LUENEBURG, Germany — A 93-year-old former bookkeeper at Auschwitz goes on trial in Germany on Tuesday, accused by prosecutors of being an accessory in the murder of 300,000 people, even though he was not involved in any actual killing at the notorious Nazi death camp.
The trial of Oskar Groening, who was 21 and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, is significant for several reasons.
It may turn out to be one of the last big Holocaust trials because so few Nazis suspected of committing crimes during World War Two are still alive.
The case is also unusual because Groening, unlike many of the other SS men and women who worked at concentration camps, has spoken openly about his time at Auschwitz in interviews over the years, in part, he says, to counter Holocaust denial.
He has told of the horrible crimes he witnessed at the camp, describing himself as a "small cog in the wheel" while also making clear that he never killed anyone and therefore sees himself as legally innocent.
Groening's job at Auschwitz was to collect the belongings of deportees after they had arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
He was responsible for inspecting their luggage, removing and counting any bank notes that were inside, and ensuring they were sent on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.
"Through his actions, he helped the NS (Nazi) regime financially and supported its systematic killing campaign," Hanover prosecutors say in their 85-page indictment.
Groening's lawyer Hans Holtermann says his client's actions do not make him an accessory to murder and, until recently, the German justice system agreed with him.
DEMJANJUK CASE DECISIVE
In 1985, prosecutors in Frankfurt decided not to pursue the case against Groening and dozens of other concentration camp workers, saying there was no causal link between their actions and the killings that occurred around them. Just two years ago, they declined a new request to take up the case.
Prosecutors in Hanover disagreed, emboldened by the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder despite there being no evidence of him having committed a specific crime during his time as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp.
The charges against Groening relate to the period between May and July 1944 when 137 trains carrying roughly 425,000 Jews from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz.
At least 300,000 of them were sent straight to the gas chambers, the indictment says. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The Groening trial will be attended by a number of Auschwitz survivors who are also joint plaintiffs in the case. They spoke at a news conference in Lueneburg, near Hamburg, on the eve of the hearing.
"If I think back at the long period of time, the 70 years, that have gone by between me leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau and now, this trial is one of the most important events in my life," said Eva Pusztai-Fahidi, a survivor from Budapest.
Hedy Bohm, a survivor from New York, said she wanted to see Groening declared guilty but was not out for vengeance, and saw no need for him to go to jail now, at the age of 93.
"Those who commit crimes today must know they will be held responsible in the future," she said. "And never again will they be able to just plead 'I'm a cog in the machinery, I didn't kill'."
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