FRANKFURT (Dec. 3)
Germany has launched what may be one of its last trials of suspected war criminals.
The trial revolves around the 1942 murders of 65 Jews — including about 20 children — by a Nazi paramilitary unit in a Ukrainian village.
Ernst Hering, 75, stands charged with sealing off the village of Israelowka during the roundups and standing guard while others carried out the executions.
Although he is not accused of shooting any of the victims, prosecutors say he was aware that the goal of the roundups was to kill Jews.
Hering, who is being tried in juvenile court in Cologne because he was 19 at the time of the incident, admitted last week at the start of his trial that he was in Israelowka during the roundups of the adults, but claims he can barely remember the events.
Fifty years after the Nuremberg Trials, when dozens of leading Nazi officials, doctors and judges were convicted, Hering’s trial could be one of the last such trials in Germany because of the difficulty finding witnesses from so many years ago.
It comes after decades of German prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
German authorities are continuing to investigate some 4,000 suspects, according to officials.
Willie Dressen, director of the federal office charged with investigating war crimes, said that despite the problems, he remains undeterred.
“People must be held accountable for their acts,” he said. “We owe it to the victims to continue investigating.”
The chief witness in the Hering case, who still lives in Ukraine, has refused to come to Germany to testify. The judges are expected to travel to Ukraine in January for a deposition.
Without the testimony of this witness, there is little chance of convicting Hering, according to Klaus Schacht, director of the office in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia that is responsible for investigating Nazi war crimes.
No judgment is expected in the case until early next year.
The defendant has displayed little emotion in court, except for a comment to the judge that he still has “stomach pains” from the horrible event.
Hering worked as a farmhand and stockroom worker after the war. He was arrested in May 1995 at his home in Leverkusen, in western Germany.
A tip about Hering came from Australian prosecutors, who were investigating a case involving the murder of the Jews of Israelowka and enlisted the help of their German counterparts.
In the course of taking depositions from former residents of the town, German prosecutors realized that Hering, a possible participant in the murders, lived in Leverkusen.
He was later freed pending his trial.
German responsibility for war crimes trials came gradually during the 1950s. The Allies had taken charge immediately after the war, conducting the Nuremberg Trials from 1945-1949.
West Germany conducted more than 100,000 investigations into war crimes, resulting in about 6,500 convictions. Many of the other cases involved suspects who died or vanished.
The most important German trials were conducted during the 1960s and early 1970s, according to Dressen.
Those cases dealt with the extermination camps and the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads in Eastern Europe.
Ongoing investigations mostly involve lower-level officials and alleged accessories to war crimes.
Some of the more recent probes were launched as a result of information in the archives of the former East German secret police, which became available after German unification in 1990.