Samuel Kunz 1921-2010

Wanted for the deaths of 430,000 Jews. Evaded justice for 67 years. Died a free man.

Like hundreds of other suspected Nazi war criminals before him, the former death-camp guard Samuel Kunz died quietly at his home in the German provincial city of Bonn last week at the ripe old age of 89.

He was never obliged to stand trial although he was thought to have the blood of thousands on his hands. Despite being one of the world's most wanted men, he managed to escape the courtroom where he would have faced charges of mass murder.

Even in today's Germany where a renewed effort is under way to bring war criminals to trial, the wheels of justice turn slowly. Kunz was the third on the SimonWiesenthal Centre's list of most wanted Nazi war criminals. As a camp guard at the Belzec extermination camp in occupied Poland he was suspected of taking part in the murder of more than 430,000 Jews.

However yesterday, it was left to Alfred Brendel, the German state prosecutor, to announce his death. "Samuel Kunz died on 18 November at 5.30 in the afternoon," he said in a statement. "Most probably he died at his home," he added.

Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Centre's chief Nazi hunter admitted that he found it "incredibly frustrating" that Kunz had died before his impending trial which had been due to open early next year. But he noted it was important that he had been indicted at all. "At least a small measure of justice was achieved," he said.

Like many other Nazi war criminals, Kunz was ignored by the German justice system for decades. After the war he managed to live quietly in Bonn. Until his retirement 14 years ago he had worked as a handyman in Germany's Federal Ministry for Building and Urban Development.

That he was charged at all was the result of a significant change in official German attitudes to Nazi war criminals. A little over a decade ago state prosecutors, under pressure from organisations such as the Wiesenthal Centre, launched an attempt to bring the last of them to justice.

One of them was the world's most wanted suspected war criminal, the Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, who is thought to have been a murderous guard at the Sobibor death camp. Now aged 90, Demjanjuk is on trial in Munich where he is charged with taking part in the murder of 27,900 mostly Dutch Jews.

Demjanjuk, who is accused of unspeakable acts, including driving naked Jews into the gas chambers with a whip, had managed to escape justice for decades. He was finally extradited to Germany from the United States in 2009 and his trial began almost exactly a year ago.

The decision to indict Kunz came as a by-product of the Demjanjuk investigation. Prosecutors only began questioning him in January after his name surfaced during preparations for the Demjanjuk trial. Not only did Kunz face a trial of his own, but he had been due to appear next month as a key witness in the Demjanjuk trial.

As a member of an ethnic German family living along River Volga in the USSR before the Second World War, Kunz's wartime record was similar to that of many ethnic Germans. At the beginning of the war he joined the Red Army. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he was captured and given the choice of working with the Nazis or being interned.

Kunz almost certainly chose to co-operate with the Nazi invaders. He is alleged to have attended a training camp for SS death-camp guards at Trawniki in Nazi-occupied Poland. Thereafter, he was widely suspected of having served as a guard at the Belzec extermination camp which was little more than a murder factory. According to SS records 434,508 Jews were gassed, shot or beaten to death there between January 1942 and July 1943.

The Demjanjuk trial opened a year ago and was scheduled to end in April 2010. The final date for a verdict has now been put forward to March 2011. Some relatives of Holocaust victims have said they fear that Demjanjuk may be dead by then. Kunz, it seems, may not be the only one of the world's last remaining suspected Nazi war criminals to escape justice.

WIESENTHAL CENTRE'S OTHER MOST-WANTED NAZIS

Dr Sandor Kepiro

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre's most-wanted Nazi war criminal, Kepiro is being sought for his participation in the massacre of 1,200 citizens in Serbia in 1942. He was convicted in Hungary in 1944, but never punished; Hungary refuses to implement his sentence, but is conducting a new criminal investigation – which has so far taken three years.

Milivoj Asner

A Croatian police chief, and second on the Wiesenthal list, he was involved in persecuting and deporting Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. Now living in Austria, where his extradition to Croatia was refused on medical grounds in 2005. Last year doctors said he suffered from dementia, but he has given media interviews, which raise doubts about the diagnosis.

John Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk has faced three decades of court actions over his Nazi history. At the age of 90, he is finally on trial on charges of a role in the death of almost 30,000 Jews as a death camp guard – but the process has repeatedly been delayed because of his ill health. A year after the case opened, it is not expected to conclude before March 2011.

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