Ex-Nazi guard testifies he thought deaths were from disease, not gas chambers

Ex-Nazi guard testifies he thought deaths were from disease, not gas chambers

At trial, Johann Rehbogen claims he believed 60,000 prisoners at Stutthof death camp were victims of ‘diseases and epidemics,’ says he was afraid to leave SS

Johann Rehbogen, a 94-year-old former SS guard holds his walking stick at the beginning of a trial in Muenster, Germany, November 6, 2018. (Guido Kirchner/dpa via AP)
Johann Rehbogen, a 94-year-old former SS guard holds his walking stick at the beginning of a trial in Muenster, Germany, November 6, 2018. (Guido Kirchner/dpa via AP)

A former Nazi concentration camp guard on trial on hundreds of counts of accessory to murder has testified he was aware that inmates were dying but says he didn’t know they were being killed.

Johann Rehbogen told the Muenster state court Thursday he knew the conditions of the Stutthof camp were “miserable” and had attributed the deaths primarily to “diseases and epidemics.”

More than 60,000 people were killed in Stutthof in a gas chamber, by lethal injection, shootings and other methods.

In the statement read by his attorney, the 94-year-old said he didn’t know much about the “structure inside the camp,” the dpa news agency reported.

He said “they told me which post to take and I obeyed.”

Prosecutors argue Rehbogen is an accessory because he helped the camp operate.

Johann Rehbogen, a 94-year-old former SS enlisted man, who is accused of hundreds of counts of accessory to murder for alleged crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Nazis’ Stutthof concentration camp, waits for the beginning of the third day of his trial at the regional court in Muenster, western Germany, November 13, 2018. (Guido Kirchner/pool photo via AP)

In a hearing Tuesday, Rehbogen voiced his shame at having been part of the SS but insisted he was unaware of the systematic killings at Stutthof.

“I’m of course ashamed to have been part of the SS. But I still don’t know today if I would have had the courage to do otherwise,” he said.

He said he was forced into joining the Schutzstaffel troops as he feared “reprisals against my family if I hadn’t gone.”

“When I saw the detainees I knew that the SS was wrong but I didn’t have a choice to do otherwise,” said Rehbogen, who served as a guard from June 1942 to September 1944 at Stutthof.

He denied knowledge of the gruesome crimes at the camp, insisting: “I knew nothing of the systematic killings, I knew nothing of the gas chambers as well as the crematoria.”

Rehbogen said he “would have liked to leave” the camp but added that “I did not trust myself to speak with anyone and had no one I could trust.”

“I will only say that I am not a Nazi, I never have been one, and never will be.”

‘I don’t believe him’

But lead prosecutor Andreas Brendel said that there were “ways out” of serving at the camp for guards like Rehbogen.

“We believe that the guards knew a lot more than what has been recounted today,” he said.

Plaintiffs voiced dismay at Rehbogen’s statement.

“I am disappointed but not surprised to hear the defendant is denying that he took part in the killings at Stutthof,” said Benjamin Cohen, who represented his grandmother Judy Meisel at the hearing.

“My grandmother’s account of her time in the camp and the murder of her mother tells a very clear story about the role of these guards.”

Manuel Mayer, a lawyer of a former detainee, said: “His statement was absurd. I don’t believe him.”

Rehbogen was aged 18 to 20 at the time and is therefore being tried under juvenile law.

The main gate leading into the former Nazi German Stutthof concentration camp in Sztutowo, Poland, July 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

He is charged with being an accessory to the murders of several hundred camp prisoners.

These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed in June 1944 and “probably several hundred” Jews killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis’ so-called “Final Solution.”

If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Given his age and the possibility of an appeal he is considered unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

Rehbogen, from North Rhine-Westphalia state, is a retired landscape architect and divorced father of three, according to German media.

At the trial opening last week, he shed tears when he heard written testimony from Holocaust survivors.

‘Symbolic but important’

Christoph Ruecken, a lawyer representing an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who now lives in the United States, said: “A punishment would be symbolic for such an old man but that’s important in times like now when nationalism and anti-Semitism are returning.

“It’s important to show that the rule of law says you will face the court if you do these things.”

Stutthof was set up in 1939 and ended up holding 110,000 detainees, 65,000 of whom perished, according to the Museum Stutthof.

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

Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving SS personnel, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk.

He was sentenced on the grounds that he served as a cog in the Nazi killing machine at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland, rather than for killings or atrocities linked to him personally.

German courts subsequently convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for complicity in mass murder.

Both men were convicted at age 94 but died before they could be imprisoned.

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