Why an upcoming Nazi guard's trial may be one of the last

Oskar Groening is a Nazi guard facing trial. About 1,000 investigations into alleged Nazi war criminals are ongoing, but very few Holocaust war crimes are brought to trial. 

Kacper Pempel, Reuters, File
A woman walks near the main gate that reads "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free) of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim on December 10, 2014. Next month, ceremonies will mark the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation.

Oskar Groening, 93, has been charged with complicity to more than 300,000 counts of murder for his involvement in the Auschwitz concentration camp in the early 1940s. His trial is scheduled for next year. But as Auschwitz survivors prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, Mr. Groening’s trial may be one of the last attempts to prosecute those involved in the murder of more than one million Jews. Many, like Groening, are in their 90s.

At least 1,005 investigations into alleged Nazi war criminals were ongoing as of April 2013, according to Operation: Last Chance, an organization that aims to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Five hundred of these investigations are in Poland, 471 in Germany. 

About 6,500 SS guards served at Auschwitz, and 49 have thus far been convicted. Groening was formally charged in September, but two other men were deemed too frail to sit trial. 

In 2013, Germany recommended the prosecution of 30 alleged former Auschwitz guards, Der Spiegel reported

At the time, however, the head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg said, "we don't know anything about the health of those in question. It could be that only a few can really be charged." 

The prosecution of Nazi concentration-camp guards began relatively recently, following the 2011 trial of a Sobibor extermination camp guard.

“As a result of this ruling, all former Nazi camp guards can be tried for their part in the genocidal mass murder — even if they weren’t directly involved in the murder,” the International Business Times reported.

The guard died in jail in 2012.

In Auschwitz, Groening would sort the money that Jews surrendered, Groening told Spiegel magazine in 2005. He also guarded the Jews’ luggage when they arrived at the camp. He recalled in the Spiegel interview:

"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.

The SS soldier brutally killed the baby, Groening said. 

At one point in the interview, he was asked, “If you weren’t a perpetrator, what were you? An accomplice?”

“I don't know,” he responded. “I avoid the question; it gets me in trouble. 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."

But he later described a different kind of guilt he felt.

“I feel guilty towards the Jewish people, guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes, even without having been one of the perpetrators myself. I ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people. And I ask God for forgiveness.”

While more than 100 Auschwitz survivors are still alive, according to Jewish Political News and Updates, fewer than 20,000 Jews were freed from Auschwitz in May 1945 by the Soviet army. It is estimated that over 1.1 million were killed at the camp.

Thomas Walther, a retired German judge, will represent 20 Auschwitz victims and families in Groening’s trial, according to the International Business Times.

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