montreal feel the same way."
While he was in Montreal speaking with witnesses, I met with Walther at the Holocaust Memorial Centre to talk with him about "hunting" Nazis, speaking with victims' families, and his upcoming case against 93-year-old Groening.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Hi Thomas. Thank you very much for meeting with me. Could you describe your role in bringing guilty Nazis to justice and how you got started with it?
Walther: I'm a lawyer who is supporting victims and the families of the victims, the survivors in special cases or murder, accessory of murder from the time during the Nazi dictatorship. If the prosecutors are doing investigations against someone then I start as fast as I can to find co-plaintiffs, that means I search for families who have been on the victims' side during the crime of the accused. If he is involved in Auschwitz, then I search for victims families from Auschwitz, for example. Then, I represent these witnesses in court and express the extent to which the accused affected their lives.
In 2006, I had retired and had the chance to change my professional life because my youngest daughter at that time started university. So I decided to go to this office for Nazi crimes, decided to do something important. After a certain time I realized that one of the legal system's policies was wrong—that they only brought someone to court for National Socialist crimes if they were responsible for murder or accessory of murder directly, by using their own hands. I thought, "This is absolutely wrong!" You learn as a university student that accessory to a crime doesn't require you to use your hands.
So you helped spearhead the movement to bring justice to Nazis guilty of murder who weren't considered "directly" involved?
Yes. These so-called "smaller fish," they have not been investigated all these years. They were very important because if one of these guys hadn't done his job then the killing machinery would have stopped. By legal terms and my legal measuring, it's no argument to say, "If I didn't do it someone else would, the machinery would not stop." It's not an excuse.
Is that how you feel about Groening's defence as well?
Yes, well, Groening even spoke himself to Der Spiegel about being just a "cog in the machine." But the fact is, he was there, he did his job at the ramp, and so he is guilty. The testimony from family members that I'm gathering will not answer the question, "Is he guilty or not," but rather will show what the Holocaust means inside the families of the victims, to the court and to the public.
Your Father, Rudolph, hid two Jewish families in the house during the Kristallnacht riots of 1938. Did this in part inspire what you're doing now?
Yes, there is a connection. I have quite a close mental connection to my father. He has been important to my education. My knowledge and feeling of what is right and wrong mostly comes directly from my father. And these two stories about [hiding] his friends' families, I have always been very proud that he did such things.
What is it like to speak so openly with Holocaust survivors, to relive their memories with them?
The co-plaintiffs all have very, very personal stories about their family lives and how the Holocaust has affected them. This is what I'm trying to show, because nobody can possibly understand what it means to have 300,000 people murdered in 57 days—nobody can imagine what it means.
It is hard at first, but after a short time they open themselves up and speak about it. I always have the feeling that it is good for them. They have a good feeling that somebody is paying attention to that time and the crimes against their own parents and siblings, that there will be a trial where the names and the fates of the lives of their closest family members will be described. It's very late justice for them.
So are the families of the victims hoping to get a statement from Groening?
I don't know if he will personally speak with them. But they want to ask him questions. They want to know how he feels when he looks at them. They might think, "We are nearly the same age. We were at Auschwitz together and he was an SS man who was on the ramp, and my parents were there."... After 70 years they will ask, "What is going on? How do you feel?"
Groening lived a relatively normal life after his involvement in the Holocaust. He had a family and a nice job at a glass factory in Germany. For years it's as though he got away with what he did. What does that mean for you?
The justice system simply didn't work. He had the chance to get away from legal consequences and he had a good life. He has two sons and he was married and his wife passed away four years ago. He had a normal peaceful life. He is a very, very important person for me, because he is the result of my forgoing work for years. So April 21st, the beginning of the trial, will be a very important day for me.
Why is it important to get justice, even so long after the crime has been committed?
It's not only important for the victims' families, but it also can send a message. You see what just happened in France [the Charlie Hebdo massacre], or for example there are 600 or 700 Germans fighting with ISIS right now. If 70 years after the Holocaust Nazis are found guilty of aiding and abetting murder from Auschwitz, perhaps they will also be brought to justice if they ever come back to Germany, even if they only stood watch as a journalist was beheaded.
You've had a unique look at humanity from extreme points: you've seen what many consider to be the most evil, but also the inspiring togetherness that those events created. How has this shaped how you see humankind?
Looking at the very, very dark side of humankind, and having connected with the families of the survivors of this hellish situation, it gives me an impression, yes. But the hope that mankind is learning from its past, that the evil cannot come back—I am not so sure.
You look at ISIS, the boulevard of Paris, Israel and Gaza, the anti-Islamic group PEGIDA in Germany—this way of mass violence completely out of racism and ideological differences is a starting point for things we do not want to have again! It is not the decision of Islam or Judaism or Christianity or anything else. If people start killing because of such things, then it is perhaps a signal that mankind is not so clever at learning from history.
Do you think that standing up for justice like you are now can help with this seemingly abysmal picture?
Yes, I think it is a good idea. To stand up and to try to work for justice and for truth, that's always something that is useful, and if anything can help, perhaps this can help a little bit.
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