When we write these final chapters on the Holocaust, Thomas Walther, the “last of the Nazi hunters,” should not just be included – he should be recognized as a post-Holocaust member of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” Walther, a 73-year-old retired judge, was inspired by his father to help others and do good, fighting against the German judicial system on the side of honour and humanity.
Walther’s drive and determination to help Holocaust survivors is in his DNA. His father, Rudolph Walther, rescued two Jewish families from Nazi persecution during the Kristallnacht riots, keeping them hidden until he was able to obtain visas for them to escape to Australia and Paraguay. He also made sure to teach his son Thomas about the horrors of the Holocaust while many of his fellow Germans repressed humanity’s darkest period.
In 2016, after he retired, Thomas Walther joined the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, setting out to change the precedent on prosecuting Nazi guards. After the war, it is estimated that between 7,000 to 8,000 SS guards served at Auschwitz. Before Walther became a Nazi hunter, only 48 were convicted.
Everything changed, however, with the trail of John Demjanjuk.
In 2011, after standing trial for two years, German courts decided to convict Demjanjuk without any direct evidence of murder –simply by being a guard who watched thousands march to their death made him complicit in the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews at Sobibor. Walther, at this point, helped in making two changes to the German judiciary system: 1) a Nazi did not have to be directly involved to be guilty of aiding and abetting a murder during the Holocaust, and 2) a Holocaust survivor who testifies in a German court does not have to directly identify the defendant.
Walther took this opportunity to help find any remaining German citizens who were former Nazi SS guards. Given that his hunt for Nazis started almost 70 years after the Holocaust ended, many had passed away. He eventually located four former Nazi guards: Oskar Groening, Reinhold Hanning, Hubert Zafke and Ernst Tremmel.
In April, Tremmel died just days before he was to go to trial at the age of 93, and Zafke’s trial has been postponed indefinitely – he’s been deemed unfit to stand trial due to his ill health. On June 15, 2015, Groening, known as the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” became the 50th Nazi guard to be convicted since the war ended.
As such, Hanning’s trial has been dubbed by many as the “Last of the Nazi trials.”
I had the honour and privilege to fly to Detmold, Germany to witness the conclusion of Hanning’s trial with my fiancé, Samantha Glied-Beliak, her mother Tammy Glied and her grandfather, Bill Glied. Bill, a Holocaust survivor who testified in the Groening case, had testified during the Hanning trial earlier this year.
As it happened, we were staying at the same hotel as Walther and got to spend each day with him. Now, when one thinks of a ‘Nazi hunter,’ you likely picture a tall, muscular and tough individual. Walther, however, is the opposite. He is kind, patient, charming and has an amazing sense of humour. When he speaks with Holocaust survivors the respect and admiration he has for them is palpable. I am honoured to have met such a remarkable man in person.
I am doubly honoured by the fact that thanks to Walther’s efforts, a grandchild of four Auschwitz survivors was able to come to Germany as a free Jew and witness a Nazi guard stand trial and face his crimes. That day, June 17, 2016 Reinhold Hanning was convicted for the crimes he committed at Auschwitz, and Walther helped bring the 51st Nazi guard to justice following the war.
After the trial, Walther and his team held a press conference. His closing remarks still make me shudder: “The real victory today is the generations present with us, who witnessed the conviction of a Nazi. That Bill [Glied] is here today with his daughter and granddaughter and that Hedy [Bohm] is here today with her daughter.”
In Deuteronomy 16:20 it is written that, “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue.” Justice, expressed in Parshat Shoftim, is one of the eternal religious obligations of Judaism. It is even found in the root of the Hebrew word for charity – tzedakah. Walther felt that his country had let down the Jewish people by not pursuing justice after the Holocaust, by not changing its laws. And, after 70 years, justice has finally come and Walther will forever remain in my heart a Righteous Among the Nations. Thank you for doing what is right Thomas Walther, and for giving a voice to the millions who no longer have one.
Rafi Yablonsky is Manager of Strategic Initiatives & UJA Young Leaders at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.