The Simon Wiesenthal Center has identified dozens of former members of Nazi mobile death squads who might still be alive, and is pushing the German government for an investigation, The Associated Press has learned.
The Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, told the AP on Wednesday that in September he sent the German justice and interior ministries a list of 76 men and four women who served in the so-called Einsatzgruppen.
The Einsatzgruppen, made up of primarily SS and police personnel, followed Nazi Germany's troops as they battled their way eastward in the early years of the war, rounding up and shooting Jews in the opening salvo of the Holocaust before the death camp system was up and running.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, they had killed more than a million Soviet Jews and tens of thousands of others by spring 1943.
"In the death camps the actual act of murder was carried out by a very small number of people — the people who put the gas into the gas chambers — but the actual act of murder in the Einsatzgruppen was carried out individually," Zuroff said. "Almost every person in the Einsatzgruppen was a murderer, a hands-on murderer."
Zuroff narrowed down the list of possible suspects by choosing the youngest from a list of some 1,100 with dates of birth known to his organization, from the estimated 3,000 members of the death squads.
All 80 would be very old if still alive, born between 1920 and 1924, Zuroff said.
"Time is running out," he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "Something has to be done."
Because of Germany's strict privacy laws, the Wiesenthal Center has been unable to confirm where the suspects live, but Zuroff said that task, and determining if they're still alive, should be relatively easy for police or prosecutors.
Meantime, he said, his office is willing to assist in any way possible in coming up with evidence or other details.
"The hope is that as many as possible will be alive, but there's no guarantee obviously," he said. "But every person alive today is a victory of sorts."
Germany's Interior Ministry said the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, which said it had passed the details of the letter to the special federal prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi-era crimes.
The head of that office, Kurt Schrimm, told the AP he hasn't yet received the new information.
A handful of Einsatzgruppen members were tried and convicted after the war but most have gone unpunished.
Schrimm has said, however, they could now be prosecuted under a new German legal theory that service in a Nazi unit whose sole purpose was murder is enough to convict someone of accessory to murder — even without evidence of participation in a specific crime as had previously been required.