Thursday 8 December 2016

Bookkeeper of Auschwitz admits 'moral guilt' in German court

Published 21/04/2015 | 12:03

Defendant Oskar Groening sits on the dock of the court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)
Defendant Oskar Groening sits on the dock of the court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)

A former Auschwitz guard has told his trial that he bears a moral share of the blame for atrocities at the camp, but it is up to judges to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder.

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As his trial opened, 93-year-old Oskar Groening acknowledged having helped collect and tally money as part of his job dealing with belongings stolen from people arriving at the camp, earning him the nickname "Accountant of Auschwitz".

In his statement to judges, he did not detail direct participation in any atrocities.

He concluded: "I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide."

He faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder over allegations that he helped the functioning of the Nazi death camp by serving as a guard between May and June 1944, when 425,000 Jews from Hungary were taken there and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death.

Groening does not deny serving as a guard but says he committed no crime.

He told reporters as he arrived at the court in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, that he expects an acquittal.

Groening told the court he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker, and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. He said he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one of the atrocities.

Defendant Oskar Groening arrives in the court room in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)
Defendant Oskar Groening arrives in the court room in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)

"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 hearing the case as he closed an hour-long statement to the court. Under the German legal system, defendants do not enter formal pleas.

He could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if found guilty.

"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".

He said the major gave no details, but other SS men told Groening at Auschwitz that Jews were being selected for work and those who couldn't work were being killed.

He described the arrival of transports of Jewish prisoners in detail, and recalled an incident in late 1942 when 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 with a walking frame, 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 investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

There are 11 open investigations against former Auschwitz guards, and charges have been filed in three of those cases including Groening's. A further eight former Majdanek guards are also under investigation.

About 60 Holocaust survivors or their relatives from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere 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 had a hard life, "but by his own doing".

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