A 94-YEAR-OLD former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp has been convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
A state court in the northern German city of Lueneburg gave Oskar Groening a four-year sentence.
Groening testified that he guarded prisoners’ baggage after they arrived at Auschwitz and collected money stolen from them. Prosecutors said that amounted to helping the death camp function.
The charges against Groening related to a period between May and July 1944 when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Most were immediately gassed to death.
Groening confessed during his trial to feeling “moral guilt” for serving as an SS sergeant at Auschwitz. He listened expressionlessly to the verdict after a two-and-a-half month trial that could set a legal landmark.
The verdict, and presiding Judge Franz Kompisch’s thorough and impassioned detailing of the Lueneburg state court’s ruling, renewed hope of more 11th-hour prosecutions of former members of the SS who served at death camps.
“This verdict was critical, because this is the first case brought where the prosecution charged a person who wasn’t involved in the physical side of mass murder,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s head Nazi- hunter Efraim Zuroff.
“This paves the way for additional trials of individuals who did not literally pull the trigger but who were part of the implementation of the Final Solution.”
Jusdge Kompisch acknowledged that Groening was born in a different time, growing up after the First World War in Germany in a right-wing nationalist family, in a society where Jews were portrayed as a danger to the country. However, he said Groening joined the SS of his own volition when he had many other options.
“You didn’t want to stand on the sidelines,” Mr Kompisch told Groening, who listened attentively for more than an hour and a half as the judge detailed the ruling, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water. “You wanted to be there.”
In his job at the death camp, for which he has been dubbed the “accountant of Auschwitz,” Mr Kompisch said Groening was part of the “machinery of death”, helping the camp function and also collecting money stolen from the victims to help the Nazi cause.
Although he knew exactly what was going on at the camp, he did not have himself transferred away, which would likely have led to him serving on the deadly Russian front, Mr Kompisch said.
“It is a question of courage and a personal decision,” he said. “You decided on a job where the possibility of your own death was relatively minimal.
“What you, Mr Groening, see as moral guilt is exactly what the law sees as accessory to murder.”
Mr Kompisch said Groening deserved “respect” for having been open about what he did and having testified, but that given the enormity of the crime, it would have been inappropriate to impose a lower sentence.
Groening walked out of the courtroom after the verdict without talking to reporters. Both sides have a week to appeal.
Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum, 94, who came to see the verdict, said he could not forgive Groening. “Maybe he took the ring from my mother’s finger as she was forced off the train.”