A German judge sentenced former Auschwitz guard Oskar Gröning to four years in prison on Wednesday for the role he played at the infamous concentration camp more than 70 years ago. The 94-year-old known as the "Auschwitz accountant" was convicted of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 Hungarian-Jewish prisoners; Gröning himself was never directly involved with the killings at the camp. For the last few months, the former SS soldier maintained he had "moral guilt" about his past, yet said he remained legally innocent.
But during a hearing on Tuesday, Gröning shared some new sentiments. The 94-year-old told the courtroom that he agreed with prosecutor Cornelius Nestler about his role at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. Gröning was just 21 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz. His assignment was simple: confiscate money from the arriving detainees. A former bookkeeper, Gröning was also tasked with counting and organizing the inmates' money.
The former SS guard did not ask for forgiveness this week, but reconciled his actions in the courtroom. "Nestler said that Auschwitz was a place where you could not simply take part. I agree with that," Gröning told the courtroom Tuesday. "I sincerely regret that I did not recognize that earlier. I am truly sorry."
As a young SS guard, he was never involved in the 1 million murders that occurred at the notorious Nazi camp. However, Gröning admitted he became aware that the murders were being carried out by SS guards, and said he briefly witnessed a gassing.
"It is beyond question that I am morally complicit," Gröning told the court when his trial began last April. "This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility."
Although he kept a low profile for many years after the Holocaust, Gröning began talking about his time at Auschwitz during his twilight years. He has often gone on the record, speaking candidly of the gassing horror he witnessed 70 years ago. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria,” Gröning 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.”
Yet despite his lack of direct involvement, presiding Judge Franz Kompisch seemed to believe that the former SS guard was more than just an observer to some 300,000 deaths of Jewish prisoners. "Even after 70 years, one can create justice, and one can find a verdict," Kompisch said as he handed down the four-year sentence. "There is a hope that the victims could find some peace and some reconciliation."
Gröning's lawyers said on Wednesday that they will appeal his sentence. His defense team was looking to secure an acquittal for Gröning, who, at age 94, may end up spending the last years of his life behind bars.
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