'Accountant of Auschwitz': I am morally complicit in the murder of Jews

Oskar Gröning, charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Holocaust victims, expresses remorse during trial in Germany

A former SS guard expressed remorse for the role he played in the Holocaust when he went on trial charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Jews.

In a lengthy speech, Oskar Gröning, 93, referred to as the “accountant of Auschwitz”, recounted the two years he had spent at the extermination camp after volunteering for the SS, the Nazi party’s protection squadron.

Former SS guard Oskar Gröning sits outside court in Lueneburg
Former SS guard Oskar Gröning sits outside court in Lueneburg. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom have travelled from the US, Canada and Hungary in the hope of seeing justice done for their relatives who were murdered after a wait of 70 years, listened intently as Gröning spoke in court in Lüneburg, northern Germany.

“It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz,” the retired bank clerk said, clutching his notes and looking directly at the bench. “Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. To the question as to whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.”

His statement came at the end of a detailed 50-minute account of his time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which included how he was initially sent there and his attempts to get transferred elsewhere because of the atrocities he had seen, including seeing an SS colleague bashing a baby to death against the side of a lorry.

Oskar Gröning trial. Members of media gather in court
Members of the media gather for the start of the trial. Photograph: Getty

What will be one of the last Nazi trials in Germany is being watched closely by historians, Holocaust experts and human rights lawyers around the world.

Judge Frank Kom Pisch said for everyone present it was “anything but an easy event”. “Without exaggeration … this trial will attract a lot of attention and cause many emotions to be released, but we must remember that it is a criminal trial, albeit one with its own historical context,” he said.

The trial marks the second attempt to bring Gröning to court. An investigation that began in 1978 collapsed seven years later with prosecutors ruling that unless it could be proven that Gröning was directly responsible for the deaths of prisoners, he could not be put on trial. But since the 2012 conclusion of the trial of John Demjanjuk in Munich, in which judges ruled he was an accessory to mass murder simply by working at the Sobibor extermination camp, a change of practice has taken place, in which an individual’s mere presence at a concentration camp coupled with the knowledge they knew what was happening there, is sufficient to secure a conviction.

Gröning, who entered court pushing a walking frame, appeared calm and to take an active interest in the proceedings. Clutching a black battered briefcase containing his notes and wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a sleeveless pullover, he initially spoke to acknowledge his name, date of birth, that he was widowed, and a pensioner. Asked how old his children were, there was a long pause, before he answered: “Sixty-five and 70”.

Prosecutors Jens Lehmann and Marcus Preusse.
Prosecutors Jens Lehmann and Marcus Preusse. Photograph: Getty

He appeared deeply concentrated as Jens Lehmann, the state prosecutor, read from the 85-page indictment, in which he detailed Gröning’s tasks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including taking the suitcases from prisoners as they arrived at the camp and were selected into groups of those who would work and those who would be sent to their deaths.

He said he had also been responsible for collecting the money in an array of currencies that was found in prisoners’ clothing and luggage, for recording it in a ledger, keeping it in a steel safe, and at various intervals taking the money to the Reich headquarters in Berlin. “Already on his first day the accused was informed by a colleague that those who were not chosen to work would be sent to their deaths,” Lehmann said.

Prosecutors have concentrated the charge on the period between May and July 1944, the time of the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jewish community during which 137 trains brought 425,000 people to Auschwitz, of whom at least 300,000 were killed in the gas chambers.


Kate Connolly in Lüneburg

The GuardianTramp

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