Holocaust survivors solemnly entered a German courtroom on Tuesday to observe the trial of Oskar Gröning, a former Auschwitz guard charged with being an accessory to the roughly 300,000 murders of the camp's detainees. The 93-year-old Gröning was formally charged last September, and was later found fit to stand trial. Although he is remorseful, and has repented his past sins, the former SS guard does not believe he has committed any specific crimes.
Gröning was stationed at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944, having volunteered to join the SS when he was just 20 years old. At the massive camp in southwestern Poland, he was mostly tasked with confiscating money from the camp's inmates upon their arrival — a former bookkeeper, the young Gröning was also responsible for counting and organizing the cash. However, the 93-year-old has admitted witnessing some of the atrocious crimes committed by his fellow SS guards, including gruesome murders.
On Tuesday, Gröning relayed an account of a gassing he witnessed at Auschwitz, according to The New York Times. He told the court that he saw guards herd a group of camp detainees into a building. Once they were inside, Gröning said he saw a superior SS officer tilt a gas can into an opening in the building — and what followed alarmed him. "[The prisoners' screams] grew louder and more desperate, and after a short time became quieter and then stopped completely," he said.
Gröning added that he was only a witness to the tragic event. "That was the only time I saw a complete gassing," Gröning told the court.
Throughout Tuesday's hearing, Gröning showed his regret and remorse for being a part of the Nazi regime, saying he had "moral guilt" over what happened during the two years he was stationed at Auschwitz, the notorious "death camp" where at least 1.1 million Jews lost their lives. Thousands of Poles, people of Romani heritage, and political prisoners were also murdered at the camp. "For me there's no question that I share moral guilt," Gröning told the court.
"It is beyond question that I am morally complicit," he continued. "This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility."
After having admitted that he knew about the gassing of the camp's prisoners, most of whom were of Jewish descent, Gröning asked for forgiveness. "You have to decide on my legal culpability," he told the judge.
Over the last decade, Gröning has been an outspoken anti-Holocaust activist — a role he has said he took on because of the number of "Holocaust deniers" in the world. In the years before his trial, he has given numerous media interviews where he's frank about what he has seen and done while at Auschwitz.
"I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria," he told the BBC in a 2005 documentary called Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution. "I was on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place."
Of his time in Auschwitz, he told German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005:
A new shipment had arrived. I had been assigned to ramp duty, and it was my job to guard the luggage. The Jews had already been taken away. The ground in front of me was littered with junk, left-over belongings. Suddenly I heard a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.
It was a similar story he told the court on Tuesday. Still, Gröning has reiterated that despite his role at the concentration camp, he was not complicit in murder or even an accessory:
Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a "small cog in the gears." If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent.
Only 25 former SS guards have gone to prison for their roles in the Holocaust. With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz having just passed, Gröning will likely be one of the last former Nazi guards to stand trial.
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