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Poland announced Thursday that it is reopening its probe into World War II war crimes at Auschwitz and other Nazi-era death camps. The goal: to track down and prosecute any living Nazis who worked at the camps, before time runs out.
The Associated Press reports that Poland first opened up investigations into Nazi-era war crimes in the 1960s and '70s, but closed them in the 1980s before any convictions were made as the result of the "country's isolation behind the Iron Curtain."
Still, any new convictions that result from the reopened investigations won't be the first since the 1980s in Poland; the nation's most recent Nazi-era crime prosecution was in 2001, when a guard was sentenced to 8 years in prison for working at Chelmno, a death camp. As the AP points out, Poland actually currently has the highest number of open cases, although few have been prosecuted.
The new wave of investigations was prompted by the case of Ukrainian-born former Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk, 91, who was extradited from the U.S. in 2009. A German court found him guilty of more than 28,000 counts of accessory to murder last May, and authorities say his conviction and five-year sentence paved the way for additional prosecutions because it was the first time they were able to convict someone in a Nazi-era case without direct evidence that the person participated in a specific murder.
As a result, Germany reopened hundreds of dormant cases targeting death camp guards, and Poland has now followed suit. A Slate explainer written after Demjanjuk's conviction notes that there are "probably hundreds" of war criminals still alive and at large.
The AP interviewed Efraim Zuroff, a "leading international Nazi hunter," about the new investigations. While he said he'd welcome any new convictions, Zuroff is skeptical of the state-run organization, the Institute of National Remembrance, tasked with carrying out the investigations. He said the Polish organization "excels in opening up investigations" not in "prosecuting Nazi war criminals."