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Monument to the murdered ones in Babi Yar, Kiev. (Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Babi Yar atrocities, the mass murder of 33,000 men, women and children over two of the most depraved days known to civilization, was a keystone moment in the Holocaust. Most of the brutality outside the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in September 1941 was carried out by the Einsatzgruppen, the roving SS killing squads on the Eastern Front.

One German who was in the Ukraine at the time as part of the Nazi forces is now being prosecuted in the genocidal massacre of Jews. Even though German prosecutors cannot necessarily prove Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister fired any of the thousands of bullets, authorities allege they can prove he was in the country at the time of the butchery—and was therefore an “accessory” to the war crimes.

Hoffmeister, now 95, is the third case to be opened by German authorities over the last year. The other two are now also old men: 94-year-old Kurt Gosdek and Herbert Wahler, 96, are also under investigation, according to The Associated Press and other accounts.

The legal precedent for the “accessory” charges was opened by two previous prosecutions over the last decade. The first was the 2011 conviction of Ukrainian-American John Demjanjuk for charges connected with assisting in the murder of approximately 27,900 people as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland during the war. (Demjanjuk died in 2012, at the age of 92, before an appeal could be heard.) The second is the case of Oskar Groning, an SS soldier stationed at Auschwitz who was convicted of the accessory murder counts in 2015, and lost appeals before his death in March of this year. (Groning had given TV interviews and spoken publicly about his involvement in the Holocaust since the 1990s, which became part of the evidence against him.)

This photo was taken from the body of a dead Germany officer killed in Russia, showing a German firing squad shooting Soviet civilians in the back as they sit beside their own mass grave, in Babi Yar, Kiev, 1942. German prosecutors are investigating a suspected former member of Adolf Hitler's traveling killing squads for involvement in massacres carried out by the "Einsatzgruppen" in Ukraine. The investigation centers on 95-year-old Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister, a corporal in the Nazi SS who was in Ukraine around the time 34,000 people were massacred in 1941. The case is the third of its kind in recent months, raising hopes among Nazi hunters that Germany is pursuing a new wave of prosecutions. (Photo: AP, File)

Hoffmeister, Gosdek and Wahler—all of whom were members of the Einsatzgruppe C, attached to Army Group South—came to the attention of the German investigators through the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Holocaust crime group looked through a list of more than 1,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen, and in 2014 narrowed down the search to just those born after 1919—and who would most likely be alive.

That left eight names, including the three now subject to the official investigations. One has since died. And the other four are still under investigation—though all were members of the Einsatzgruppe A, for which there is less information, according to The Associated Press.

One of the burdens of prosecuting the crimes, committed over a chaotic war front, has been eased by some of the recent “accessory” precedents, according to Jens Rommel, of the German prosecutors’ office focused on Nazi war crimes, the Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen in Ludwigsburg den Auftrag, Vorermittlungen zu nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen.

“With the Einsatzgruppen, they were mobile, on the move over a huge area, so it’s much more difficult,” said Rommel. “We hope with the new legal situation we will have better success.”

But as for Hoffmeister, his finger cannot be placed on the trigger by prosecutors at this point, Rommel added.

“We don’t know what he did on what day,” added the prosecutor.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center also announced this week that the Finnish National Archives has opened a “comprehensive investigation” into Finnish SS volunteers who may have taken part in the slaughter in the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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