Ex-Nazi camp guard, 100, refuses to discuss atrocities at trial in Germany

Josef Schuetz, the oldest person to stand trial for Nazi-era crimes, is accused of ‘knowingly and willingly’ assisting in murder of 3,518 prisoners at Sachsenhausen

The accused Josef S. covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
The accused Josef S. covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BRANDENBURG AN DER HAVEL, Germany (AFP) — A 100-year-old former concentration camp guard who became the oldest person to be tried for Nazi-era crimes in Germany will not speak about his time at the site, his lawyer said at the trial opening on Thursday.

Josef Schuetz is accused of “knowingly and willingly” assisting in the murder of 3,518 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945.

Allegations include aiding and abetting the “execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942” and the murder of prisoners “using the poisonous gas Zyklon B.”

However, Schuetz “will not speak, but will only provide information about his personal situation” at the trial, his lawyer Stefan Waterkamp, told the court.

Antoine Grumbach, 79, whose father was killed at the camp, said he wanted the accused to acknowledge “the possibility of guilt.”

Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing several camp survivors and victims’ relatives, said he hoped Schuetz would change his mind.

Illustrative: A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) in Oranienburg, Germany, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2019. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

‘Not made of stone’

“A man is not made of stone, not a machine,” he said. “Maybe he will still say something.”

Despite his advanced age, a medical assessment in August found Schuetz fit to stand trial, although his hearings are limited to a couple of hours a day.

Defendant Josef S gets help from his lawyer Stefan Waterkamp (L) to hide his face behind a folder as he arrives for his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz / AFP)

Schuetz arrived with a walking aid for the proceedings, held in a sports hall given the huge interest in the case.

The bespectacled man answered the judge with a clear voice when asked about his name, age and home address.

A widower since 1986, he was visibly proud when he replied that he will “celebrate (his) 101st birthday, on November 16.”

This undated file photo shows a roll call, in the early morning or late evening hours, on the roll call square in front of the camp gate of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo, file)

More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice, and have in recent years increasingly focused attention on lower-ranking staff.

The case comes a week after a 96-year-old German woman, who was a secretary in a Nazi death camp, dramatically fled before the start of her trial, but was caught several hours later. She, too, has been charged with complicity in murder. Her trial resumes on October 19.

Schuetz remains free during the trial. Even if convicted, he is highly unlikely to be put behind bars given his age.

Went grey

The trial is scheduled to last until early January.

The Nazi SS guard worked at the Sachsenhausen camp which detained more than 200,000 people between 1936 and 1945, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people.

Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labor, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.

Little is known about the accused, beyond the fact that he was released from captivity as a prisoner of war in 1947 and went to work as a locksmith in the Brandenburg region of what was then Communist East Germany, the Bild newspaper reported.

The file against him was transferred by the central unit investigating Nazi crimes to the state of Brandenburg, where he lives, in April 2019, and charges were eventually filed on January 26 this year.

Holocaust survivor Leon Schwarzbaum shows a family picture as he arrives to observe a trial against defendant Josef Schuetz in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

Co-plaintiff Christoffel Heijer, 84, told AFP his father was shot dead in the camp in May 1942.

“My mother received a letter from him on May 3, 1942, before he was shot. When she learnt a few days later that he had died, she cried a lot and went gray almost at once,” he said.

Race against time

Germany has been hunting down former Nazi staff since the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent.

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.

Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.

Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder, but died before they could be imprisoned.

John Demjanjuk in Munich, May 2011 (photo credit: AP/Matthias Schrader)
John Demjanjuk in Munich, May 2011. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

Most recently, former SS guard Bruno Dey was found guilty at the age of 93 last year and was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Prosecutors are investigating eight other cases, according to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.

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