Seventy years after the end of World War Two one of the last perpetrators of the Holocaust is to stand trial. Oskar Gröning, a former SS officer at Auschwitz, is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
"One night in January 1943, I saw, for the first time, the Jews being gassed. I heard the panicked screams of human beings as the doors were closed." This is how Oskar Gröning described his time at Auschwitz in several German newspaper articles in 2005.
He served with the SS there from September 1942 to October 1944, and was responsible for managing the money and valuables of the murdered - hence his nickname the "accountant of Auschwitz" in the media. He proclaimed himself innocent. "I killed no one, I was just a small cog in the killing machine. I was not a perpetrator," he said in 2005.
Accusation: supporting the machinery of death
But now, ten years later, Gröning is on trial - what could be the last major Nazi trial in Germany is set to begin on April 21. Since the accused has lived in a small village in the area for years, the trial will take place in the German regional court in Lüneburg. The 93-year-old is accused of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
The charges brought by the state prosecutor's office in Hanover, responsible for the prosecution of Nazi crimes in Lower Saxony, have been limited to the so-called "Hungarian Operation," for "legal and evidence reasons." The operation took place between May 16 and July 11, 1944. During that two-month period the SS deported about 425,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Some 300,000 of these were led directly to the gas chambers and murdered.
A total of 137 train transports arrived at the Nazi death factory during that period. Gröning worked at the platforms. He was there when prisoners were divided into groups of "fit for work," or "useless." He knew that those who were "sorted out" were not going to the fake showers to be "disinfected," but that they would be put to death immediately.
One of the SS man's responsibilities was to collect baggage left on the platform by those who had been led away. "The traces of mass murder were to be erased before successive prisoners arrived," the 85-page indictment reads. Gröning was also instructed to count money found in the baggage, sort it, and then send it to Berlin. The indictment reads that through his actions he supported the systematic murder perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
This trial "comes decades too late," says Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. "The accused lived the most important decades of his life in peace and in freedom in the heart of society." Gröning, born on June 10, 1921, came to Auschwitz as a young man of twenty-one. Now he is an old man who will soon turn 94.
Why so late?
Average life expectancy in Germany is about 80 years. For that reason alone one has to ask, why have things progressed so slowly in the case against Gröning? Why is the "accountant of Auschwitz" coming before the court now, at the end of his life? Especially since the so-called Ludwigsburg "central office" for the investigation of Nazi crimes has been active since 1958.
One reason is a revision of legal jurisprudence. In the 1960s and 1970s, the legal premise was that each perpetrator had to be proven to have committed a specific crime. This precedence changed with a Munich court's decision in the trial of John Demjanjuk. In 2011, the now deceased former guard at the Sobibor death camp was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews - although his direct participation could not be proven.
Over 7,000 SS officers worked in Auschwitz in the years between 1940 and 1945. "Thousands of men and women would have had to have been put on trial in the German Federal Republic if today's criteria had been in existence back then," says Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing more than 30 co-plaintiffs at the Lüneburg trial, "but that was not what they wanted."
Nazi accomplices were not to be pursued. Gröning was also never punished for his role at the death factory. The judiciary had their eyes on him thirty years ago, but teh investigation was stopped in 1985 for lack of evidence. He was taken at his word that he was "not directly involved in killing," and that he "just watched baggage."
Last hope for justice
So far the Lüneburg court has slated 27 days for the trial. The verdict is to be handed down at the end of July. More than 60 co-plaintiffs will testify, travelling from the United States, Hungary, Canada, and Israel.
One of the co-plaintiffs is Eva Pusztai from Budapest. "The thought that the accused went through the suitcase that my mother had tearfully packed, and that he had my sister Gilike's dress in his hands on the same day that she was murdered, sends a chill down my spine," the Auschwitz survivor told the German daily "Die Welt." " I want to stand in a German court of law, and for once, tell what I saw."