Auschwitz bookkeeper sentenced for role in Nazi death camp machinery

A 94-year-old former SS sergeant has been sentenced to four years in prison, six months longer than the penalty prosecutors were seeking.

Axel Heimken/Reuters
Oskar Groening, defendant and former Nazi SS officer dubbed the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz,' sits in the courtroom during his trial in Lueneburg, Germany, Wednesday. The 94-year-old German man who worked as a bookkeeper at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on Wednesday of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and was sentenced to four years in prison, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials, Lueneburg, Germany, Wednesday.

A 94-year-old former guard at the Auschwitz execution camp has been convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Oskar Groening was sentenced to four years in prison, six months longer than the penalty prosecutors were seeking.

Mr. Groening's defense team had moved for him to be acquitted, arguing that he had done nothing wrong in terms of the law.

But at his trial in the state court in Lueneburg, northern Germany – one of the last remaining prosecutions of former Nazis – Groening described watching over prisoners' baggage after they arrived at Auschwitz and collecting money that had been stolen from them.

Judge Franz Kompisch ruled that Groening had decided to be part of the machinery of the Nazi death camp.

Groening, who has spoken out candidly on his time as an SS sergeant at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, was praised by Judge Kompisch for his openness, according to the AP.

But the severity of the crimes compelled him to impose a stronger sentence, added the judge.

During an interview with Spiegel magazine in 2005, he relayed a vivid account of watching a baby being murdered, and said he often still heard the screams of Jewish victims in the gas chambers.

While Groening said he didn’t see himself as one of the perpetrators, he said he felt remorse for his actions and asked for forgiveness from God and the Jewish survivors.

Asked by the reporter: “If you weren’t a perpetrator, what were you? An accomplice?” Groening responded, “I don't know. 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."

As the verdict was read Wednesday, the 94-year-old sat expressionless, reported the AP. He walked out of the courtroom without speaking to the press.

Both the prosecutors and the defense have said they are considering an appeal, which would take place within the next week. But because of his age and how long it would take to appeal, it remains uncertain whether Groening would actually go to prison, said his lawyer, Hans Holtermann.

Thomas Walther, the lawyer who represented the 51 Auschwitz survivors and their relatives, said, “It is an excellent verdict.”

He added that the duration of the sentence had never been an issue for the survivors, who "are just happy that this trial has been carried through to the end and that there was a verdict.”

Efraim Zuroff, who oversees the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, a group that seeks to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, said he hoped that the ruling would help expedite further prosecutions and “give first priority to these cases,” according to the AP.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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