Reuters International

By Tina Bellon

LUDWIGSBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's top Nazi hunter said on Wednesday he wants to put even former concentration camp secretaries and telephone operators on trial as accomplices to mass murder, along with death camp guards, in a race against time before elderly suspects die.

In an interview with Reuters, Jens Rommel said his Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes is now going after more civilian camp workers after last year's successful prosecution of the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz", Oskar Groening.

But Rommel admitted that his office, which this week passed along information to prosecutors about eight secretaries, telephone operators and guards who worked at the Stutthof death camp near Gdansk during World War Two, is moving into uncharted territory.

"We don't have any evidence at this point that these (eight) were directly involved in any murders," Rommel said. "But we believe the guards were to a certain extent accomplices to the murders. It's going to be more difficult to judge the responsibility of the civil employees, even though the work they performed was also essential to keep the operations going."

Rommel - whose office is a trove containing 1.7 million records of suspects, places and SS military units - said the suspects' names, age and locations are being withheld for now because prosecutors do not want to tip off the suspects - four men and four women believed to be around 90 years old.

Rommel, 44, said that his office's research showed that the eight suspects provided support to the Nazi system by working at the camp in the summer and fall of 1944, when thousands of Jews were killed in the camps' gas chambers or shot to death.

While the four men served as SS guards, the four women handled administrative tasks - secretaries and telephone operators. "These employees had to forward details on the arriving deportation trains, for example," Rommel said.

Germany had long faced criticism for not prosecuting those who were the small cogs of the Nazi machinery even though they did not actively take part in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

But that criticism has abated thanks to many recent trials and convictions, such as the 2011 conviction of Sobibor death camp guard John Demjanjuk that gave prosecutors new legal means to investigate suspects under accessory to murder charges.

German prosecutors have also recently charged two other Auschwitz death camp employees, a medic and a radio operator. But the suspects' high age and frail health, more than 70 years after the end of World War Two, prevented the cases from going forward.

Rommel said that more than 95 percent of a potential pool of suspects were either dead or too frail to be put on trial.

"It's frustrating sometimes to see a suspect die just a few days before the start of a trial after much work has been invested into the case," said Rommel.

Rommel said he is also concerned that a pending verdict by Germany's Federal Court of Justice might stop Nazi crime investigations altogether. The court is expected to rule on the appeal of Groening, who has rejected the broader definition.

"If the [federal] court reverses the verdict and decides that the proof is not sufficient it would become extremely difficult to go forward with any other cases," Rommel said.

(Editing by Erik Kirschbaum and Toby Chopra)

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