Decades after the end of World War II, German authorities are reopening hundreds of inactive investigations of Nazi death camp guards. Experts predict the move could lead to at least a dozen new prosecutions.
German prosecutors reopened the cases following the conviction in May of John Demjanjuk, a former Nazi guard in Poland. His case set a new precedent because of a "change in the interpretation of the law," Efraim Zuroff, an historian and chief Nazi hunter at theSimon Wiesenthal Center in Israel told ABC News in confirming the report, which was first reported by the Associated Press.
The Ukraine-born Demjanjuk, who is 91, was deported from the U.S to Germany in 2009 to stand trial for Nazi war crimes. He was convicted of over 28,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943.
It was the first time that prosecutors were able to convict a Nazi suspect without specific proof that they participated in the actual killing. Prosecutors claimed that if they could prove that Demjanjuk was a guard at a death camp like Sobibor, which was purposely created for mass killing, it is enough to convict him of accessory to murder.
Demjanjuk is appealing his conviction.
I was "very surprised to see that the German courts are reopening all these cases," said Max Liebman, with the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. "I never thought I would be alive to see this day."
Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he would launch a new campaign in the next two months to track down the remaining Nazi war criminals. He said the Demjanjuk conviction had opened the door to prosecutions that he had never thought possible in the past.
Because of the age of the perpetrators, all of them are over 80, he said he must "move very quickly, as we are running out of time. There are many legal issues involving expediting certain suspects which we need to ensure the governing bodies are onboard."
This new understanding of the law meant that many "officials will now be able to identify people whom they knew were associated with the death camps but were unable to convict these criminals due to the lack of evidence," Zurpff said.
Max Liebman, of the American Gathering of holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, believed the reopening of the investigations were long overdue; "Any survivor of the Holocaust will welcome this and hopefully some justice may be served."
Even if the numbers that are prosecuted are small - Zuhroff believes prosecuting just 1 percent of the estimated 4,000 Nazi guards would be a significant achievement - the impact of these investigations for many will great.
"Any survivor who survived the holocaust will welcome this as it will shed more light on what was going on at the time and hopefully some justice may be served."