LUENEBURG, Germany The former SS guard known as the "accountant of Auschwitz," charged as an accessory in the deaths of more than 300,000 Hungarian Jews in what's likely to be one of the last trials of Nazi war crimes, laid out his defense Tuesday, acknowledging his moral guilt.
"It is clear to me that I am morally guilty," Oskar Groening, now 93, told a rapt audience of Holocaust survivors, family members, lawyers and journalists in an hourlong opening statement on the first day of his trial. "I confront this guilt with remorse and humility to the victims. It is up to the court to decide whether my guilt is legally relevant."
SATISFACTION IN FACING AGED NAZI DEFENDANT
As Auschwitz survivor Hedy Bohm, 86, put it during a news conference on the eve of the trial, bringing charges against a man who has admitted he was on the platform during the infamous "selections" at the Nazi death camp in Poland is now more important as "process rather than punishment."
Groening, after all, is 93 and unlikely to serve an adequate sentence for his crimes, even if he survives until the trial's expected end in June. Bohm said she had come to the medieval German city of Lueneburg from Toronto not so much to testify against a man who describes himself as a cog in Adolf Hitler's killing machine as to bear witness for the sake of history.
"The punishment is secondary," she said. "The process should and could have happened sooner, but thank G0D it is happening at all. To be able to face an SS guard in court, it's something I never imagined in my life could happen. It's a gift."
Eva Pusztai-Fahidi, 93, another Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, agreed that the moment is a gift: "This is one of my most important moments since I left Auschwitz. It is not about Groening's verdict. It is about his crime. It remains a crime forever and needs to be brought to justice."
"Even the Lord was a nobody compared to what an SS man in Auschwitz was," she added. "He needs to realize what it meant to have been there. I could list 49 members of my extended family that marched past Groening. What can he say? Can he return them to me? Will he say he just stood there?"
There's a sense of history about this trial. There are perhaps two other Nazi war-crimes trials in preparation and others might be pursued, but as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe nears, the fact is that there are a dwindling number of former Nazis left to charge with crimes.
Groening may have been only a cog in the machine, but it was a killing machine that defines modern evil. Six million Jews were murdered. Five million others Gypsies, gays and communists among them were also killed. Other upcoming trials deal with murders that number in the dozens. Groeing's might be the last to deal with hundreds of thousands.
LARGER FORUM NEEDED
Overwhelming interest in the case forced court officials to move the proceedings from the district courthouse to a large nearby hall. That hall, the Lueneburg Knight's Academy a former monastery that in 1656 was converted to a training ground for knights serves as a reminder that Germany existed before the Nazis forever darkened its history.
Even so, the medieval cobbles and gables that distinguish this city were not untouched by the Nazi era. A meeting house established in 1491 for charitable works was a branch of the Neuengamme concentration camp, and housed 150 inmates.
Across the street, in the entry to the school for the ancient St. John's Church, which dates to the 14th century, three "Stolpersteine," or stumble stones, are embedded in the ground small bronze plaques bearing the names of Holocaust victims. In this case, the victims were Reinhold Rose, born in 1929, Alois Reiminius, born in 1930, and Franziska Reiminius, born in 1931. All three were sent to Auschwitz in 1943, and all three were murdered there.
As the Third Reich collapsed, one of the primary architects of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, was captured by British soldiers and, during an interrogation in this city, bit into a cyanide capsule and killed himself.
If this is the last Nazi war-crimes trial on a grand scale, it will mean that such trials have come full circle. It was here in September 1945 before the Nuremberg trials, which would begin two months later that Nazi officials at the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp were tried for crimes against humanity. At those trials, 11 Nazi officials were sentenced to death, a fate that does not await Groening. If convicted, Groening faces a minimum sentence of three years in prison.
Eva Judith Kalman, 61, also came from Toronto to face Groening. Her father was a forced laborer in Hungary under the Nazis, and of the 34 members of her family who were forced into a single boxcar and shipped to Auschwitz, 30 were selected for the gas chambers as soon as they touched down on the platform on which Groening collected the cash and belongings of Jews.
Kalman was born after the war ended. She noted that her first name is that of the sister she never met, who died in Auschwitz as a 6-year-old. Her middle name is that of a cousin who died that same day in that same selection. Her last name was one her father had to adopt when he was liberated, but it was still dangerous in Eastern Europe to be a Jew. She grew up surrounded by photos of the sister and letters from the family members she never met.
"It's my understanding that Groening was on guard at the point that my relatives arrived," she said. Among the tasks assigned to SS officers such as Groening was to clear the platform of the belongings of people who'd just arrived so as not to alarm the next shipment of human cargo. The pace was frantic; more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped to the camp as the Third Reich was failing.
"I'm here because it's important to speak on behalf of my murdered sister, to speak on behalf of all my murdered family members," she said. "There are some who say this trial is too little, too late. I say better late than never."
DEFENDER OF DECENCY
Groening, however, denied participating in the murders that took place at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where he spent 25 months during World War II. He expressed an odd pride at having stopped what he said had been rampant thefts of belongings left behind by the hundreds of thousands of Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables" who had been brought to the camp to be fed to its gas chambers and crematoriums.
"When I arrived, theft and corruption were rampant at the camp," he said. "So they installed a special guard service. I was once appointed for a 24-hour shift to watch the suitcases after Hungarians arrived, just to make sure nothing disappeared from them. We had nothing to do with the prisoners, but we closed this gap of belongings disappearing."
