Oskar Groening, former Auschwitz guard, tells trial he shares moral guilt

A former Auschwitz guard has testified at his trial that he bears a moral share of the blame for atrocities at the camp, but it's up to judges to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder.

93-year-old man is on trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Ex-Auschwitz guard tells trial he shares moral guilt

7 years ago
Duration 2:36
93-year-old Oskar Groening is on trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder

A former Auschwitz guard acknowledged Tuesday that he bears a share of the moral guilt for atrocities at the camp, but told judges at the opening of his trial that it is up to them to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder.

Oskar Groening, 93, acknowledged having helped collect and tally money as part of his job dealing with the belongings stolen from people arriving at Auschwitz. That earned him the moniker "Accountant of Auschwitz."

Groening testified that he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker, and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. He didn't mention directly participating in any atrocities and said he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one.

This undated photo from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oswiecim, Poland, shows former Auschwitz-Birkenau guard Oskar Groening as a young man in an SS uniform. (Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau/Associated Press)

"I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide," Groening told the panel of judges hearing the case as he closed an hour-long statement to the court. Under the German legal system, defendants do not enter formal pleas.

On his way into the court in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, Groening told reporters he expects an acquittal. He could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if found guilty.

Groening faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder at the trial, which will test the argument that anyone who served as a guard at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there.

The charges relate to a period between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought to Auschwitz and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

"Through his job, the defendant supported the machinery of death," prosecutor Jens Lehmann said as he read out the indictment.

In his statement, Groening recalled that he and a group of recruits were told by an SS major before going to Auschwitz they would "perform a duty that will clearly not be pleasant, but one necessary to achieve final victory."

The major gave no details, but other SS men told Groening at Auschwitz that Jews were being selected for work and those who couldn't work were being killed.

Groening described the arrival of transports of Jewish prisoners in detail, and recalled an incident in late 1942 in which another SS man smashed a baby against a truck, "and his crying stopped." He said he was "shocked" and the following day asked a lieutenant for a transfer, which wasn't granted.

Groening, who entered the court pushing a walker, appeared lucid as he gave his statement, pausing occasionally to cough or drink water. It is unclear how long the trial will last; court sessions have been scheduled through the end of July.

Legal test

The trial is the first to test a new line of German legal reasoning that has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

There are currently 11 open investigations against former Auschwitz guards, and charges have been filed in three of those cases including Groening's. A further eight former Majdanek guards are also under investigation.

About 60 Holocaust survivors or their relatives from Canada, the U.S., Israel and elsewhere have joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, as is allowed under German law.

Hedy Bohm had just turned 16 when the Nazis packed her and her parents onto a cattle car in May 1944 and sent them from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp. Her parents are believed to have been killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor sits in a courtroom in Lueneburg, northern Germany on Tuesday. (Julian Stratenschulte/Associated Press)

Bohm is today 86 and lives in Toronto, where she moved after the war. She will testify as a witness about her Auschwitz experience, although she doesn't remember Groening.

Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor said Groening was a very old man who had had a hard life, "but by his own doing."

"If you're guilty, is there such a thing as morally guilty but to be legally not?" she asked.