Auschwitz book-keeper’ Oskar Groening sentenced to four years

Auschwitz book-keeper’ Oskar Groening sentenced to four years

Media captionThe BBC’s Caroline Wyatt: “At last Oskar Groening will pay the price for his crimes”

A German court has convicted a 94-year-old former guard at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 Jews.

Oskar Groening, known as the “book-keeper of Auschwitz”, was sentenced to four years in prison.

He was responsible for counting the belongings confiscated from prisoners and had admitted “moral guilt”.

His lawyers said he did not facilitate genocide, but prosecutors argued that he had helped the camp run smoothly.

Many observers have questioned whether Groening will ultimately be sent to jail, given his advanced age. He is expected to be one of the last Nazis to face a courtroom.

Defence lawyer Hans Holtermann was quoted as saying that he would review the verdict before deciding whether to appeal.

The tattooed number of Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum
Image captionThe tattooed number of Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum

In the courtroom: Jenny Hill, BBC News, Lueneburg

Oskar Groening joked with his lawyers as the court waited for the judge to arrive to deliver his verdict.

Watching him carefully was a small elderly man with bright eyes. Leon Schwarzbaum was 22 when he was transported to Auschwitz. He told me he is now 94 – the same age as Groening.

He pointed to the tattooed numbers on his arm. “When they punched this on my arm they told me no-one lasts long in Auschwitz.”

After the verdict, I saw him again; four years is the right sentence, he said, after all he’s an old man.

Can he forgive Oskar Groening, I asked? “No,” he replied. “I lost 30 members of my family in Auschwitz.”

Delivering the verdict, Judge Franz Kompisch said Groening had willingly taken a “safe desk job” in a system that was “inhumane and all but unbearable for the human psyche”.

The trial in the northern German city of Lueneburg, which began earlier this year, heard evidence from several people who had survived the death camp.

One of the survivors, Eva Kor, said she forgave Groening, and a picture of her shaking his hand was tweeted earlier this year.

Joint plaintiff Judith Kalman is pictured at the courtroom in Lueneburg on July 2, 2015, for the continuation of the trial of German former SS officer Oskar Groening
Image captionJudith Kalman testified at the trial of Oskar Groening

Judith Kalman, whose sister died at Auschwitz, said that as a child she “formed a strange myth to explain the baffling circumstances of my existence”.

“Early on, through my father’s stories and my mother’s startling revelations of horror, I absorbed the knowledge that innocent children could be murdered and whole families and communities eradicated by forces beyond their control,” she added.

Media captionSusan Pollack, Auschwitz survivor: “He (Groening) admitted it… I think that was pretty brave of him”

A statement from a group of Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives said the pain of losing families at Auschwitz could not be alleviated by criminal proceedings or the words of the accused.

“But it gives us satisfaction that now the perpetrators cannot evade prosecution as long as they live,” the statement said.

The case revolved around the question of whether people who had played a minor role in the Nazi-ordered genocide but had not actively killed any Jews could still be guilty of a crime.

Cornelius Nestler, a lawyer for a group of plaintiffs, said the case demonstrated that Auschwitz as a whole was “a murder machinery”.

“Everyone who participated in it has to take responsibility for it,” he told Reuters news agency.

Who is Oskar Groening?

Oskar Groening in SS uniform. File image taken from BBC documentary Auschwitz: the Nazis and the 'Final Solution'
Image captionOskar Groening described “orderly” scenes as trainloads of Jews were taken to the gas chambers
  • Born in 1921 in Lower Saxony, Germany
  • Joined the Hitler Youth and then the Waffen SS
  • Worked at Auschwitz from 1942, counting money confiscated from prisoners
  • Expressed regret and spoke openly of Auschwitz experiences, saying he wanted to counter Holocaust deniers

‘Book-keeper of Auschwitz’

‘A four-year sentence for 300,000 lives sounds slightly ridiculous’

Groening had publicly discussed his role at Auschwitz, making him unusual among former Nazis brought to trial. He said he was speaking out in order to silence those who deny the Holocaust took place.

“I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria,” he told the BBC in the 2005 documentary Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution”.

“I was on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place.”

More than one million people, most of them European Jews, died between 1940 and 1945 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp

Watchtower at Auschwitz
  • Construction began in 1940 on site that grew to 40 sq km (15 sq miles)
  • About one million Jews were killed at the camp
  • Other victims included Roma (Gypsies), disabled people, homosexuals, dissidents, non-Jewish Poles and Soviet prisoners
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