Thursday 18 January 2018

Former SS guard on trial over 170,000 deaths in Auschwitz

Former SS Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning. Photo: AP
Former SS Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning. Photo: AP

Justin Huggler in Berlin

There were dramatic scenes as the trial of a 94-year-old former SS guard opened in Germany yesterday and he was confronted by a survivor of the Nazi extermination camp.

Reinhold Hanning, a former SS sergeant, faces charges of being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people in the first of a series of Holocaust cases expected to go to trial this year.

"We are about the same age and we will soon both be before the highest court," Leon Schwarzbaum, an Auschwitz survivor who is also 94, told Mr Hanning across a crowded courtroom.

"I want to call on you to tell the historical truth. Speak here about what you and your comrades did."

Mr Hanning is one of a number of former SS members facing trial as German prosecutors scramble to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice while there is still time. He has denied taking part in the killings at Auschwitz.

The 94-year-old is in frail health and the court is only holding hearings for two hours a day on medical advice.

On the first day of the trial he was confronted from the witness box by Mr Schwarzbaum, a Berlin resident and former art dealer who survived Auschwitz and lost 35 members of his family in the Holocaust.

Mr Hanning, who is hard of hearing, sat impassively as Mr Schwarzbaum gave his testimony and did not reply. He waived his right to give an opening statement to the court.

"It's about justice for me," Mr Schwarzbaum told reporters before he testified in court.

"I'll look into his eyes and see if he's honest. Because the truth is most important. I don't want revenge, don't want him tormented in prison. He's an old man like me. But I cannot forgive him."

The case comes after Oskar Gröning, a former SS member known as the "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz", was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people at the death camp and sentenced to four years in prison last year.

The prosecution alleges that Mr Hanning served in two different SS Death's Head companies at Auschwitz who were responsible for guarding slave labourers.

It alleges he was among SS members who guarded tens of thousands of mostly Jewish prisoners arriving on the notorious "ramp" at Auschwitz by train in the "Hungarian action" of 1944.

Mr Hanning has denied taking part in the killings at Auschwitz

He is accused of being among SS guards who selected which people would be allowed to live as slave labourers and which would be sent directly to the gas chambers.

"The decision over life and death lay with the SS men on the ramp," Andreas Brendel said for the prosecution.

Pleas are not entered under the German legal system. Mr Hanning has previously admitted serving at Auschwitz as a member of the SS but denied taking part in the killings there.

His defence lawyers asked the judge to rule that statement inadmissible, arguing he did not know he was under investigation when he made it.

Mr Schwarzbaum is one of around 40 Auschwitz survivors who are "co-plaintiffs" in the case under the German legal system, many of whom will give evidence.

Germany has been accused of not doing enough to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. Of around 6,500 SS members who served at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 50 have ever been convicted in Germany.

The German courts long maintained that only the senior Nazi leadership could be held responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust.

The trial continues. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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