Over a dozen other Nazi-era cases still under investigation

Ex-Nazi guard, 93, found guilty of complicity in 5,230 concentration camp deaths

Bruno Dey given 2-year suspended sentence for his actions at Stutthof camp over 75 years ago; Israeli ambassador says punishment insufficient

93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey pictured at the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.  (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)
93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey pictured at the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

A 93-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard was handed a suspended sentence of two years in prison on Thursday as a court in Hamburg found him guilty of complicity in World War II atrocities.

Bruno Dey was convicted for his role in the killing of 5,230 people when he was an SS tower guard at the Stutthof camp.

As a 17-year-old SS private, Dey could hear the screams of Jews dying in the gas chamber of the concentration camp from his post in a guard tower, and watched daily as their bodies were carted to the crematorium to be turned into ash.

A Hamburg state court decided his role as a camp guard more than 75 years ago was enough to convict him of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder, equal to the number of people believed to have been killed in Stutthof during his service there.

Bruno Dey, a former SS-watchman at the Stutthof concentration camp, hides his face behind a folder at the start of a hearing in his trial on July 23, 2020 in Hamburg, northern Germany (Daniel Bockwoldt / POOL / AFP)

Because he was only 17, and later 18, at the time of his alleged crimes, Dey’s case was heard in juvenile court.

In a closing statement to the court earlier this week, the wheelchair-bound German retiree, now 93, apologized for his role in the Nazis’ machinery of destruction, saying “it must never be repeated.”

“Today, I want to apologize to all of the people who went through this hellish insanity,” Dey said.

The trial opened in October, and in deference to Dey’s age, court sessions were limited to two, two-hour sessions a week. Additional precautions also were taken to keep the case going through the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Marek Dunin-Wasowicz, a Nazi death camp surviver and witness in the trial of former SS guard Bruno Dey, in his appartment in Warsaw, Poland on July 16, 2020. (Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)

Prosecutors sought a three-year prison sentence, partially in a nod to Dey’s stated contrition and his cooperation with authorities. Defense attorney Stefan Waterkamp argued for an acquittal, saying that Dey found himself working at Stutthof only by happenstance and that he would have been in danger himself if he had tried to get out of guard duty.

“How could an 18-year-old step out of line in a situation like this?” Waterkamp asked while giving his closing argument.

Representatives of some 40 Stutthof survivors and their relatives who joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, which is allowed under German law, urged the court to convict Dey but have not pushed for a punishment beyond the prosecution’s recommendation.

Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff decried the 2-year suspended sentence as insufficient.

“The punishment doesn’t reflect the severity of the accusations against the man,” Issacharoff tweeted. “The trial itself needs to demonstrate that there’s no forgiveness or statute of limitations for Nazi crimes against the Jewish people.”

He noted the sentencing against Dey came amid the trial of a man accused of killing two people in Halle, after failing to storm a synagogue on Yom Kippur.

“Jew haters are still living among us and are deserving of the most severe punishments in accordance with [the] law,” Issacharoff said.

For at least two decades, every trial of a former Nazi has been dubbed “likely Germany’s last.” But just last week, another ex-guard at Stutthof was charged at age 95, and the special prosecutors’ office that investigates Nazi-era crimes has more than a dozen ongoing investigations.

John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom (photo credit: AP/Matthias Schrader)
John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom, March 2012. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

That’s due in part to a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murders of nearly 28,000 Jews based on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. He died at age 91 while the case was on appeal.

Before Demjanjuk’s case, German courts had required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard’s participation in a specific killing, a legal standard that was often next to impossible to meet given the circumstances of the crimes committed at Nazi death camps.

However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk’s trial in Munich that guarding a camp where the only purpose was murder was enough for an accessory conviction.

In this file photo from April 23, 2015, former SS guard Oskar Groening waits for the start of his trial in a courtroom in Lueneburg, Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte/dpa via AP,file)

Demjanjuk steadfastly denied the allegations against him and died before his appeal could be heard. A federal court subsequently upheld the 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening, solidifying the precedent.

The Dey case extended the argument to apply to a concentration camp guard, rather than a death camp guard. Prosecutors said it should still apply in his case since tens of thousands died at Stutthof even though the camp did not exist for the sole purpose of extermination, unlike the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Sobibor.

Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, noted that none of the people convicted of Nazi crimes in recent years spent time behind bars due to their advanced ages, but he said that was no reason to stop the pursuit.

“The larger question is whether conventional justice can do justice to a tragedy in the scope of the Holocaust,” Zuroff said in a telephone interview. “The answer is not black and white. The justice that’s achieved in certain respects is only symbolic justice, but symbolic justice has its purpose and has its value.”

Prosecutors have argued that as Stutthof guard from August 1944 to April 1945, Dey aided in all the killings that took place there during that period as a “small wheel in the machinery of murder.”

“The accused was no ardent worshiper of Nazi ideology,” Dey’s indictment stated. “But there is also no doubt that he never actively challenged the persecutions of the Nazi regime.”

Dey gave wide-ranging statements to investigators about his service, saying that he was deemed unfit for combat in the regular Germany army in 1944 so was drafted into an SS guard detachment and sent to the camp not far from his hometown near Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk.

Initially a collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from Danzig, Stutthof from about 1940 was used as a so-called “work education camp” where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens, were sent to serve sentences and often died.

Gas chamber at Stutthof (Courtesy)

Others incarcerated there included political prisoners, accused criminals, people suspected of homosexual activity and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

From mid-1944, when Dey was posted there, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos in the Baltics and from Auschwitz filled the camp along with thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising.

More than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothing until they died of exposure, or were put to death in a gas chamber.

People look at the gas chamber in the museum in former Nazi Death Camp Stutthof, in Sztutowo, July 21, 2020. (Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP)

Dey told the court that as a trained baker’s apprentice, he attempted to get sent to an army kitchen or bakery when he learned he’d been assigned to Stutthof.

As a guard there, he said he frequently was directed to watch over prisoner labor crews working outside the camp.

Dey acknowledged hearing screams from the camp’s gas chambers and watching as corpses were taken to be burned, but he said he never fired his weapon and once allowed a group to smuggle meat from a dead horse they’d discovered back into the camp.

“The images of misery and horror have haunted me my entire life,” he testified.

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