Oskar Groening, the former SS officer who has become known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, has been sentenced to four years in jail for facilitating mass murder, a German court has ruled.
The sentence concludes a three-month trial which has heard harrowing testimony from the victims of the Nazis’ largest and most infamous death camp.
While none of the victims were able to recall seeing Groening at the camp, he was charged with being accessory to the killings because he was essential to the running of Auschwitz.
Groening never denied he had served at the camp, and accepted moral guilt for his crimes, but had denied criminal responsibility on the basis that he was not directly involved in the killings.
However the judge today swept that argument aside, handing Groening a sentence that means the frail 94-year-old will likely die behind bars.
Judge Franz Kompisch told Groening he was ‘guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases’ of Jews sent to the gas chambers from May to July 1944.
He said Groening had willingly taken a ‘safe desk job’ in ‘a machinery designed entirely for the killing of humans’, a system that was ‘inhumane and all but unbearable for the human psyche’.
The court has been forced to sit for just three hours a day after Groening had to be taken to hospital midway through his trial, and has been carried into the courtroom at the start of each day.
As the proceedings concluded yesterday with the defence calling for an acquittal, Groening seized a last opportunity to address the judges.
Begging for mercy, he stated he was ‘very sorry’ for his time stationed at the Nazi death camp, adding: ‘No one should have taken part in Auschwitz.’
‘I know that. I sincerely regret not having lived up to this realisation earlier and more consistently. I am very sorry,’ he said, his voice wavering.
Reacting to the verdict, Dr Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said: ‘We welcome today’s verdict and the historic significance of the trial of Oskar Groening, and the opportunity it provides for 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.’
Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives who were co-plaintiffs welcomed the verdict, calling it a ‘very late step toward justice’.
In a joint statement, they said: ‘SS members such as Groening who took part in the murder of our families have created lifelong and unbearable suffering for us.’
‘Neither the criminal proceedings nor the words of the accused can alleviate this suffering. But it gives us satisfaction that now the perpetrators cannot evade prosecution as long as they live.’
Meanwhile Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust added: ‘The conviction of Oskar Groening for his actions sends an unequivocal message that, although he may not have led or directly participated in the atrocities at Auschwitz, he was clearly an accessory to the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.
‘By being the “bookkeeper” of Auschwitz, he assisted in and facilitated the murder of 300,000 Jewish men, women and children and it is right that he has now been held legally accountable for this.’
Groening was accused of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944.
Groening served as a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labour, collecting cash in different European currencies, and shipping it back to his Nazi bosses in Berlin.
He testified in April and again this month that he was so horrified by the crimes he witnessed at the camp after his arrival in 1942 that he appealed three times to his superiors for a transfer to the front, which was not granted until Autumn 1944.
Groening has acknowledged ‘moral guilt’ but said it is up to the court to rule on his legal culpability seven decades after the Holocaust.
Last week public prosecutors said they were seeking three and a half years’ jail for Groening based on the ‘nearly incomprehensible number of victims’, but mitigated by ‘the limited contribution of the accused’ to their deaths.
They charge that on at least three occasions, Groening performed ‘ramp duty’, processing deportees as they arrived in cattle cars at the extermination and forced labour camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In previous interviews, he has told how he witnessed an SS officer picking up a baby left on the station platform by the foot, before beating it to death on the side of a nearby truck.
However, he maintained that he was only on the platform to safeguard people’s valuables, and was not involved in choosing who was sent to the gas chambers.
By keeping the confiscated belongings of the previous arrivals out of the sight of the new prisoners, state attorneys argued, he averted panic breaking out and facilitated the smoother operation of Auschwitz’s killing machine.
However one of Groening’s two defence attorneys, Hans Holtermann, argued Tuesday that the state had failed to prove that he ‘aided and abetted a crime’.
‘Mr Groening was never an accessory to the Holocaust, neither with his presence at the ramp nor by transferring and counting money nor with any other actions, at least not in any legal sense,’ he said.
Groening’s defence team asked the judges to take into account his deteriorating health but also his willingness to testify in detail about his time in Auschwitz, which many defendants in similar cases had refused to do.
The court heard harrowing testimony by more than a dozen Holocaust survivors, who are also co-plaintiffs in the case.
While some of the elderly witnesses expressed disappointment that Groening failed to formally apologise to them, others have spoken of a kind of catharsis from having their day in court.
‘When I leave Lueneburg, I will have made my peace with any outcome,’ Toronto-based survivor Hedy Bohm, 87, said last week.
Groening had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.
But the legal foundation for prosecuting ex-Nazis changed in 2011 with the German trial of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
While previously courts had punished defendants for individual atrocities, Demjanjuk was convicted solely on the basis of having worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.
The head of the federal office investigating Nazi era crimes, Kurt Schrimm, told the Bild newspaper this month that other probes of former concentration camp guards were still ongoing, although ‘many had to be terminated because the accused had died or were no longer capable of standing trial’.
Some 1.1 million people, most of them European Jews, perished between 1940 and 1945 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp before it was liberated by Soviet forces.