‘Book-keeper of Auschwitz’ Oskar Gröning gets four years

Former SS officer (94) found guilty of complicity in murder at Nazi death camp

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum, who was imprisoned in the death camp for two years, gives his reaction to the sentencing of Nazi bookkeeper Oskar Groening. Video: Reuters

 

Opinions were divided and tempers heated when Oskar Gröning, a 94-year-old former SS officer, shuffled into a German courtroom in April to answer for what he had done seven decades previously.

Yesterday Gröning was handed a four-year sentence for complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, a verdict that is likely to divide opinion even further.

Can – should – justice be done, 70 years on, by putting a nonagenarian, junior ex-Nazi on trial, when so many senior war criminals escaped unpunished? The district court of Lüneburg answered with an unequivocal yes.

“Even after 70 years, you can – one must – achieve justice and come to a judgment,” said Judge Franz Kompisch.

Gröning was 21 when, as an SS volunteer, he arrived to serve in Auschwitz in 1942. While Jews from all over Europe were herded on arrival into gas chambers, Gröning helped plunder their suitcases for valuables, assiduously documenting everything stolen and later earning the name the “book-keeper of Auschwitz”.

He was not accused of direct involvement in the mass murder of more than one million people, mostly European Jews, that took place in Auschwitz. Instead, he was found guilty of ensuring that the theft and sale of property from one wave of Holocaust victims helped finance the next.

Asked forgiveness

“But what you see as moral guilt, Mr Gröning, and as a cog in a machine is precisely what the authorities describe as complicity to murder,” said Judge Kompisch.

The murder of Europe’s Jews was carried out “by people like you, Herr Gröning,” the judge said. “You were needed. One couldn’t operate the machinery of destruction simply with the kind of people who wanted to live out their inherent sadism.”

Whether the ailing Gröning ever serves prison time will depend on a medical assessment in the coming weeks.

It was a case filled with legal and moral dilemmas. One of the co-plaintiffs, Eva Kor, who lost most of her family in Auschwitz, publicly forgave Gröning for his deeds and praised him for having the courage to come forward and not hide in the shadows “like thousands of other Nazis”.

Not all co-plaintiffs shared Kor’s sympathy; for most of them in the Lüneburg courtroom, the Gröning case was not about the punishment but the verdict.

“It fills us with satisfaction that the perpetrators are now no longer safe from prosecution,” said the co-plaintiffs in a statement yesterday.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which has spent decades tracking down ex-Nazis such as Mr Gröning, welcomed the verdict and expressed hope that “German authorities would bring further cases to trial”.

To those who question the jailing of old ex-Nazis, the centre’s chief Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff says: don’t picture as Oskar Gröning as he is now, but as he was then.

A decade ago, Mr Gröning told Der Spiegel that in 1944 he was a young man who felt “nothing” when he saw Jews being herded towards the Auschwitz gas chambers.

“If you’re convinced that the destruction of Judaism is necessary, then it no longer matters how the killing takes place,” he told the magazine.

Legal change

Germany

Until a decade ago, state prosecutors decided, on the basis of case law, that they could not prosecute anyone for Holocaust crimes unless they could link them directly to specific killings. Without that link, they decreed, there was no case.

Gröning, who lived most of his life in Lüneburg, was questioned by police in 1977, but the case against him was dropped in 1985.

Many other men and women involved, directly and indirectly, in one of history’s greatest mass murders, in particular many middle-level Nazis and bureaucrats, were left in peace.

Germany’s biggest Nazi prosecutions, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65, came about in spite of, not because of, the political and legal establishment of the day.

There were only 22 defendants in the dock out of the 6,000 SS officers who served in the camp.

To date, only 800 Auschwitz SS officers have ever appeared in court to account for their crimes; in Germany itself, the figure is 40.

It took a new generation of German lawyers to challenge this legal status quo, launch investigations and eventually press charges – even against those not involved directly in killings.

Belatedly, Germany is fitting into place the last criminal pieces of the Auschwitz puzzle. But several pieces have been lost forever. The postwar politicians and prosecutors who stepped on the brakes have nothing to fear now.

Even if they are still alive, the German justice system will never put its own on trial for their complicity in ensuring that so many Oskar Grönings, and their Auschwitz superiors, went unpunished.

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