Groening used a walker and needed considerable help Tuesday to reach the witness chair. But once there, in the historic room of an old Knight's Academy that's serving as a courtroom for his trial, his voice was firm and his words seemed sure and chilling, especially when he drifted into purely descriptive terms of his work as head of the camp's "foreign currency department," also known as Department 4. His job was to collect whatever currency the doomed were carrying when they arrived at the camp, keep track of it and take his safe to Berlin by train when it got full.
Asked by the presiding judge whether he ever thought about whom the money belonged to when he took it to Berlin, Groening spoke without remorse. "The money belonged to the government," he said. "The Jews had to hand it in. They did not need it anymore."
Other statements he delivered in a calm voice:
Witnessing the murder of an infant. "In November 1942, I first worked on the ramp. I told arrivals it was a work camp. Until then, I was loyal to Hitler. But then I witnessed how an infant left behind in a bag started crying. An SS man took it, knocked it against a truck side and threw the body on the truck. My heart stopped. I confronted him, but he shook me off. I told my superior about the incident the next day and asked for a transfer. This was turned down, but he said he would look into the matter."
Stumbling across a makeshift gas chamber. "In December 1942, there was an alarm when Jews had escaped during transport. We were sent to search a forest near our barracks. We didn't find them, but we found five or six dead bodies in a farm building. In the early days of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they used that farm for gassing. That was the only time I found dead bodies."
Hearing new arrivals locked inside the showers screaming, before watching what came next. "The SS oberscharfuhrer (last name of Moll) put on a gas mask and opened a trap door in a wall. He poured the contents of a can into the opening behind the trap door. Very soon the cries inside the building died down."
"What I went through in Auschwitz has accompanied me through all my life," he said.
'I KNEW NOTHING'
In fact, Groening's testimony upstaged court officials' attempts to outline the case against him. They could only assert that he'd known of the horrors going on around him. He described them.
He also professed an inability to address the specific cases at issue in the trial. After attorneys noted that the parents and sister of 93-year-old survivor Eva Pusztai-Fahidi of Budapest were killed upon arrival at the camp during his time there, he said, "I cannot talk about the cases mentioned. These cases were not in my line of work. I don't know these cases and I did not hear anyone talk about these cases."
Fahidi's face didn't betray any reaction as she watched him speak; on Monday she'd said the chance to confront Groening made for one of the most important days of her life.
Sitting in the courtroom in addition to Fahidi was another Auschwitz survivor, the children of others, 11 attorneys for the co-plaintiffs, Groening's two attorneys, 60 members of the German and international press and 60 members of the public, apparently including one of Germany's more notorious Holocaust deniers, Ursula Haverbeck, who refused to comment on the proceedings.
The prosecution noted that Groening had volunteered to join the Waffen SS, the Nazi Party's armed wing, and that he was assigned to Auschwitz from Sept. 18, 1942, to Oct. 16, 1944. The official prosecution laid out the familiar horror story that was Auschwitz:
"To new arrivals, it was made to look as if they arrived at a work camp. They were made to believe they were going to take showers and instead Zyklon B was released into gas chambers. Death would not set in immediately. It took minutes, and the cries of the victims could be heard. To all employees it had to be obvious that the victims did not arrive because of a criminal conviction, but because they belonged to an ethnic group."
Groening's versions of these events took more time, and he told them in greater detail.
He said he'd been born in a small German town on June 10, 1921. He completed his training as a banker on Oct. 1, 1940, and he confirmed that that same month he'd volunteered to join the SS, considered an elite force at the time and today as notoriously brutal.
When he was asked what he wanted out of a career with the SS, he told them he wanted to become a paymaster. In his first SS job, at one of many small bases, he learned the ropes of keeping track of who was where throughout the Third Reich, in order to make sure they got their pay on time.
After that, he was briefly assigned to a base in Dachau, though not attached to the concentration camp there. In September 1942 he was called to Berlin. In a meeting he remembered for the splendor of the room in which it was held, an SS officer told him: "You will not be sent to the front, but you will be given a job demanding sacrifices. The job may not be pleasant but it is crucial for the final victory."
The next morning he was on a train to Auschwitz. His initial impression: crowded bunks, lots of vodka.
"When I asked what was going on here, I was told that Jews and others have to work here, and those who can't work are discarded," he said.
After arriving he took his resume to the camp leaders to discuss his future. Because of his banking background, they decided he'd know currency, which would lead to his nickname, "the accountant of Auschwitz."
He said the routine was established early: On arrival, Jews were told to leave their baggage, that it would be returned to them later, and then those unable to work were taken to the gas chambers. Official estimates note that three-quarters of the more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz were killed upon arrival.
Groening made no attempt to say that he didn't understand the harsh reality surrounding him.
"I was only 80 meters away from the ovens," he said.
He did say that on three occasions, he'd asked to be transferred from the camp, to join the fighting at the front. But on those occasions, "I was told I had taken an oath of allegiance and reminded of my duties."
On April 30, 1944, he was promoted to unterscharfuhrer, a job that meant he no longer had to take turns of guard duty at the unloading ramp.
Before the court adjourned for the day, Groening mused that he didn't know what could have been done differently.
"We were trained to follow orders, regardless of what they were, or the German nation would go under," he said. "The propaganda showed us Jews in the worst possible light. I did not question that the Jews were our misfortune."
Claudia Himmelreich and Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Foreign Staff