Jewish groups were astounded last week to learn from news reports that Germany had released Kurt Franz, deputy commandant of the Treblinka death camp, who had been serving a life sentence for his wartime crimes.
The information about the release, which was learned only from a wire service report, rubbed fresh wounds opened by the acquittal last week by the Israeli Supreme Court of John Demjanjuk, who had faced charges that he was “Ivan the Terrible,” the notorious Treblinka guard.
In fact, Franz, 79, was freed sometime in May, German officials told reporters after the release was made known.
Franz was sentenced to life in prison in 1965 by a war crimes tribunal in Dusseldorf for his part in the murder of at least 300,000 people, including 193 by his own hand in Treblinka.
Franz was freed, despite objections from German prosecutors, under a proviso of German law permitting release any time after a minimum 15 years of a life sentence is served.
“I can tell you that it’s not at all linked to Demjanjuk,” said an assistant to the German ambassador in Washington.
Word of Franz’s release seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Representatives of Jewish-groups were shocked and angered by it.
“I didn’t know about it. I think we were all taken by surprise here,” said Mark Weitzman, director of educational outreach at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s New York office.
“I think that his release makes a mockery of the sentence, in that Kurt Franz was not just a cog in the machinery. He was not drafted,” Weitzman said.
He pointed out that Franz had a full Nazi resume, beginning with his participation in the euthanasia program at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and on through a stint as deputy to the commandant at Belzec and then to Treblinka.
According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Franz enlisted in the German army in 1935 and volunteered for the SS.
In 1939, he was transferred to the euthanasia program, which oversaw early in the Holocaust the killing of people the Nazis deemed not worthy of living, such as the infirm.
“At Treblinka, Franz dominated daily life at the camp. He was the cruelest and most terrifying of the SS officers there,” the encyclopedia says.
“It is incomprehensible how someone who caused so much harm to so many could ever receive a lightening of his sentence,” said Weitzman of the Wiesenthal Center.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called Franz’s release “obscene. It is a crime against memory.”
Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns sent telegrams protesting his release to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and to the German ambassador to Washington, Immo Stabreit.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.