In closing arguments at the trial of former Nazi SS sergeant Oskar Groening, German prosecutors asked that he be sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison after he admitted guarding prisoners at the Auschwitz death camp and collecting and counting their money before sending it to Berlin.
The court of five judges is expected to announce its verdict in the trial of the 94-year-old Groening later this month. It began hearing testimony in April, and there was a delay in proceedings when Groening became ill.
Known as “The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” he has been charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to commit murder for all of those who were murdered at Auschwitz during the two years he served there.
A total of 67 Holocaust survivors or their relatives from the U.S., Canada, Israel and elsewhere joined the case as co-plaintiffs. Fourteen of them traveled to Germany to testify against Groening. Markus Goldbach, the attorney for one of the plaintiffs, Eva Mozes Kor of Indiana, told The Jewish Week in an email that although the prosecutor asked that Groening be sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison, he requested also that the sentence be reduced by 1 to 2 years because “Groening had to wait so long for his trial.”
“This means he could get a sentence of parole,” Goldbach pointed out.
“If you ask me, there is just one adequate sentence for what he did and that is the highest sentence possible,” he continued. “This is different from the question of whether to spare him jail because of his age. But imagine that he had been captured shortly after the liberation. He was standing at the ramp, sleeping in the blankets of the killed families, eating the food they brought with them to feed their children. …”
After testifying, Kor said publicly that she did not believe Groening should be sentenced to prison.
“Putting him in jail — that’s absurd,” she was quoted as saying. “But he can do some good in trying to tell the neo-Nazis and the extremists that these kinds of organizations … do not work for anybody. Not for the Nazis, not for the Germans.”
And she told The Jewish Week after speaking with Groening during a recess in the trial: “I did not think he was a Nazi, I saw an old man falling apart.”
“How many people would take full responsibility for their crimes?” she asked. “The value of his testimony [is great]. For a Nazi to admit what happened in court sends an important message to young neo-Nazis. I asked him to address neo-Nazi groups. If he could convince them … .”
Goldbach, referring to the fact that Groening in recent years has given interviews to the BBC and other media openly refuting the claims of those who have insisted the Holocaust never happened, wrote in his email: “I don’t say that he didn’t do good in the second half of his life, and I think that everyone is free to forgive him and that this can help the victims to end their victimhood. I absolutely see the importance of forgiveness. But a prosecutor should not forgive anything.”
Another counsel for the plaintiffs, Cornelius Nestler, questioned in his summation Wednesday why it took German authorities 70 years after the end of World War II to bring Groening to justice. He said German authorities had known all of the evidence presented during the trial some 30 years ago.
“Proceedings of this kind only materialize anymore where a willing, dedicated and fast-working prosecutor happens to encounter a willing court and where the accused is still able to stand trial,” he said.
Nestler asked the judges to disregard the prosecutor’s request that Groening’s sentence be reduced by up to 22 months, saying Groening was never imprisoned and that any delay in starting the trial did not inconvenience him.
He said the fact that evidence was presented showing that Groening requested transfer from Auschwitz to the front lines was proof that he knew Auschwitz was a place where it was wrong to participate in what went on there.
“Mr. Groening did participate, and that is why he will be convicted for aiding and abetting mass murder,” he said. “Far too late, but not too late.”
Thomas Walther, who along with Nestler represented 51 people who joined the trial as plaintiffs, told the court in his summation Tuesday that Groening deserves respect for admitting his role in Auschwitz. But he said survivors were disappointed he did not take personal responsibility and was “unable to use the word murder for the crimes of Auschwitz — the word murder in all of its unambiguousness that rules out any doubt.
“Instead, he hides behind the SS’ structures of command. It was the catastrophic consequence of this unconditional devotion to `the command’ that has led to a relinquishment of all and any personal responsibility. … He speaks explicitly of the 'convenience of obedience, which did not allow for contradictions,' and he says that he did not have anything to do with the murders immediately.
“Is the man Groening not responsible for his own, personal obedience in any case?… He merely contributed to `the camp of Auschwitz operating effectively.’ What a phrase! He does not make a connection between himself and the murdering.”
“The co-plaintiffs are not giving up hope that the accused will finally liberate his own soul in his “Last Word” and open up about what happened and what he saw on the ramp and in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the ‘Hungarian Action,’” Walther concluded. “The accused shares responsibility for the co-plaintiffs’ lifelong suffering. He cannot absolve them from this suffering, no matter what his words. But he can offer them a bit of help in handling this suffering in the context of this criminal proceeding. For this, it is not yet too late.”