It happened during the lunch recess Tuesday, the first day of the trial in Germany of the former Auschwitz guard being tried on 300,000 counts of complicity in the murder of Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in the summer of 1944.
Eva Kor, a 4-foot, 10-inch 81-year-old woman, walked up to the former SS officer, Oskar Groening, 93, as he sat at the defense table.
“I was curious to see how he would react to me,” she later told The Jewish Week by phone from Germany. “I walked up to him and introduced myself. I said I am a survivor of Auschwitz. He grabbed my hand and tried to get up. He had a warm, strong hand. Suddenly, he fainted and fell back.
“The chair was no longer under him and his head was falling to the ground. At that moment, he was not a Nazi but an old man who was going to fall to the ground, and I was an old woman trying to save him.
“But I’m too small and too old to save him, so I screamed, ‘He is falling and I can’t stop him.’ It happened so fast and nobody was paying attention. But then two guys grabbed his chair and lifted him into it.”
Groening, who had shuffled into the courtroom using a walker, must have fainted from standing up “too fast,” Kor surmised. “I remember that his feet were like mush — he couldn’t hold them on the ground — and couldn’t even hold his body up.”
Kor of Terre Haute, Ind., one of 67 Auschwitz survivors who are co-plaintiffs in the case, had a chance to address Groening the next day. It came after he had testified for many hours and requested an adjournment for the day. The panel of five judges deciding his fate agreed, but Groening said he first wanted to hear the testimony of Eva Kor.
“He seemed to know something about me personally,” she said later. “I believe he knew I forgave the Nazis and that therefore I am not a threat.”
She was referring to the letter she famously wrote in 1995 to a former Nazi doctor, Hans Munch, saying she had decided to forgive all Nazis.
She mentioned that letter in the statement she read to the court, explaining that it was her way of thanking Munch for agreeing to accompany her to Auschwitz on the 50th anniversary of its liberation and for signing a statement at the ruins of its gas chambers to attest to their existence.
“For me, it was a life-changing experience,” Kor said in her statement. “I realized I had power over my life. I had the power to heal the pain imposed on me in Auschwitz by forgiving the people who imposed that pain.”
And then, addressing Groening, Kor said: “It is true, but sad, that we cannot change what happened in Auschwitz. I am hoping that you and I, as former adversaries, can meet as people who respect one another as human beings and can relate to one another to understand, to heal, and to express thoughts that would not be possible any other way. …
“I am probably the only survivor who has forgiven all the Nazis, including you, in my name alone. My forgiveness does not absolve the perpetrators from taking responsibility for their actions, nor does it diminish my need and right to ask questions about what happened at Auschwitz.”
She said that although her parents and two older sisters were murdered at Auschwitz, she and her 10-year-old twin sister, Miriam, survived because Dr. Josef Mengele used them as guinea pigs for his experiments. Kor then asked Groening why only Auschwitz inmates were tattooed, whether he knew Mengele, knew of his experiments, what happened to Mengele’s files, and what he injected into her body that nearly killed her.
Groening did not answer her questions that day, but Kor said she hopes he will during the course of what is expected to be a three-month trial. If convicted, Groening faces up to 15 years in prison.
Of the approximately 6,500 members of the SS who worked at Auschwitz, only 49 have been convicted of war crimes. Groening himself had been previously cleared of war crimes by a German court, but these new charges were filed after a former guard at the Sobibor death camp, John Demjanjuk, was tried and convicted in 2011 for his involvement in the murder of 28,000 people there. He died in 2012.
That conviction led German prosecutors to change their policy when dealing with suspected Nazi war criminals, according to Efraim Zuroff, founder and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and its chief Nazi hunter.
“Prior to that, prosecutors had to prove [the defendant] had committed a specific crime against a specific person,” he told The Jewish Week by phone from Israel. “It applied to those who served in the six camps in Poland that had the ability for mass extermination, and to those who served in mobile killing units that were used in the Soviet Union.”
Demjanjuk had been an “armed SS guard who took people off trains at Sobibor and pushed them into the assembly line of mass annihilation,” Zuroff said.
