Oskar Groening

Oskar Groening was an officer of the SS stationed at Auschwitz. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the killings at that extermination camp. Groening was an accountant charged with taking possession of the belongings of the Jews and other undesirables brought to the camp. For the most part, he worked in the office and kept track of the money. Groening knew what was happening at Auschwitz, and by his own account, he didn’t much care for it. He tried repeatedly to be transferred but his requests were denied. Now Oskar Groening is on trial as an accessory to the murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Here is the story I read at Yahoo News.

Hedy Bohm had just turned 16 when the Nazis packed her and her parents onto a cattle car in May 1944 and sent them from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

After three days and nights in darkness, crammed into the standing-room-only car with babies wailing, the doors were flung open. “An inferno,” is how she remembers the scene she saw.

“The soldiers yelling at us, guns and rifles pointed at us,” she recalled. “Big dogs barking at us held back on their leashes by the soldiers.”

One of the black-uniformed men on the ramp was likely SS guard Oskar Groening. Now 93, he goes on trial Tuesday in a state court in the northern city of Lueneburg on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Two of those deaths were Bohm’s parents, who are believed to have been killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival in Auschwitz.

Groening’s trial is the first to test a line of German legal reasoning opened by the 2011 trial of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he was a Sobibor death camp guard, which has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects.

Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

Groening has openly acknowledged serving as an SS non-commissioned officer at Auschwitz, though denies committing any crimes. His memories of the cattle cars packed with Jews arriving at the death camp are just are vivid as Bohm’s.

“A child who was lying there was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a truck to be driven away,” he told the BBC in an interview 10 years ago. “And when it screamed like a sick chicken, they then bashed it against the edge of the truck so it would shut up.”

His attorney, Hans Holtermann, has prevented Groening from giving any new interviews, but said his client will make a statement as the trial opens. Earlier, Groening said he felt an obligation to talk about his past to confront those who deny the Holocaust.

“I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened,” he said. “I was there.”

Though acknowledgement of his past could help mitigate the 15-year maximum sentence Groening faces if convicted, the court’s focus will be on whether legally he can be found an accessory to murder for his actions.

Groening is accused of helping to operate the death camp between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

His job was to deal with the belongings stolen from camp victims. Prosecutors allege among other things that he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found, which has earned him the moniker “the accountant of Auschwitz” from the German media.

Whenever I read of some Nazi war criminal being brought to trial, I have to wonder what the point is. Anyone who has had any role at all in planning  and executing the Holocaust is long dead. Any low level functionaries who might still be living are in their nineties and probably so senile that can scarcely remembered the crimes they might have committed sixty years ago. And what punishment could possibly fit their crimes? Even a life sentence will only be, at most, a few years, hardly enough for justice to be done.

Oskar Groening-then and now

Oskar Groening-then and now

As for Oskar Groening, I wonder if he would be in the legal difficulties he is in if he had decided to remain silent about his experiences at Auschwitz. Perhaps his past would have caught up with him anyway, but I can’t help but feel that he is somehow being punished for opposing the Holocaust Deniers by speaking out about the atrocities he had witnessed and been complicit in. Herr Groening is not Himmler, Eichmann, or Mengele. He is simply a man who wanted to belong to what was regarded as an elite organization and found himself in a Hell on Earth.

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