Oskar Groening had always said he was “a cog” in the Nazi killing machine. He had been 21 years old when he was employed as a bookkeeper at the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz, responsible for cataloging the cash and valuables pulled from the luggage of newly arrived prisoners.
“If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent,” he told Der Spiegel in 2005.
But on Tuesday, three months into the trial at which he stood accused of being an accessory to 300,000 murders, the now 94-year-old Groening appeared to have a change of heart.
Prosecutor Cornelius “Nestler said that Auschwitz was a place where you could not simply take part. I agree with that,” he said. “I sincerely regret that I did not recognize that earlier. I am truly sorry.”
The German judge overseeing his case seemed to agree. On Wednesday morning, Groening was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison, six months more than prosecutors had asked for, according to Deustch Welle.
Throughout the trial, Groening had been brutally forthright about what he witnessed and took part in during his time at Auschwitz, between May and July 1944. He told the courtroom of his first day on the ramp where Jewish prisoners were herded off the transport trains, according to Reuters. An SS colleague grabbed a crying baby and slammed its head against a truck until it went silent.
“I was so shaken. I don’t find what he did good at all,” Groening said.
He also described seeing naked Jews herded into a converted farm house in late 1942. When the doors were closed, a fellow officer opened a can of gas and poured its contents down a hatch.
“The screams became louder and more desperate but after a short time they became quieter again,” Groening said.
“This is the only time I participated in a gassing,” he added, before correcting himself: “I don’t mean participated, I mean observed.”
At the heart of the case was the controversial question of whether people like Groening who were “cogs” in the Nazi machinery but did not actively participate in killings are guilty of a crime. The answer used to be “no,” but the 2011 conviction of concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk as an accessory to mass murder emboldened German prosecutors, who decided to pursue a case against Groening.
Earlier in the trial, Groening had denied having a direct role in the genocide, according to the BBC.
“I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt, but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide,” he told the judges in April.
But prosecutors said that Groening’s financial role in Auschwitz’s operations made him complicit in the killing of Jews.
“By sorting the bank notes he helped the Nazi regime to benefit economically,” Jens Lehmann, a lawyer for the group of Auschwitz survivors and relatives of victims who are joint plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters.
The guilty verdict Wednesday was welcomed by advocacy groups like the Holocaust Educational Trust, which works to raise awareness about the Holocaust in Britain.
“The conviction of Oskar Gröning 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,” the group’s president Karen Pollock wrote in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Since few concentration camp workers are still alive, Groening is expected to be one of the last Nazis to face a courtroom. According to Deustche Welle, it is still unclear whether the aging Groening will be deemed healthy enough to serve his sentence in a prison cell.
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