A 100-year-old former concentration camp guard has gone on trial in Germany, charged with being an accessory to the murder of more than 3,500 people, and become the oldest person to ever face prosecution for crimes committed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Prosecutors have charged the man, identified only as Josef S. in line with German privacy rules, with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin. He allegedly served as a watchtower guard there between 1942 and 1945, as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the SS.
More than 200,000 people were held at Sachsenhausen since it opened in 1936 as one of the earliest Nazi concentration camps; tens of thousands of people were killed there, with victims killed through starvation, disease, forced labour or medical experiments, or executed by shooting, gassing or hanging.
“The defendant knowingly and willingly aided and abetted this at least by conscientiously performing guard duty, which was seamlessly integrated into the killing system,” prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the state court in Neuruppin, a town about 60km northwest of Berlin.
Due to the defendant’s advanced age, sessions will be limited to two-and-a-half hours a day.
For Holocaust survivors and their families, the trial is a welcome step towards justice and accountability for the crimes of the Nazi era, even if it was an extremely belated one, coming 76 years after the defeat of the Nazi regime.
“It’s a place to have the opportunity to talk about the murders and to talk about the loss they have suffered all their lives,” Christoph Heubner, executive president of the International Auschwitz Committee, told VICE World News.
However, they were disappointed by the statement in court by the defendant’s lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, that his client did not intend to comment on the allegations against him.
“Survivors and their families were expecting this person to speak out and to say something, but it appears he will be quiet,” said Heubner. “For the survivors and their relatives, this means the silence of the SS is continuing.”
Among those attending the trial was 100-year-old Leon Schwarzbaum, a 100-year-old survivor of Sachsenhausen.
Holocaust survivor Leon Schwarzbaum shows a family picture as he arrives to observe a trial against defendant Josef S. Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images
“This is the last trial for my friends, acquaintances and my loved ones, who were murdered, in which the last guilty person can still be sentenced – hopefully,” Schwarzbaum, who also survived two other other Nazi concentration camps, told Germany’s dpa news agency.
The trial comes just a week after a 96-year-old woman who worked as a secretary at the Stutthof concentration camp was scheduled to go on trial in another German court. That trial was postponed until later this month after the defendant went on the run on the day she was to appear in court, before being located and arrested several hours later.
The prosecutions are among a number of cases currently being handled by German prosecutors of elderly people – all of them approaching the end of their lives – who were allegedly involved in guarding or administering Nazi camps.
The prosecutions followed the landmark trial in 2011 of John Demjanjuk, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, which set a legal precedent that even those who contributed indirectly could be held accountable for what took place in the camps.