Holocaust Trial

‘Auschwitz Bookkeeper’ Gets Four Years

Groening DPA
Oskar Gröning.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is seeking to prosecute anyone still alive who was involved in the Nazi death machine, no matter how small a cog they were.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • 94-year-old Oskar Gröning was found guilty on Wednesday after a four-month trial in Lüneberg.
    • He worked as a guard at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944.
    • His four-year sentence could be commuted due to his poor health and the long delay in the prosecution.
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    Audio

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In 1942, at the age of 21, Oskar Gröning was posted to Auschwitz, where the young SS guard became part of the Nazi death machine.

On Wednesday, over 70 years later, he was found guilty of his involvement in the mass murder and sentenced to four years in prison.

It marks the conclusion of what may be one of the last Holocaust trials.

Mr. Gröning, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” was found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. A total of six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

The specific charges related to thousands of deported Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in the summer of 1944.

“No one should have taken part in Auschwitz. I know that.”

Oskar Gröning, Former SS guard at Auschwitz

Now 94, Mr. Gröning had apologized for his involvement in the murders on several occasions since his trial commenced in April in the northern German city of Lüneburg.

It is unclear how much time he will actually serve. The prosecutor’s office will now have to assess if he can actually be jailed as he is in such poor health. During his trial, the court decided to only sit for a maximum of three hours a day due to his frailty.

In addition his lawyers have already called for any sentence to be reduced by 22 months to make up for the many years delay in prosecution.

On Tuesday, as the lawyers made their final statements, Mr. Gröning was invited to speak again. “No one should have taken part in Auschwitz,” he said. “I know that. I sincerely regret not having lived up to this realization earlier and more consistently. I am very sorry.”

Earlier this month he told the court: “I’ve consciously not asked for forgiveness for my guilt. Regarding the scale of what took place in Auschwitz and the crimes committed elsewhere, as far as I’m concerned I’m not entitled to such a request. I can only ask the Lord God for forgiveness.”

At the start of his trail, Mr. Gröning, admitted to “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

During the trial Mr. Gröning gave evidence about his role at the camp, where he said he was a small cog in the wheel and had never committed any atrocities himself.

Mr. Gröning was mainly responsible for sorting and counting the money taken from the victims and sending it back to Berlin.

He admitted that on a few occasions he was also on duty at the ramps as freight trains arrived, bringing the unsuspecting victims to the camp. It was here that the arrivals were selected to be either murdered immediately or sent to work as slave laborers.

The prosecutors say that by helping to process these arrivals he contributed to the smooth running of the death camp.

AuschwitzAP
Survivors of a liberated Auschwitz, January 1945. Source: AP

While he never denied that he was at the death camp, Mr. Gröning’s lawyers have argued that the state has not proved that he was directly guilty of the crimes.

One of his lawyer’s, Hans Holtermann, said on Tuesday: “Mr Gröning was never an accessory to the Holocaust, neither with his presence at the ramp nor by transferring and counting money nor with any other actions, at least not in any legal sense,” he said.

His defense lawyers had also focused on the fact that Mr. Gröning had already been subject to an investigation which was dropped in 1978 and that the delay had impeded his ability to defend himself at this advanced age. They also called for leniency on the basis of his poor health.

Mr. Gröning claimed that he had asked to be transferred out of Auschwitz three times, which finally happened in late 1944, and his lawyers pointed out that unlike others accused of Nazi war crimes, he had cooperated fully with the prosecution.

Last week the prosecution asked for a sentence of three and half years. Public prosecutor Jens Lehmann said that the request reflected the “nearly incomprehensible number of victims,” but was mitigated by “the limited contribution of the accused” to their deaths.

One of the lawyers for the co-plaintiffs, Mehmet Daimagüler, argued that the trial was still relevant today, since the Nazi war crimes and Holocaust were based on racism and anti-Semitism.

He pointed to the anti-Muslim Pegida demonstrations and the neo-Nazi murder spree carried out by the National Socialist Underground between 2000 and 2007, as evidence that these were still issues in present-day Germany.

“I have the feeling that there is an unwillingness, along the lines of ‘What’s the point of all this, can’t we finally draw a line under this?” Mr. Daimagüler, who is also representing some of the relatives of the NSU victims in a separate trial, told the court on Tuesday. “I think yes, it has to be – I think it’s more necessary now than ever.”

During the trial, Holocaust survivors gave testimony and confronted the former SS guard.

Eva Mozes Kor, who lost 119 members of her family in the Holocaust, traveled from Indiana where she now lives to call on Mr. Gröning to take responsibility for his actions.

She and her twin sister Miriam survived because they were selected for experimentation by the notorious Josef Mengele.

 


Video: A volume in a series that examines the Auschwitz death camp.

 

The 81-year-old described the terrible conditions she and her sister lived in and told the court. “We had no rights but a fierce determination to survive one more day.”

In court, Ms. Mozes Kor told the defendant that she forgave him, but said: “My forgiveness does not absolve the perpetrator from taking responsibility for his actions.”

Some 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945.

The prosecutors had sought to highlight the fact that Mr. Gröning had volunteered to join the SS, showing he was a willing supporter of the Nazi regime. His father had been a committed Nazi and had encouraged his two sons to join the Hitler Youth as boys.

“It is abundantly clear that the window of opportunity to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice will soon be closed.”

Efraim Zuroff, Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem

The prosecution of Mr. Gröning was part of a change in focus by German authorities, who want to try and  prosecute anyone still alive who is suspected of involvement in the Nazi war crimes.

The retired bank clerk’s case was reopened after a new legal precedent emerging from the prosecution of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American who was found guilty in 2011 in a trial in Munich after being extradited from the United States.

Mr. Demjanjuk had worked as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp and his successful prosecution was not based on an individual crime but because he had worked at the death camp.

In February, prosecutors in Hamburg said they were investigating 93-year-old Hilde Michnia, who is suspected of being a guard at the Bergen Belsen camp and forcing prisoners on an evacuation march in which about 1,400 women died.

The investigation was launched following the release of an Irish documentary, “Close to Evil,” about Ms. Michnia.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem welcomed Wednesday’s conviction.

“The well-deserved conviction of Auschwitz ‘accountant’ Gröning will hopefully pave the way for additional prosecutions of individuals who served in death camps and the special mobile killing units,” director Efraim Zuroff said in a statement, and called on the German government to give top priority to these cases.

“It is abundantly clear that the window of opportunity to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice will soon be closed, which makes the expedition of these cases of exceptional urgency.”

Christoph Heubner, vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, in Berlin, welcomed the fact that the trail had taken place and concluded with a verdict. “It is very important for Germany,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

“This trial is a warning to us all today not to close our eyes when people are threatened and humiliated,” he said.

“It is a very important signal that justice has a very long arm and that people who participate in genocide cannot escape. That is also an important signal in today’s world for today’s crimes.”

 

Siobhán Dowling is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition and studied 20th-Century German history.  To contact her: dowling@handelsblatt.com

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