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The 'Bookkeeper of Auschwitz' Has Just Been Convicted of 300,000 Counts of Accessory to Murder

Oskar Groening was in charge of sorting the bank notes taken from the trainloads of Jews who arrived at the concentration camp — the majority of whom were sent straight to the gas chambers.

by Sally Hayden
Jul 15 2015, 10:20am

imagen por Tobias Schwarz/EPA

Following a court case that went right to the heart of Nazi culpability, former SS officer Oskar Groening, also known as the "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz," has today been sentenced to four years in prison.

The 94-year-old went on trial in April 2015, 70 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War Two.

Groening has now been found guilty of 300,000 counts of acting as an accessory to murder. The Nazis killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, mostly Jewish.

Groening was born in 1921 and posted to the concentration camp in 1942, aged 21. He was not directly involved in killing those who arrived, but was put in charge of inspecting luggage and sorting the bank notes taken from the trainloads of arriving Jews — the majority of whom were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Related: The 'Bookkeeper of Auschwitz' Admits Moral Guilt at Trial for 300,000 Counts of Accessory to Murder

The trial dealt with the period between May and July 1944 when 137 trains carrying roughly 425,000 Jews from Hungary are believed to have arrived in Auschwitz. As many as 300,000 of these were killed immediately, according to the indictment. 

Presiding Judge Franz Kompisch said Groening had decided to be part of the Nazis' machinery of death. Groening sat expressionless as the verdict was read and listened attentively for more than an hour and a half as Kompisch detailed the ruling, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water. He then walked out of the courtroom without talking to reporters.

The survivors 'are just happy that this trial has been carried through to the end and that there was a verdict.'

Both sides have a week to appeal, and both prosecutors and the defense said they would consider whether to do so. Defense lawyer Hans Holtermann said Groening remains free in the meantime, and given his age and the possible length of appeal proceedings it was uncertain whether he would actually go to prison.

Lawyer Thomas Walther, who represents 51 co-plaintiffs, said that "it is an excellent verdict."

"For us, it not a big question of whether it is three, four, five, six years in prison — that was never a topic," he said. The survivors "are just happy that this trial has been carried through to the end and that there was a verdict."

"There was a self-denial in me that today I find impossible to explain," Groening said during the trial. "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 appeared in a 2005 BBC documentary titled Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution. Responding to Holocaust deniers, he stated clearly: "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. I would like you to believe these atrocities happened — because I was there."

Related: 'Bookkeeper of Auschwitz' Makes Statement of Humility and Guilt at Trial

As to why he never questioned the reasoning behind the mass murder they were committing, Groening said: "We were convinced by our worldview that we had been betrayed by the entire world and that there was a great conspiracy of the Jews against us." 

This extended to Jewish minors. "The children, they're not the enemy at the moment," he said. "The enemy is the blood inside them."

The white-haired nonagenarian uses a walking frame, and his health problems led to delays during the trial. He admitted to moral guilt during the proceedings, after saying that hearing the testimonies presented had really made him realize the full extent of the atrocities committed. 

"I ask for forgiveness," he stated. "I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide."

Susan Pollack, one of those who testified at Groening's trial, told the Daily Telegraph that she had agreed to give evidence "without hesitation," after being approached by Walther six months ago. "I'm 83 years old. It won't come again. I hold the view myself, very strongly, that all generations must remember what took place," she said.

Pollack also told the UK newspaper that she was disappointed more of the 27,000 guards at the concentration camp hadn't faced trial. 

"I think one of the lessons we have to take forward is that each and every person was responsible — irrespective of whether they were turning the gas on or shooting someone. You were there. When it was time to stand up," she said.

"Why did you go along with it? You were educated. You could comprehend. Germany was educated, cultured. Was that knowledge that you were going to be ruling over everyone upmost in your mind? To treat us and many others so brutally? In their minds we were worse than worms."

On Groening, Pollack said. "I don't hate him. But I don't have it in my heart to forgive. That is not my role."

Related: Auschwitz 70th Anniversary Renews Debate over Concentration Camp's Future

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

The Associated Press contributed to this report.