A former SS guard known as the “book-keeper of Auschwitz” has asked for forgiveness as he stands trial for contributing to the murder of at least 30,000 Jews.
Oskar Groening, now aged 93, said he was “morally guilty”, as he appeared before almost 70 Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives in court in the north German city of Lueneburg on Tuesday.
He added: “Whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.''
Although Groening worked in Auschwitz for two years, where he was reportedly in charge of counting money and possessions confiscated from new arrivals, his charges relate to the period between May and July 1944, when 425,000 people were sent to the camp and at least 300,000 were gassed to death.
The widowed father-of-two entered the courtroom with a walking frame and reportedly leaned forward to listen carefully as the prosecutor read the charges against him and accused him of “supporting the machinery of death”.
The former guard then described how he had spent his time at Auschwitz inspecting prisoners’ luggage and sending confiscated money back to Berlin.
He told the judge that the money “belonged to the state and was to be handed over by the Jews. They didn’t need it anymore”.
Over the years Groening has acknowledged working in the extermination camp, but has denied being directly responsible for the murder of any prisoner.
This line of defence worked in previous years, but since 2011, German courts have allowed prosecutors to charge people with complicity in the Holocaust even without any evidence they committed murder. This is the first in a number of prosecutions that have been brought forward since this ruling.
Since the Holocaust, only 49 former SS guards have been convicted in Germany. Even though the new law enables prosecutors to try more surviving guards in court, their old age means Groening’s case may be one of the few to see a resolution.
If found guilty, he could face between three and 15 years in prison. The trial will run until July 29.