He must have been convinced that no one wanted to find him anymore. His name, Dr. Martin Sandberger, was printed for all to see on the mailbox next to the gray door of his apartment in a Stuttgart retirement home, until he died on March 30, 2010.
For years, amateur historians on the Web noted that a man named Martin Sandberg, born August 17, 1911, was the "highest ranking member of the SS known to be alive." But Sandberger's whereabouts were unknown to the public, until SPIEGEL tracked him down just before his death.
This is the chronology of a search in the winter of 2009/2010, and of an encounter with the last major war criminal to have worked in the SS's murdering machinery.
In May 1945, when the Third Reich was in ruins, Sandberger was arrested. He was a colonel and model pupil of SS leader Heinrich Himmler; a US military court subsequently convicted him of mass murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. In 1951, his sentence was reduced to life in prison, but he was released seven years later. After that, he disappeared.
There has been no word from Sandberger since then, nor do any more recent images exist of the man. The last available photo, taken in 1948, depicts him as a sullen-looking defendant during his war crimes trial in Nuremberg.
And then there it was, 60 years later -- a nameplate in a Stuttgart nursing home. Is it possible that someone like Sandberger, guilty of the mass murder of Jews, gypsies and communists, could have disappeared for half a century, undisturbed and unquestioned, in the middle of a country where there are 270 accredited journalists at the trial of John Demjanjuk, a presumed guard at the Sobibor death camp?
"What, he's still alive?" says a stunned prosecutor in Stuttgart, after typing the search term "Sandberger" into her computer and coming up with an impressive list of reference numbers for closed investigations and witness summons in murder cases. Sandberger's address was always known to the authorities. It's just that no one had looked for him in almost 40 years.
And when new evidence came available after the fall of the Iron Curtain, no one tried to reopen any case against Sandberger.
The door of the apartment on the ground floor of the retirement home opens onto an old man sitting in an armchair. He sits near the window, surrounded by bound collections of Swabian folk tales, black-and-white photos of his ancestors and an old television set.
The man who appears in old photos as a dashing SS colonel with a prominent chin and imperious gaze is now in the last few weeks of his life, a thin, fragile old man. Sandberger, who is 98 at the time of the interview, doesn't hear well, doesn't see well and complains about pain in his legs. He says: "I'm too old. I don't want to do it anymore."
It's obvious, however, that his mind is still active. Where was Sandberger during the last half century? Does he still remember the images from the war: the march to the East at the rear of the northern army group, the years he spent between the Baltics and Russia, the assault boat on Lake Peipus, the Jews kneeling in front of freshly dug pits?
Sandberger closes his eyes, threatening to fall asleep at any moment. "He was doing very well just now," says the woman who is keeping him company on this afternoon. A sudden feeling of weakness, presumably. "Just keep on asking questions," she says.