The trial of the “accountant of Auschwitz”

“One night in January 1943, I saw, for the first time, the Jews being gassed. I heard the panicked screams of human beings as the doors were closed.” This is how Oskar Gröning described his time at Auschwitz in several German newspaper articles in 2005.

He served with the SS there from September 1942 to October 1944, and was responsible for managing the money and valuables of the murdered – hence his nickname the “accountant of Auschwitz” in the media. He proclaimed himself innocent. “I killed no one, I was just a small cog in the killing machine. I was not a perpetrator,” he said in 2005.

But now, ten years later, Gröning is on trial – what could be the last major Nazi trial in Germany is set to begin on April 21. Since the accused has lived in a small village in the area for years, the trial will take place in the German regional court in Lüneburg. The 93-year-old is accused of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

The charges brought by the state prosecutor’s office in Hanover, responsible for the prosecution of Nazi crimes in Lower Saxony, have been limited to the so-called “Hungarian Operation,” for “legal and evidence reasons.” The operation took place between May 16 and July 11, 1944. During that two-month period the SS deported about 425,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Some 300,000 of these were led directly to the gas chambers and murdered…

This trial “comes decades too late,” says Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. “The accused lived the most important decades of his life in peace and in freedom in the heart of society.” Gröning, born on June 10, 1921, came to Auschwitz as a young man of twenty-one. Now he is an old man who will soon turn 94.

Why so late?

Average life expectancy in Germany is about 80 years. For that reason alone one has to ask, why have things progressed so slowly in the case against Gröning? Why is the “accountant of Auschwitz” coming before the court now, at the end of his life? Especially since the so-called Ludwigsburg “central office” for the investigation of Nazi crimes has been active since 1958.

One reason is a revision of legal jurisprudence. In the 1960s and 1970s, the legal premise was that each perpetrator had to be proven to have committed a specific crime. This precedence changed with a Munich court’s decision in the trial of John Demjanjuk. In 2011, the now deceased former guard at the Sobibor death camp was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews – although his direct participation could not be proven.

So far the Lüneburg court has slated 27 days for the trial. The verdict is to be handed down at the end of July. More than 60 co-plaintiffs will testify, travelling from the United States, Hungary, Canada, and Israel.

Complicity is rarely a tough question for survivors of genocide, mass murder. It not so unusual to find folks on both sides of a question like this who agree on guilt, either. Witness the hundreds of Americans who have made their way back to VietNam – to work, to rebuild what they helped to destroy. Witness – if you would – Leo Szilard’s novel The Voice of the Dolphins where essentially he puts himself on trial for a leading role in designing nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project.

But, in practice – most of those “cogs in a killing machine” are in denial of any responsibility. If you are not a survivor, if your government doesn’t care more for victims than perpetrators, responsibility is a hard thing to come by.

Thanks, Honeyman

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