BERLIN, May 7 (JTA) — Proceedings began this week in Germany against a former Nazi SS officer charged with committing war crimes 58 years ago in Italy. The trial of Friedrich Engel, 92, began Tuesday in Hamburg. Among the charges, he is accused of having given orders to kill 59 prisoners in the Marassi Prison in Genoa in May 1944. The killings came as retribution for an attack partisans launched days earlier on German soldiers. According to eyewitness reports, on May 19, 1944, the prisoners were bound together in pairs and forced to stand on wooden planks over a pit that Jewish inmates had been forced to dig. The condemned waited their turn to die, as pair after pair was shot and fell on top of those killed before. Engel, who has been living in Hamburg for decades and was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in 1999 by an Italian military court, has denied giving or approving the orders for the shooting. "It was a matter of following orders," he was quoted as saying. He also said those orders had been in keeping with international law, and added that the victims suffered an "easy death." Chief Prosecutor Kurt Schrimm told the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that such trials make sense even though the accused have become old and frail. "We are showing the victims, and their relatives, that to us their fate is important," said Schrimm, who heads the Central Office for the Resolution of National Socialist War Crimes. "And we are showing our society that no one who committed such terrible crimes can simply shrug off their guilt and responsibility." Engel previously has rejected other charges lodged against him by courts in Italy. Among those charges, he was accused of participating in wartime atrocities in the Genoa area — including the shooting of 147 people near a Benedictine cloister and the shooting of 18 hostages in a village. Hamburg state prosecutors had filed charges against Engel and several other accused war criminals in the 1960s, but the proceedings were suspended. Engel´s case was reopened in 1999. His trial likely will not be the last war crimes case to come before a German court, according to Nazi-hunter Schrimm, who says some 20 other cases are being prepared. For example, he says, his office is investigating a case involving the execution of 500 women, children and elderly in Italy´s Tuscany region in August 1944. Schrimm expects another Hamburg resident to face charges in that case. He told the Suddeutsche Zeitung that Germany had lifted the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes in 1979 so that perpetrators "could not run free without fear of being brought to justice." Schrimm and a colleague recently found documents in the CIA archives in Washington that included interviews with eyewitnesses and perpetrators. "There is also a wealth of new information available from Eastern European sources," said Schrimm. "Our work is far from over."
Former Nazi officer goes on trial