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A race for justice and against time

Andreas Willms and Stefan Brendel hunt Nazi criminals. Some 70 years after WWII, the perpetrators are very old - it's a race for justice and against time.

When asked whether it's legitimate to take a 92-year old to court, Andreas Brendel's answer is short: "There's no statute of limitations on murder." As a prosecutor it is his duty to follow up on accusations. Brendel is used to such questions coming from journalists; he has just finished an interview with a Russian TV reporter.

Of course there was the same question; it seems obvious when you have a man who for the past ten years has brought one old Nazi after another into a German court. Brendel heads the central office for dealing with Nazi crimes in Dortmund.

Brendel always answers with two points: Firstly, they have to be brought to trial for simple legal reasons. But, he adds, "we still have the victims and the relatives of the victims. For them it's very important that there's a German trial determining the guilt of the perpretrators. Independently of whether the sentence will eventually be implemented: it is important that the fate of those people will be heard by German prosecutors."

"You can see what it means to the people"

Stefan Willms is an officer with the police in Düsseldorf in charge of tracing Nazi crimes. It's the only department in Germany that exclusively deals with Nazi criminals. So Willms is a close colleague of Brendel in fighting crimes that date back 70 years or more.

Stefan Willms (photo: Sarah Hofmann)

Stefan Willms says that as a German he feels a sense of responsibility

He has brown hair, looks a bit like a young rebel when he sits with jeans and shirt in his Düsseldorf office, the sleek new building doesn't quite seem to fit with his character.

He says that maybe it helps that he was born long after the war, in 1959. The victims know that he can not have participated in the cruelty and crimes of the Nazis. But still: "You can tell that as a German you have a certain responsibility for the things that have happened." He never feels quite comfortable when inquiring into a case.

A defendant aged 92

When Andreas Brendel steps into the courthouse in Hagen, he's wearing a black suit, white shirt and tie, black glasses. The court is dealing with the case of Siert Bruins. The now 92-year old is accused of having been part of murdering a resistance fighter in Dutch town of Delfzijl in September 1944. The case has been under way since early September.

Bruins was also in court in Dortmund, back in 1980. The court saw the shooting of the resistance fighter as manslaughter, not murder. Today, the courts might see this question differently and Bruins is back on trial. So did the German judiciary handle Nazi crimes allegations not firmly enough in the past? It's not a question Brendel wants to comment on and it doesn't seem like an excuse. He's got his focus set on getting justice now, rather than asking why it hadn't been done in the past.

Auschwitz Birkenau camp (photo: Dave Thompson/PA Wire)

There are fewer and fewer survivors of Nazi crimes as witnesses against the perpetrartors

The Oradour massacre

Just a few weeks ago, Brendel and Willms visited Oradour-sur-Glane, a small town in France. It's here where the German Wehrmacht committed a massacre in the summer of 1944. The entire village were forced together and brutally murdered. Only a few survived. The Dortmund prosecutors are investigating the former members of the SS regiment who committed the killings. In Germany the massacre got wider attention when current President Joachim Gauck visited the place. Brendel and Wills has begun investigations long before that. They'd spoken with the few survivors who would be crucial witnesses should there be a trial.

In Germany, they searched the apartments of suspects but are not allowed to reveal the state of the investigation. What they can talk about are the things they found, evidence and clues. Often it's diaries or letters which might contain sentences like: "Sunday I went with three others to pick up three Jews. We finished them off in the moonlight at the Jewish cemetery. Other things they find are medals or photographs that can indicate the location where a soldier might have been employed. Once they even found the original weapon.

Time is urgent

Andreas Brendel (photo: Sarah Hofmann)

Brendel says the reasons that an accused is very old can not be a reason not to try them

Every step is coordinated. "There's no week where we don't speak on the phone," Willms explains. "At least twice a month we meet." They support each other in many ways. Often they have to deal for weeks with the details of brutal murders.

"It's not something you can put aside just like that," Willms says. And then there are the letters they get from people who write in angrily complaining about why they are prosecuting such old men. "I just stick those in a file," he explains. Sometimes though there are threats, to them or even their families.

"We've had colleagues here who couldn't handle that and went to others department," Willms says. But for him and Brendel, there's no question that they'll continue. "Probably until the last Nazi criminal is dead," Brendel says. "Time is pressing, If we do find a perpetrator then we give this priority." Only recently, thirty people who've worked in Auschwitz, have been added to the list they're looking for.

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