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'Auschwitz bookkeeper' asks for forgiveness in trial

A former Nazi has asked for forgiveness for his role in mass killings carried out at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Oskar Gröning is on trial in Germany for being an accessory to murder at the death camp.

On the opening day of the trial in the German city of Lüneburg near Hamburg on Tuesday, former Nazi Waffen-SS soldier Oskar Gröning admitted his work at the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II made him "morally complicit." He asked for "forgiveness."

"I recognize this moral guilt here as well, with remorse and humility in front of the victims," said Gröning in an opening statement to the court, where Holocaust survivors were following the proceedings.

The 93-year-old man is facing the charge of being an accessory to murder at the Auschwitz death camp in World War II.

The case is unique because Gröning is not accused of actually committing any murders. His charges center on his role in the mass murder that occurred at Auschwitz. The prosecution's case focuses on 300,000 Hungarian Jews killed at the camp between May and July 1944.

"You must decide on the question of my criminal liability," he told the judges.

In total, 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz over the course of the war.

Trial attracts supporters and deniers

DW's Ben Knight spoke to a mixed crowd of Holocaust survivor supporters and Holocaust deniers outside the courtroom in Lüneburg on Tuesday. One person said Gröning was a "victim of the time and a victim of the German justice system." Another person said she had come to Lüneburg to "honor victims" of the Holocaust and was happy that a trial was taking place.

One group held a sign that read "solidarity with victims of Nazi terror."

Eva Pusztai, who made it out of Auschwitz alive, is one of around 60 survivors and victims' relatives acting as co-plaintiffs in the case. Ahead of the trial, she told reporters in Lüneburg, "It was an important moment in my life to be at a trial here where a former SS man […] will be convicted."

She added, "It's not about the punishment – it's about the conviction."

'Just a cog'

Gröning has been open about the fact that he worked at Auschwitz during the war, and although he admitted that he was ashamed of his role, saying he was "a cog in the killing machine," he maintains that he never personally committed any atrocities.

The former member of the Nazi Waffen-SS worked at Auschwitz in occupied Poland at the age of 21. His nickname, the "bookkeeper," came from the fact that he was responsible for counting the banknotes gathered from prisoners' luggage and passing them on to the SS authorities in Berlin.

When he was charged in the northern German city of Hanover last year, prosecutors said Gröning also helped remove victims' luggage to prevent it from being seen by new arrivals - thereby hiding the traces of the Nazi mass killing.

Precedent exists

Gröning is just one of 30 former Auschwitz personnel who were recommended to state prosecutors in 2013 by the German office investigating Nazi war crimes.

The renewed drive to bring justice to the last surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust came following a 2011 landmark court ruling.

For more than 60 years, Nazi war criminals had only been prosecuted if evidence proved that they had personally committed atrocities.

In 2011, however, a Munich court sentenced John Demjanjuk to five years imprisonment for collaborating in the extermination of Jews at the Sobibor camp, also in occupied Poland, where he served as a guard.

Due to the fact that there are very few former soldiers like Gröning still alive to face trial, his is likely to be one of the last of its kind.

mz/kms (dpa, AFP, Reuters)