Michael Seifert: Brutal SS guard who evaded justice for half a century but was eventually convicted of nine murders

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The Independent Online

Decades after the Second World War Michael Seifert, a retired Canadian lumber mill worker, was exposed as a former Nazi SS guard known as "the beast of Bolzano", a reputation gained through the brutality he dished out to inmates.

The former mill worker was retired and quietly living in Vancouver, British Columbia, when his concealed identity unexpectedly came to light. Seifert's past had only started to emerge in 1995 when researcher Carla Giacomozzi, head of the historical archives for the Bolzano region, began collecting oral histories and photographs from Jews, political prisoners and others who had been incarcerated at the Nazi concentration camp at Bolzano.

After countless stories about two guards, Misha and Otto, who had committed horrific cruelties, including rape, torture and murder, Misha was eventually identified as Seifert. The revelations led to his trial in absentia at a military tribunal in Verona, Italy in 2000, and his conviction of nine murders by a three-judge panel. He was sentenced to life in prison, and after finally losing a long extradition battle he was extradited to Italy from Canada, entering the Santa Maria Capua Vetere military prison in southern Italy in February 2008, at the age of 83.

Michael "Misha" Seifert was born in Landau (now Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine) in 1924, into what a judge described as an "ethnically pure" German family. He grew up between the looming shadows of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. His father was a postal worker until 1933, when he lost his job on suspicion of supporting Hitler. His mother ran their home in a German enclave and looked after their few livestock.

Following the German invasion and occupation, Seifert's first job was as a dockyard guard, but he soon took the opportunity to join the SS and was in a unit that guarded political prisoners at a sanatorium. Then, in 1944, he was posted to Verona, Italy.

By this time the Allies were in the ascendancy and Italy had signed an armistice with them, but it was still occupied in the north and central part of the country by Germany, its former axis partner.

In June 1944, Seifert was posted as a guard to Bolzano in the mountainous north of the country, where he remained until April 1945. Bolzano was the HQ of the German operational zone of the Alpine foothills. Although it was a labour camp for some prisoners, it was essentially a transit camp, the largest Nazi Lager on Italian soil. It was used for anti-fascists and anti-Nazi politicians, Jews, deserters, and other "undesirables" destined for extermination camps.

As guards, Seifert and a colleague Otto Sein were known as the "Two Ukrainians", soon gaining a reputation for brutality. Both briefly became prisoners themselves in late 1944 when they were convicted of raping a local woman, but their commander eventually allowed them to resume their guard duties in the isolation cells. It was alleged that they were involved in the starvation of prisoners; one prisoner was disembowelled and another was tied to a fence and beaten to death.

Of the nine people Seifert waseventually convicted of killing, one was a pregnant woman whom he had raped and tortured with buckets of cold water before leaving her outside to freeze to death. Another was a woman whose eyes he had poked out with his fingers. A third was a boy he deliberately starved.

With the war moving to its conclusion, the camp closed and Seifert fled on foot to Germany, where he lay low for a few years. His accomplice, Sein, was never found. In 1951, Seifert told a Canadian official in Hannover that he spent the war handling horses for the Cossacks in Italy, a lie which a judge later ruled was partly motivated by a "well-founded" fear of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union. He was granted admission to Canada, where he lived quietly until his exposure.

Seifert never denied being a guard at Bolzano but never admitted any involvement in alleged atrocities. His fight against extradition lasted seven years, but the ultimate decision to expel him was not based specifically on the issues in the Italian case. A judge ruled that Canada could strip him of citizenship because it was obtained through deception and thus violated Canadian law. In addition, the British Columbia court said that seven of the nine convictions were solid enough to merit extradition, although Seifert's lawyer always maintained the Italian evidence was flawed and called the case "a grave miscarriage of justice".

Avi Benlolo, of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Canada, said: "It sets an example for other war criminals, not only Nazi war criminals, but war criminals related to Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur or any other genocide."

Seifert was transferred to Caserta hospital with a fractured femur on 25 October following a fall in his cell. He died after undergoing an emergency operation for gastric complications.

Michael Seifert, SS guard: born Landau (now in Ukraine) 16 March 1924; married (one son); died Caserta, Italy 6 November 2010.