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Germany puts 100-year-old concentration camp guard on trial for Nazi crimes

Defendant, the oldest ever to be tried for Nazi-era atrocities and identified only as Josef S., is accused of assisting in the murder of 3,518 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp

Defendant Josef S (L) sits next to his lawyer Stefan Waterkamp and hides his face behind a folder as he waits for the start of his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz / AFP)
Defendant Josef S (L) sits next to his lawyer Stefan Waterkamp and hides his face behind a folder as he waits for the start of his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz / AFP)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A 100-year-old former concentration camp guard will on Thursday become the oldest person yet to be tried for Nazi-era crimes in Germany when he goes before the court charged with complicity in mass murder.

The suspect, identified only as Josef S., stands 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 against him 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.”

German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice, and have in recent years increasingly focused attention on lower-ranking Nazi 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.

Despite his advanced age, a medical assessment in August found that Josef S. was fit to stand trial, although hearings at the Neuruppin court will be limited to a couple of hours a day.

The proceedings are expected to last until early January.

Students enter the former Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp through the gate with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) in Oranienburg, Germany, October 6, 2021. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

“He is not accused of having shot anyone in particular but of having contributed to these acts through his work as a guard and of having been aware such killings were happening at the camp,” a court spokeswoman said.

Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing several camp survivors and victims’ relatives in the case, said that even 76 years after the end of World War II, trials like these were necessary to hold perpetrators to account.

“There’s no expiry date on justice,” he told AFP.

One of his clients is Antoine Grumbach, 79, whose father Jean was in the French resistance and was killed in Sachsenhausen in 1944.

He hopes Josef S. will shed light on the methods used to kill people in the camp, but also that the accused “will say ‘I was wrong, I am ashamed,'” Grumbach told AFP.

‘Symbolic’

The Nazi SS guard detained more than 200,000 people at the Sachsenhausen camp 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.

Inmates of a German concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, stand in line during attendance check, on December 19, 1938. (AP Photo)

The centenarian’s lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, said his client “has stayed silent” so far on the charges against him.

If convicted, Josef S. could spend several years in jail but Waterkamp said sentences in cases like these are “mostly symbolic,” given that the accused have reached the end of their lives.

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.

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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