Groening, on the other hand, was “not someone who pulled the trigger,” he noted. Rather, he was known as the accountant of Auschwitz because he “was in charge of making sure that the money brought by deportees was used for the benefit of the Reich. He was among those who facilitated the mass murder; he made it possible to happen.”
But unlike other accused Nazis, Zuroff said, Groening has not only admitted what he did but has spoken openly of the atrocities he witnessed at Auschwitz.
“In the 35 years I have been doing this, I can’t think of someone else openly speaking critically of the crimes committed where they were,” Zuroff observed.
Groening first spoke about it in 1985 when he was handed a book written by a Holocaust denier. He returned it after writing in it: “I saw everything. The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. … I was there.”
He later wrote a memoir for his family and gave interviews to a German news magazine and the BBC.
On the first day of his trial in the northern German city of Lueneburg near Hamburg, Groening, speaking in a firm voice, reportedly told the court: “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit. This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility. I ask for forgiveness. You have to decide on my legal culpability.”
Asked if there is a difference between being morally complicit and legally culpable, Zuroff said a person is guilty either because of his “physical participation or administrative participation.”
“He is hoping to get off on a technicality,” he said. “Without these people, the whole system could not have worked.”
Asked about the thinking of the German legal system that refused to prosecute such people until 2011, Zuroff said, “People had said why should they [SS officers] be punished when those who had more important jobs were not prosecuted, acquitted or given light sentences. But if you have a gang that carries out a series of murders and the top people get away, the others may not be as guilty as the leaders but that is beside the point. They must be tried as accessories to murder.”
Prosecutor Jens Lehmann acknowledgement as much when he told the court that Groening had made “at least a low-level contribution” to the “smooth operation” of Auschwitz.
Although this is the first trial of a Nazi guard since Damjanjuk changed the policy for prosecution, Zuroff said trials of other former Nazis are expected. He said German authorities in the last few years have found 38 former Auschwitz guards who are still alive, 31 of whom live in Germany. In addition, another 12 Nazi guards who served at the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp in Germany were also located.
Barring death or illness, Zuroff said, he expects them all to also stand trial. He said two of the 31 have already been indicted. And he said that if convicted they should be sent to jail, no matter what their age.
“The fact Groening admitted his crime is a factor in his favor in terms of punishment,” Zuroff said. “But it is important that he be punished even if it is only symbolic — he has to be given at least some jail time.”
Groening testified that shortly after being assigned to Auschwitz in 1942, he saw drunken guards speak of “getting rid” of prisoners. He said he witnessed that himself in December of that year when he was awakened to chase down inmates who were attempting to escape. In the process, he saw prisoners herded into a building and gas poured into an opening on the side of the building. Then he heard screams from those inside.
The cries, he said, “grew louder and more desperate, until they fell silent. … That was the only time I saw a complete gassing. I did not take part.”
An estimated 1.1 million people — primarily European Jews — were murdered between 1940 and January 1945 at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
And Groening recounted seeing an SS guard kill an apparently abandoned baby who was found lying amid some trash. To stop the child from crying, he smashed its head against a truck.
Groening said he complained to a superior but that no action was taken. And he said that on three separate occasions he asked to be transferred from Auschwitz but that his requests were denied.
“What kind of hatred was behind it?” he asked rhetorically about the Holocaust. “I just can’t understand it.”
During May and July 1944 — the period for which Groening is being tried — about 425,000 Hungarian Jews were sent by train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex; most were gassed immediately. Groening testified that there were so many trains arriving that they often piled up and would have to wait with their doors closed until the one in the station was “processed.”
“The capacity of the gas chambers and the capacity of the crematoria were quite limited,” he was quoted as saying. “Someone said that 5,000 people were processed in 24 hours, but I didn’t verify this. I didn’t know. For the sake of order, we waited until train one was entirely processed and finished.”
He later said that it was clear to him that none of the arriving Jews were expected to leave the camp alive.
“I couldn’t imagine that” happening, he said.
Kor said the “value of his testimony” is the impact it might have on neo-Nazi groups and young people who don’t believe the Holocaust existed.
“For a Nazi to admit in court what happened sends an important message,” she said.