BERLIN – The Simon Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi hunter said Tuesday he is not aware of any evidence of war crimes committed by a 97-year-old former SS officer, despite a newspaper report that he allegedly admitted his signature is on an order to kill thousands of Jews.
Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff said there is evidence that Bernhard Frank was a devoted Nazi, but that he has seen nothing to indicate he was involved in ordering that Jews be killed.
"He's attributed with far more responsibility and criminal guilt than he actually deserves," Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "That's not to say he isn't a Nazi — even a zealous Nazi who still today identifies with the National Socialist movement — but there's a big difference between that and portraying him as one of the key operatives of the Nazi Holocaust."
Frank is best known as the SS officer who, in the final days of the war, arrested top Nazi Hermann Goering on Hitler's orders on accusations of treason. He has written two books in German on his experiences.
It was not clear where Frank could be reached; a call to one person of his name went unanswered and a call to another was an unrelated person with the same name.
According to an article in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, American investigator Mark Gould, posing as a neo-Nazi, met with Frank "over the years" and the two developed a "trusting relationship."
It said the investigator got him to divulge that in 1941 he worked for the office of SS leader Heinrich Himmler and signed a document ordering the killing of Jews in newly-captured Soviet territories — a precursor to the wholesale killing to come.
The newspaper called him "the most senior Nazi criminal still alive today" and said a group of American families whose relatives were killed by the Nazis were planning to file a lawsuit against him.
In a press release Tuesday, Gould said he has filed a civil suit with a U.S. federal court in Washington, accusing Frank of genocide, torture, kidnapping and crimes against humanity.
"It's been over six decades since Bernhard Frank took a pivotal role in the Nazis' extermination program, but given the cover-up of his identity and the lack of criminal remedies, this led to the decision to file a civil suit and to publish his crimes," Gould said.
The group involved in what it called a "six-year investigation" was planning a news conference in New York later in the day.
Zuroff said his research indicates that many people signed the same 1941 document, and that Frank's job was just to verify that the language conformed with Nazi ideology — rather than actually give any order for killing.
"There seems to be a very deliberate inflation of the criminal aspect of his activities," Zuroff said.
Though Frank ended the war with the relatively high rank of Obersturmbannfuehrer — the SS equivalent of a lieutenant colonel — Zuroff said he worked in an office whose role was "more ideological rather than operative."
"When we rank them, it's not a question of their rank, it's a question of what they did," Zuroff said, referring to the Wiesenthal Center's annual "most wanted Nazis" list.
Thomas Will, the deputy head of the special German prosecutors office that investigates Nazi-era crimes, said that he has seen Frank's name surface in wartime documents, but that there has never been any evidence of a crime for which he could be prosecuted.
"There is no known concrete accusation against Mr. Frank," he said in a telephone interview from Ludwigsburg.
He added, however, that his office would be "very interested" if there was new evidence.