A 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard deported from Tennessee has agreed to be questioned by German prosecutors as they re-examine whether there is enough evidence against him to bring charges, authorities said Monday.
Friedrich Karl Berger arrived Saturday in Frankfurt on a special flight from the U.S. after being ordered deported to his native Germany by a court in Memphis last year.
He was met by Hesse state police detectives at the airport and told them he would be willing to be questioned by investigators with a lawyer present, said Bernd Kolkmeier, spokesman for the Celle prosecutor's office, which is handling the case.
Organizing counsel and ensuring they are up to speed on the facts will take time, however, so the earliest such an interview would take place would be next month, Kolkmeier said.
A U.S. immigration judge ordered Berger deported a year ago after finding that his "willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place" constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution.
The court found that Berger, who had been living in the U.S. since 1959, had served at a camp in Meppen, Germany, near the border with the Netherlands, which was a subcamp of the larger Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.
It said during the winter of 1945, prisoners in Meppen were held in "atrocious" conditions and were exploited for outdoor forced labor, working "to the point of exhaustion and death."
Berger admitted to American investigators that he served in Meppen as a guard for a few weeks near the end of the war but said he did not observe any abuse or killings. The Memphis court found, however, that Berger had helped guard prisoners during a forced evacuation that took nearly two weeks and claimed the lives of 70 people.
Celle prosecutors shelved their initial investigation of him in December, however, saying they had been unable to refute his account. They're now having another look, with him back on German soil, Kolkmeier said.
"Nothing has changed except that he is now in Germany and we can talk with him," Kolkmeier said. "We can personally question him, which is naturally different than reading a transcript."
Kolkmeier would not say whether Berger still had family in Germany nor where he was residing.
Berger, who was born in 1925 in the tiny northern town of Bargen, was serving in the German Navy when he was assigned to guard prisoners in Meppen in 1945, according to the Neuengamme Memorial's website.
He served between Jan. 28, 1945, and April 4, 1945, as an auxiliary attached to the SS command of the camp, according to Celle prosecutors.
Berger is being investigated under a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk, who denied the allegations, died before his appeal could be heard.
German courts previously required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard's participation in a specific killing, often a near-impossible task.
However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk's trial in Munich that helping a camp function by serving as a guard was enough to convict someone of accessory to murders committed there.
A federal court subsequently upheld the 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening on the same reasoning.
Since the Demjanjuk conviction, there has been a steady stream of new prosecutions and trials in Germany.
Earlier this month prosecutors charged a 100-year-old man on 3,518 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he served as a guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, and a 95-year-old woman on 10,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations she served as the secretary to the former SS commandant of the Stutthof camp.