The wheels of justice turn slowly, but a 93-year-old former SS guard is finally being brought to justice.
After evading justice for 70 years, former SS guard Oskar Groening, known as the “accountant of Auschwitz,” appeared court and is begging forgiveness from his victims.
The former Auschwitz guard acknowledged Tuesday that he bears a share of the moral guilt for the atrocities at the camp, but he told judges at the opening of his trial that it was up to them to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder.
Groening, 93, admitted that he helped collect and tally money as part of his job in dealing with the belongings stolen from the inmates at Auschwitz, earning him the moniker “Accountant of Auschwitz.”
Groening testified that he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. He did not admit to participating directly in any of the atrocities, instead saying that he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one.
“I share morally in the guilt, but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide,” Groening told the panel of judges as he closed an hour-long statement to the court. Under the German legal system, defendants do not enter formal pleas.
On his way to the court in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, Groening told reporters that he expects an acquittal. He could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Groening faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, and the trial judges will decide whether anyone who served as a guard at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there.
The charges relate to a period between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought to Auschwitz and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death.
“Through his job, the defendant supported the machinery of death,” prosecutor Jens Lehmann said as he read out the indictment.
In his statement, Groening recalled that he and a group of recruits were told by an SS major before going to Auschwitz they would “perform a duty that will clearly not be pleasant, but one necessary to achieve final victory.”
The major gave no details, but other SS men told Groening at Auschwitz that Jews were being selected for work and that those who could not work were being murdered.
Groening described the arrival of transports of Jewish prisoners in detail, recalling an incident in late 1942 in which another SS man smashed a baby against a truck, “and his crying stopped.” He said he was “shocked” and the following day asked a lieutenant for a transfer, which was not granted.
Groening, who entered the court pushing a walker, appeared lucid as he gave his statement, pausing occasionally to cough or drink water. It is unclear how long the trial will last; court sessions have been scheduled through the end of July.
The trial is the first to test a new line of German legal reasoning that has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard could be charged as an accessory to murders, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.
There are currently 11 open investigations against former Auschwitz guards, and charges have been filed in three of these cases, including Groening’s. Eight former Majdanek guards are also under investigation.
About 60 Holocaust survivors and relatives from places as far as the US, Canada and Israel have joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, as is allowed under German law.
Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor said Groening was a very old man who had a hard life, “but by his own doing.”
“If you’re guilty, is there such a thing as morally guilty but to be legally not?” she asked.