LUENEBURG, Germany (AP) — A former Auschwitz guard acknowledged Tuesday that he bears a share of the moral guilt for atrocities at the camp, but told judges at the opening of his trial that it is up to them to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder.
Oskar Groening, 93, acknowledged having helped collect and tally money as part of his job dealing with the belongings stolen from people arriving at Auschwitz. That earned him the moniker “Accountant of Auschwitz.”
Groening testified that he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker, and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. He didn’t mention directly participating in any atrocities and said he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one.
“I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide,” Groening told the panel of judges hearing the case as he closed an hour-long statement to the court. Under the German legal system, defendants do not enter formal pleas.
On his way into the court in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, Groening told reporters he expects an acquittal. He could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Groening faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder at the trial, which will test the argument that anyone who served as a guard at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there.
The charges relate to a period between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought to Auschwitz and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.
“Through his job, the defendant supported the machinery of death,” prosecutor Jens Lehmann said as he read out the indictment.
In his statement, Groening recalled that he and a group of recruits were told by an SS major before going to Auschwitz they would “perform a duty that will clearly not be pleasant, but one necessary to achieve final victory.”
The major gave no details, but other SS men told Groening at Auschwitz that Jews were being selected for work and those who couldn’t work were being killed.
Groening described the arrival of transports of Jewish prisoners in detail, and recalled an incident in late 1942 in which another SS man smashed a baby against a truck, “and his crying stopped.” He said he was “shocked” and the following day asked a lieutenant for a transfer, which wasn’t granted.
Groening, who entered the court pushing a walker, appeared lucid as he gave his statement, pausing occasionally to cough or drink water. It is unclear how long the trial will last; court sessions have been scheduled through the end of July.
Prosecutors say Groening served as a bookkeeper who sorted and counted the money taken from those killed, collecting cash in different currencies from across Europe.
He also performed “ramp duty,” guarding the luggage stolen from deportees as they arrived by rail at the extermination and forced labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, they say.
In previous interviews, Groening said his job “involved removing the money, jewels and other valuables from the inmates, registering it and sending it back to Berlin. They had diamonds and gold worth millions and it was my duty to make sure all of it got to Berlin… It was completely understood by all that the majority were going straight to the gas chamber, although some believed they were only going to be showered before going to work. Many Jews knew they were going to die.”
The trial is the first to test a new line of German legal reasoning that has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.
There are currently 11 open investigations against former Auschwitz guards, and charges have been filed in three of those cases including Groening’s. A further eight former Majdanek guards are also under investigation.
About 60 Holocaust survivors or their relatives from the U.S., Canada, Israel and elsewhere have joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, as is allowed under German law.
Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor said Groening was a very old man who had had a hard life, “but by his own doing.”
“If you’re guilty, is there such a thing as morally guilty but to be legally not?” she asked.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.