A 93-year-old former bookkeeper at Auschwitz who is accused of being an accessory to mass murder told a German court that he felt morally guilty for his work at the Nazi death camp, describing in detail the grisly killings he had witnessed there.
Oskar Groening, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials, is accused of assisting in the murder of 300,000 people although he did not kill anyone himself.
"In moral terms, my actions make me guilty," Groening told the court in the northern town of Lueneburg at the start of the trial.
"I stand before the victims with remorse and humility," he said. "On the question of whether I am guilty in legal terms, you must decide."
Groening was 21, and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi, when he was sent to work at Auschwitz in 1942. His case is unusual because unlike many of the other SS men and women who worked in concentration camps, he has spoken openly in interviews about his time at the camp in occupied Poland.
Wearing a sleeveless beige sweater over a white shirt, the white-haired Groening was calm and composed, leaning back in his chair and looking at papers, as prosecutors read out the indictment.
He laughed when his lawyer asked the judge to speak louder so that Groening could hear him. At one point, taking a sip of water, he joked: "I'll do that like I drank the vodka at Auschwitz."
His job was to collect the belongings of deportees after they arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
He inspected their luggage, removing and counting any bank notes that were inside, and sending them on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.
"By sorting the bank notes he helped the Nazi regime to benefit economically," said Jens Lehmann, a lawyer for a group of Auschwitz survivors and relatives of victims who are joint plaintiffs in the case.
DEMJANJUK CASE DECISIVE
The case goes to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, are guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system was no.
In past years, prosecutors in Frankfurt decided not to pursue the case against Groening and other concentration camp workers, saying there was no causal link between their actions and the killings that occurred around them.
Prosecutors in Hanover disagreed, emboldened by the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder despite there being no evidence of him having committed a specific crime during his time as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp.
"It is certainly not an easy trial for us," the judge Franz Kompisch told the court. "This is a trial which is attracting and creating a lot of attention and setting off emotions."
The charges against Groening relate to the period between May and July 1944 when 137 trains carrying roughly 425,000 Jews from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. At least 300,000 of them were sent straight to the gas chambers, the indictment says.
Groening described some of the murders that he witnessed at Auschwitz. On his first day on the ramp where Jewish prisoners exited the trains, he saw an SS colleague grab a crying baby and slam its head against a truck until it was quiet.
"I was so shaken. I don't find what he did good at all," Groening said, telling the court that he later went to his commander to request a transfer from Auschwitz.
He also told of an incident in late 1942 when he witnessed naked Jews being herded into a converted farm house near the camp. A fellow officer shut the door, put on a gas mask, opened a can and poured its contents down a hatch.
"The screams became louder and more desperate but after a short time they became quieter again," Groening said.
"This is the only time I participated in a gassing," he added, before correcting himself: "I don't mean participated, I mean observed."
In an extensive interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, Groening said he felt "nothing" when he saw Jews being taken to the gas chamber.
"If you are convinced that the destruction of Judaism is necessary, then it no longer matters how the killing takes place," he said, describing his feelings as a young SS officer. (Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Anna Willard)