The man known as the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" has offered a statement of "humility and guilt" during his trial for Holocaust crimes in Germany.
Oskar Groening, 94, one of the last remaining Nazi SS members alive, is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for his work at the Nazi death camp in 1944. More than 1 million people are estimated to have died there.
Groening has described his work there as collecting and sorting money from victims and then sending the money to Nazi headquarters. On Wednesday, he took responsibility for his complicity in helping run the death camp.
"There was a self-denial in me that today I find impossible to explain," Groening's statement said, according to CBS. "Perhaps it was also the convenience of obedience with which we were brought up, which allowed no contradiction. This indoctrinated obedience prevented registering the daily atrocities as such and rebelling against them."
Groening had previously spoken directly to the court, admitting "moral guilt" during a statement at the beginning of the trial, which started in April. On Wednesday, Groening's attorney read his statement to the court in Berlin, noting that he had "shared guilt for the Holocaust, although my part was small."
He said he knew that Auschwitz was a death camp, but did not know how much victims suffered there before they died. The former guard appeared in a 2005 BBC documentary, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, in which he acknowledged witnessing the systematic slaughter and abuse of prisoners at Auschwitz.
"I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place," Groening said in the film, speaking out against Holocaust denial. "I would like you to believe these atrocities happened — because I was there."
Groening also said he would not ask for forgiveness from the victims and families, including those who attended the trial. Many survivors have testified during the trial, including 84-year-old Irene Weiss, who said on the stand, "Any person who wore that uniform in that place represented terror and the depths to which humanity can sink, regardless of what function they performed."
"It also became clear to me how much Auschwitz and the Holocaust influenced the lives of the witnesses I heard here," Groening said. "They have obviously suffered their whole lives from their experiences in Auschwitz and the loss of so many loved ones."
"In view of the scale of the crimes committed in Auschwitz and in other places, I do not believe I am entitled to make such a request," he said. "I can only ask my Lord God for forgiveness."
The testimony was seen as significant for its frankness by Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College law professor and author of a forthcoming book about the last major Nazi prosecution, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial. Douglas said that many previous defendants in Holocaust trials "had pretty elaborate reserves of self-pity and self-justification" that Groening did not seem to exhibit in his trial.
"I read some of the survivors were not entirely satisfied with his statement, they expected a greater apology and recognition of his actual direct participation and murder," Douglas told VICE News, pointing out that Groening isn't charged with direct participation in murder.
"But when he says he contributed to the functioning of the Auschwitz death machine, that that's what he's charged with, that's a pretty frank reckoning. For someone to say he's been deeply moved by statements of victims is pretty significant," he said. "It seems as though something has moved within his own moral compass."
The months-long trial seems to be taking a toll on Groening physically and mentally, Douglas said. Court dates have been canceled and postponed due to his health issues and he was too weak to read the statement himself to the judges on Wednesday.
The case is expected to wrap up by the end of July. Douglas said that Groening's case could likely be the last Holocaust case prosecuted by German authorities.
Groening faces 15 years in prison if convicted. Three judges and two lay "assessors" will decide his guilt.