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German ex-SS concentration camp guard, 94, weeps in court

A former SS guard aged 94 broke down in tears Tuesday as he listened to accounts of Holocaust survivors, on the first day of his trial in Germany charged with complicity in mass murder at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

German ex-SS concentration camp guard, 94, weeps in court
At the beginning of the trial, the defendant sits in the dock of the district court and holds his walking stick with his hand. Photo: DPA

The German man from the western district of Borken, North Rhine-Westphalia state, served as a guard from June 1942 to September 1944 at the Stutthof camp near what was then Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland.

He was not publicly named but German media identified him as Johann R., a retired landscape architect and divorced father of three.

Dressed in a wool suit with a green hat, he entered the regional court of Münster in a wheelchair, with a walking stick in hand, facing charges of being an accessory to the murders of several hundred camp prisoners.

These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed in June 1944 and “probably several hundred” Jews killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis' so-called “Final Solution”.

Initially composed, there were unbelievable scenes when the defendant started weeping as the court heard written testimony from Holocaust survivors who now live in the United States or Israel, read out by their lawyers.

Marga Griesbach recalled, according to DPA, how she saw her six-year-old brother for the last time in the camp before he was sent to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers.

Another survivor and co-plaintiff, a woman from the US state of Indianapolis, charged that the defendant “helped to murder my beloved mother, whom I have missed my entire life”.

'Gassed, shot, left to die' 

Aged 18 to 20 at the time, and therefore now being tried under juvenile law, the defendant is “accused in his capacity as a guard of participating in the killing operations,” Dortmund prosecutor Andreas Brendel told AFP

“Many people were gassed, shot or left to die of hunger,” he added, stressing that the guards “knew about the killing methods”.

But when interrogated by police in August 2017, the accused insisted he knew nothing about the atrocities in the camp, Die Welt daily reported.

Asked why the camp detainees were so thin, he reportedly said that food was so scarce for everyone that, figuratively speaking, two soldiers could fit into one uniform.

Stutthof was set up in 1939 and would end up holding 110,000 detainees, 65,000 of whom perished, according to the Museum Stutthof.

Each court hearing will likely last for a maximum of two hours due to the defendant's advanced age — even though, prosecutor Brendel said, “mentally, he is still fit”.

The defendant was planning to make a statement during the course of the trial, his lawyer told DPA.

If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison — even though, given his age and the possibility of an appeal, he is considered unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

Brendel noted that German law has no statute of limitations on murder and pointed to the moral imperative to pursue the case.

“Germany owes it to the families and victims to prosecute these Nazi crimes even today,” he said.

“That is a legal and moral question.”

'No exceptions' 

Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving SS personnel, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

He was sentenced not for any atrocities he committed, but on the basis that he was a cog in the Nazi killing machine by serving at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.

German courts subsequently convicted Oskar Gröning, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for mass murder.

However both men, convicted at age 94, died before they could be imprisoned.

Prosecutors have also filed charges against another former SS guard at Stutthof, a 93-year-old from the city of Wuppertal. It remains to be determined if he is fit to stand trial.

Historian Peter Schöttler  highlighted “an important humanitarian and legal reason” to push on with the justice process, stressing that “the rule of law should not allow for exceptions”.

Griesbach, in her testimony, said that “I don't harbour hatred or rage in my heart”.

Rather, she said her main concern was remembrance of the crimes at a time when Holocaust deniers are being heard again, including in her country the United States.

Member comments

  1. At the age of 18 every man knows the difference between right and wrong. These old men chose evil over good and participated in atrocities. I’m guessing that they even enjoyed it. Now they are faced with the shame and they should face the penalty for their crimes before they die. I can feel no pity for them. They made a choice and now must face the consequences.

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ANTI-SEMITISM

‘We will fight for our Germany’: Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch on Wednesday called for a stronger defence of the country's "fragile" democracy and issued a searing rebuke to the far right: "We will fight for our Germany".

'We will fight for our Germany': Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right
Knobloch addressing the Bundestag on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

In an emotional speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knobloch told the Bundestag lower house of parliament that extremists and conspiracy theorists were exploiting fears around the pandemic and a diversifying society.

“We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are” since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27th, 1945.

“Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again — from schools to corona protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds.”

Knobloch, 88, a former leader of Germany's 200,000-strong Jewish community who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in Bavaria, warned that the enemies of democracy are stronger than many think”.

“I call on you: take care of our country,” she said, describing right-wing extremism as “the greatest danger for all” in Germany.

'You lost your fight'

Addressing deputies of the hard-right Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition group in parliament with nearly 100 seats, Knobloch accused many of its followers of “picking up the tradition” of the Nazis.

“I tell you: you lost your fight 76 years ago,” Knobloch said. “You will continue to fight for your Germany and we will keep fighting for our Germany.”

Knobloch fought back tears as she recounted the terror of the Nazis' rise and the deportation of her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where she starved to death in 1944.

READ ALSO: 'Fight against forgetting': Germany marks Holocaust anniversary in shadow of coronavirus

“I stand before you as a proud German, against all odds and although much still makes it unlikely. Sadness, pain, desperation and loneliness accompany me.”

The window of a new synagogue which opened in Konstanz in November 2019. Photo: DPA

But she said Germany's enduring commitment to reckon with its history made her hopeful.

“I am proud of the young people in our country. They are free of guilt for the past but they assume responsibility for today and tomorrow: interested,
passionate and courageous.”

However Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, a respected elder statesman,
warned that the German consensus around atonement for the Nazis' crimes, long
seen as part of the bedrock of the post-war order, was showing signs of vulnerability.

He told the chamber it was “devastating” to admit that “our remembrance culture does not protect us from a brazen reinterpretation or even a denial of history”.

“And it doesn't protect us from new forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” said Schaeuble, 78.

Jewish journalist and activist Marina Weisband, 33, also urged continued vigilance.

“To be Jewish in Germany is to know it happened and can happen again,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism doesn't begin when shots are fired at a synagogue,” she said, referring to an extremist attack in the eastern city of Halle in October 2019.

READ ALSO: 'It doesn't change my feeling about Germany': Jewish community fearful but defiant after Halle attack

“The Shoah did not begin with gas chambers… It is not extinct, this conviction that there are people whose dignity is worth more than others'.”

Germany has officially marked Holocaust Remembrance Day every January 27th
since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag featuring a speech by a survivor and commemorations across the country.

Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, more than one million were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most in its notorious gas chambers, along with tens of thousands of others including homosexuals, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

This year's anniversary is marked by growing concerns about extremist violence and incitement in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of her “shame” over rising anti-Semitism, as the Jewish community has warned that coronavirus conspiracy theories are being used to stir hatred.

In a speech recorded for Remembrance Day, Merkel thanked the elderly survivors “who muster the strength to tell the story of their lives”.

“Their first-hand accounts show us just how vulnerable human dignity is and
how easily the values that underpin peaceful coexistence can be violated,” she
said.

Anti-Jewish crimes have risen steadily, with 2,032 offences recorded in 2019, up 13 percent on the previous year, according to the latest official figures.

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