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World

The Last Of Nazi War Convictions Will Not End Fight Against Anti-Semitism

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Ninety-four-year-old Reinhold Hanning went on trial this week in Germany. He was a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. Prosecutors say he may have escorted prisoners to their deaths in the gas chambers. He is one of four elderly guards to be tried in the coming months in what are likely to be some of the last cases of their kind. We wondered what it means to be coming to the end of this long legal process, so we reached out to Rabbi Marvin Hier. He is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights center named for the famous Nazi hunter. Rabbi Hier is with us from the center in Los Angeles. Rabbi, welcome.

MARVIN HIER: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Now the generation that saw and the generation that perpetrated the Holocaust has obviously reached a great age. Is that why we're seeing suddenly a burst of criminal trials?

HIER: Well, that is one of the reasons. Of course, the main reason is the change of law in the way Germany has brought Nazi war criminals to trial. The previous rules was that you'd have to have tangible evidence, and documentary evidence was not sufficient. Now documentary evidence is acceptable. What does that mean? If you have documentary evidence that a person served as a guard in one of the death camps and the documents have been authenticated, that is grounds to charge the person with crimes against humanity. And that's why you see the spate of trials previously, for example, in the '70s and the '80s, even in the low '90s. That was not the case until the change in the law.

WERTHEIMER: Can you tell me what it means to you to see this particular man and other very elderly people finally brought to trial?

HIER: To me, it's just this long overdue. These people should be grateful to the apathy that exists there that prevented them from being brought to trial earlier. All of the people that they committed crimes against had their lives snuffed out, some of them at very young ages. Some of them never had a chance to get married and have children.

WERTHEIMER: Now we are coming down to the last few perpetrators as well as the last few survivors of the Holocaust. What does it mean to you, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was created as a place to focus on the Holocaust and on bringing people to justice who participated in the murder of millions of Jews? I don't want to say your work is over, but what is your work after this?

HIER: Rest assured that our work is not over because our work has never been only hunting Nazi war criminals. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is an institution, a worldwide institution, engaged in combating anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism. And unfortunately, did we say goodbye to genocide after Hitler died in the bunker? No, we didn't. So in such a world, I'm afraid there will always be a need for organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

WERTHEIMER: Rabbi Marvin Hier, he is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Thank you very much, sir.

HIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.