Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Nazis' Gunman Dodges Jail, Ages in Peace

By DAVID RISING – Mar 7, 2008

ESCHWEILER, Germany (AP) — Heinrich Boere's first victim was a pharmacist. Two more victims would follow on a single day, one gunned down at point-blank range in his doorway, the other on the road.

And although the killing spree happened in 1944, a footnote to the far greater carnage raging across World War II Europe, it still haunts Germany and Holland, leaving a sense of justice denied by dueling court systems despite the continent's long march to unity and harmonized institutions.

Boere was part of a Waffen SS death squad of mostly Dutch volunteers tasked with killing fellow countrymen in reprisal for attacks by the anti-Nazi resistance. His is among more than 1,000 cases worldwide which the Nazi-tracking Simon Wiesenthal Center says are still open as of last April 1.

Though sentenced to death in the Netherlands in 1949 — later commuted to life imprisonment — Boere has managed to escape jail so far. One German court has refused to extradite him because he might have German nationality as well as Dutch. Another won't make him serve his Dutch sentence in a German prison because he was absent from his trial, having fled to Germany.

Now, The Associated Press has learned, a German investigator has quietly reopened the case in a last-ditch attempt to bring charges against the 86-year-old Boere and see that he faces justice.

Boere volunteered for the SS only months after Holland fell to the German blitzkrieg in 1940. After the war he spent two years in an Allied prison camp where he made the statements later used to convict him, but he escaped to Germany before the Dutch could bring him to trial.

Much of what is known about the case comes from the Dutch file on the 1949 trial that convicted Boere.

According to Ulrich Maass, the prosecutor now investigating him, the death squad is known to have been responsible for 54 killings. Boere was convicted of three of them, which he detailed, almost gunshot by gunshot, in statements to Dutch police preserved in the court file.

The first was in July 1944.

According to Boere's statement, he and fellow SS man Jacobus Petrus Besteman set off for the town of Breda, and the local office of the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi internal intelligence agency. There they were given a list of names slated for "retaliatory measures."

Their target that day was Fritz Hubert Ernst Bicknese, pharmacist.

Wearing civilian clothes, Boere and Besteman walked into the pharmacy and asked the man there if he was Bicknese. When he answered "yes," Boere pulled his pistol from his right coat pocket and fired two or three shots into Bicknese's upper body, then Besteman moved in and fired another two or three shots into the fallen man.

The next one, in September, followed a similar pattern: Boere and an accomplice named Hendrik Kromhout shot bicycle-shop owner Teun de Groot when he answered the doorbell at his home in the town of Voorschoten. They then continued to the apartment of F.W. Kusters, and forced him into their car. They drove him to another town, stopped on the pretense of having a flat tire and shot him.

"Kusters fell against the garden door of the Villa Constance and sank to the ground ..." Boere told investigators. "Blood shot out of Kusters' neck."
The SS unit, code-named Silbertanne, or Silver Pine, consisted of 15 men, primarily Dutch, who were mustered to exact reprisals for attacks by the Dutch resistance on collaborators.

It's not certain why all of Boere's victims were on the death list. De Groot's son says his father wasn't a member of the armed resistance, but he helped hide fugitives and his bicycle shop was a hangout for anti-Nazi activists.
After the war, when the Allied war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg finished its work, it fell to the West German government to prosecute remaining Nazis.

But Boere wasn't among them. Today he lives in Eschweiler, outside the German cathedral city of Aachen, in an upscale old-age home with its own barbershop and caged parakeets tweeting in the lobby. Staff say he uses a walker but rarely leaves his room.

Telephoned by the reception desk to ask if he would meet with a reporter, he replied curtly: "I don't want to be disturbed."

But last year he spoke to the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, saying of his wartime deeds: "It was another time, with different rules."

He described ringing de Groot's doorbell and asking him for his papers.
"When we knew for sure we had the right person, we shot him dead, at the door," he said. "I didn't feel anything, it was work. Orders were orders, otherwise it would have meant my skin. Later it began to bother me. Now I'm sorry."

The Dutch didn't give up, and sought his extradition. But a German court in 1983 refused on the grounds he might have German citizenship, and Germany at the time had no provision to extradite its nationals.

A state court in Aachen ruled in 2007 that Boere could legally serve his sentence in Germany, but an appeals court in Cologne overturned the ruling months later, saying the 1949 conviction was invalid because Boere was unable to present a defense.

The case continues to stir Dutch public opinion. Last August, opposition lawmakers queried Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin who, in his reply, named "four Dutch war criminals still alive and in Germany who have not served a Dutch prison sentence." One of them was Boere.

It was after the Cologne decision that Maass' office, which is responsible for investigating Nazi war crimes for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, took up the case again.

Efraim Zuroff, Jerusalem-based director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Boere may not be a senior Nazi, but "he is certainly worthy of prosecution."

"The fact that Germany has spared killers like Boere ... is absolutely outrageous," he said.

Besteman, Boere's partner in the first killing, is still alive, living in the Netherlands after serving jail time for his wartime crimes, and Maass hopes to be able to call on him if the case goes to trial.

But it's a race against time as ex-Nazis die of old age. "We haven't had a lot of success in the past years," Maass conceded. "It's resolving itself biologically."

The bike shop owner's son, also named Teun de Groot, doesn't want to leave it to biology. He insists Boere should serve his life sentence, whatever that means nearly 59 years later.

"For him, life is two years. Ten years is life, five years is life," de Groot told The AP. "He's 86!"

De Groot, the oldest of five children, was 11 when his father was killed. The murder, he says, devastated his family. They sold the shop at a fraction of its value, his mother went to pieces, and the three older children were sent to live with relatives and in foster care.

He still has the wallet his father fumbled for in his doorway to show his visitors his ID papers. It is torn by a bullet.

Associated Press Writer Toby Sterling in Heiloo, Netherlands, and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.

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