Gotzfrid, 79, was found guilty by a court in Stuttgart of the lesser charge of assisting murder, because prosecutors could not prove he had killed up to 500 people with his own hands, as he had indicated in a previous confession. For those crimes, he received a 10-year jail term, to be offset against previous sentences. As he had already spent 11 years in a Soviet prison camp, the former concentration camp guard was deemed to have paid his debts to society. Without corroborating testimonies, and amid confusion over his previous incarceration in the former Soviet Union, the court simply lacked evidence to lock him up.
Nevertheless, Gotzfrid, supporting himself on crutches, looked stunned as the verdict was read out, shielding his face from the cameras. A daughter who had been present during the trial was missing on the final day.
There was never any doubt that Gotzfrid had been an active participant in one of the worst atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. During his trial, he admitted to "loading the guns" that extinguished the lives of 17,000 men, women and children in a bloodbath the Nazis dubbed "Operation Harvest Festival". Even in the diabolical annals of the "Final Solution", the "Harvest Festival" is one of the most gruesome chapters. On 3 and 4 November 1943, some 40,000 Jewish inmates of the Trawniki, Poniatowa and Majdanek concentration camps in eastern Poland were rounded up and murdered.
In Majdanek, where Gotzfrid served, the guards were particularly efficient. About 17,000 inmates were marched to the so-called "liquidation barracks", where they were forced to undress. They were then ordered to lie face- down in the mass graves already dug. Thus they were shot, layer by layer, until the grave was full. "Operation Harvest Festival" was over in a matter of hours.
Gotzfrid loaded the guns, as he recalled, and tended the horses, which he said was his main job. He was a small cog in the Nazi killing machine, that much was beyond dispute.
According to German records on war criminals, Gotzfrid had served in the SS, and was a low-ranking member of staff on the Galician Security Police Command in Lublin. An ethnic German living in the Soviet Union before the war, he had volunteered to serve the Fatherland.
He had also been accused of belonging to the Gestapo, the German secret police, but he denied it during the trial. According to Judge Klaus Teichmann, there was, however, evidence to prove Gotzfrid had been a member of a special unit codenamed "D", "which also had the task of gassing and shooting innocent people to death".
"You were there and took part in the bloody business," the judge said. "Orders are orders," was Gotzfrid's defence.
Gotzfrid was captured after the war and put on trial at a Soviet military court for treason and war crimes in 1947. For his unspecified role at Majdanek, he was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour. He was released after 11 years in Siberia and exiled to Kazakhstan, the destination of most ethnic Germans.
He moved to Germany in 1991, and was given German nationality in the same year. He appears to have lived there undisturbed until 1996, when he was first summoned by Stuttgart prosecutors, to be questioned as a witness at the behest of Scotland Yard.
A year later, he was called, again as a witness, to the national war crimes centre in Dortmund. It was while being questioned in Dortmund two years ago that Gotzfrid is said to have unburdened himself, confessing to the murder of 500 inmates with his own hands. He was arrested in March last year.
Once he retracted that confession, there was little chance of putting him away. His lowly rank also played in his favour, though as the prosecutor, Kurt Schrimm, noted bitterly: "The crimes against the Jews were only possible because of thousands of small Gotzfrids."
War crimes investigators in Germany have another 61 names on their lists, but they are unlikely to be prosecuted. Many are too old and infirm to stand trial and, with the passing of time, fewer and fewer witnesses can be found. Gotzfrid was not the only Nazi murderer celebrating in the safety of his home last night.Reuse content