Oskar Gröning, dubbed the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, has been found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and sentenced to four years in prison, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials.
The 94-year-old former SS soldier stared impassively ahead as he was convicted on Wednesday at the regional court in Lüneburg, Germany, for his role in trying to exterminate Europe’s Jews.
Gröning, who trained as a bank teller before joining the SS, worked at the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau from September 1942 to October 1944, taking money and valuables from arriving prisoners.
He was charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews taken to the camp over the course of just a few weeks in the summer of 1944.
During his time at Auschwitz, Gröning’s job was to collect the belongings of the deportees after they arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
Gröning, who was 21 and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at the camp in 1942, inspected people’s luggage, removing and counting any bank notes that were inside and sending them on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.
Although he was not accused of gassing prisoners, he was deemed to have seen enough violence to have a clear understanding of the mass murder carried out at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The sentence was longer than the three and a half years that state prosecutors had requested, and Gröning’s lawyers had sought an acquittal.
Gröning is expected to appeal, so it is unclear if he will ever serve time in prison.
Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor, one of the 70 co-plaintiffs, and who had earlier embraced Gröning during the trial, said on the verdict: “He admitted to his wrongdoing, he asked for forgiveness, and he bore witness to what happened.
“His value is not in sitting in jail at age 94. His value to society is in speaking to students in person or even via Skype about what happened.
“That is what the German court should think about – what would provide the greatest value to society?”
Gröning testified in April, and again in July, that he was so horrified by the crimes he saw at the camp after his arrival in 1942 that he appealed three times to his superiors for a transfer to the front. His transfer was finally granted in Autumn 1944.
Gröning has previously acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it is up to the court to rule on his legal culpability 70 years after the war.
Ms Kor said the former officer would not serve a purpose in prison.
“Find him guilty. He said he is guilty. But the punishment I think is outrageous. Instead of putting him in jail, he can lecture two to four times per month to German students. Every time he lectures to a group of students, he will testify about it and will relive those experiences.
“I don’t think it is an easy thing for him to deal with. In jail he doesn’t have to talk about it – he can just rot away. But I am really interested in him telling young Germans, ‘It happened. I was there. There was nothing good about the Nazi regime. It brought tragedy to millions of innocent human beings, to the Germans, and even to the perpetrators’.
“That is the lesson – we have to prevent it from happening again. That would benefit Germany and the rest of the world.”
The trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of six million Jews during the Holocaust, were guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system was no.
Dr Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, was pleased with the outcome of the trial, saying: “We welcome today’s verdict and the historic significance of the trial of Oskar Gröning, and the opportunity it provides to educate a generation that is all too distant from the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Although more than 70 years have passed since the liberation of the Nazi death camps, this trial reminds us that there is no statute of limitations for those responsible for Nazi horrors and of the real and present danger of intolerance and demonstrates the constant need to guard against anti-Semitism, racism and hate.”
After proceedings wrapped up on Tuesday, Gröning had taken a last opportunity to address the judges and said he was “very sorry” for his time stationed at the Nazi death camp.
“No one should have taken part in Auschwitz,” he said.
“I know that. I sincerely regret not having lived up to this realisation earlier and more consistently. I am very sorry.”
Gröning’s health has deteriorated over the course of the trial which began in April, leading to several delays in proceedings and which meant that court sessions were limited to three hours a day.
Lawyer Thomas Walther said he thought the 51 co-plaintiffs he represented would be “satisfied” with the verdict.
“I was not surprised by the judgement,” he said. “I’m relieved, I’m very happy.”
In past years, prosecutors in Frankfurt decided not to pursue the case against Gröning and other concentration camp workers, saying there was no causal link between their actions and the killings that occurred around them.
Prosecutors in Hanover disagreed, emboldened by the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder despite there being no evidence of his having committed a specific crime while a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, also in Poland. Demjanjuk died in a German care home in 2012.