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April 21, 2015 5:20 pm

‘Accountant of Auschwitz’ Trial Spectacle Sends Message to Future Generations

avatar by Richard Ferrer

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The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. A SS guard from the camp is going on trial at the age of 93. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, in the German town of Lueneburg, a 93-year-old man went on trial accused of being an accessory to 300,000 murders.

Whether you welcome the unedifying sight of Oskar Groening, a man not long for this world, being hauled before a judge, depends on whether you see him as a frail old man bent over a walking stick in 2015 or a 21-year-old petty thief in 1944 when he stood on the unloading ramps of the most infamous Nazi death camp, plundering valuables from Hungarian Jews – a morbid mission that earned him the moniker, ‘The Accountant of Auschwitz.’

Between 16 May and 11 July that year, when the Nazi Holocaust reached its frenzied height, some 137 trains carrying 425,000 Jews pulled into the platform of death to be greeted by this grim reaper.

Groening’s deeds are not in doubt. He has spoken openly about Auschwitz. By his own admission he was an enthusiastic Nazi, but one without blood on his hands. At least not directly.

He told the court this week: “I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.” Groening recalled the arrival of Jewish prisoners and witnessing an SS soldier throw a baby against a truck, “and his crying stopped.”

Since the 2011 prosecution of Ivan Demjanjuk –  dubbed ‘Ivan The Terrible’ for his involvement in the death of 29,000 Jews in Sobibor – Germany’s legal focus has moved away from prosecuting the hundreds of high-level perpetrators towards the tens of thousands who enabled the slaughter.

Now anyone who acquiesced to evil can be charged as an accessory to murder.

Groening’s trial, the first test of this new legal goalpost, has sparked a fresh wave of investigations into second-degree suspects, among them eight former Majdanek guards who may also face trial.

Rather than prosecutors proving his involvement in specific deaths, Goening’s fate hinges on claims that his actions “supported the Nazis systematic killing campaign.” He faces a sentence of 15 years in prison.

Some 1.1 million people were murdered at Groening’s place of work, almost all of them Jews. Of 8,000 men and 200 women believed to have been his colleagues, fewer than 1,200 faced trial.

However wretched this minute number seems, it still represents a far higher proportion than any other camp. Thousands – if not tens of thousands – simply got away with aiding and abetting slaughter.

Within this new legal framework, justice now seems more about delivering a spectacle than a conviction; about creating an eleventh-hour opportunity to reflect on mankind’s darkest hour.

If any good can come from playing out the last days of this man’s long life in the public eye, it’s that lessons from history might still be learned.

Seventy years on, as the final Nazis and survivors pass on, proving one wretched man’s guilt – whatever guilt now means – seems secondary to sending an unequivocal message to future generations.

And maybe, after 70 years, that is justice of sorts.

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  • ms Bo Salsberg

    If this type of revenge is pursued, we are all morally guilty of perpetuating hatred. The time for punishment is long time gone. The standards for crimes of this horrible nature have changed so much since that dark time in our lives. By today’s legal standards, there is no humane reason to pursue this. We will not forget, nor will he. He was living in a country that allowed this to happen. The choices for him were clear then. Did he enjoy his role as an SS officer/Guard… what matter? Did he choose to be placed in that position… Even if he protested, where would he go… where would he hide. Let the man die before he feels the blood of our hand on his soul.

  • Mr Goenings conscience must be bothering him and he feels the need to make peace with his G-d and take the wrap for his association with Nazi camps before he dies. I suspect Israel will forgive but not ever forget.

    • bea green JP BA

      Why on earth would you want to forgive? Isn’t that permission to do it again?

      Do you not have the strength to stand up for decency?

  • How about the Nazi murderers who went to America in operation Paper Clip.

  • Julian Clovelley

    Just a suggestion. Maybe it is time the end this kind of prosecution. Someone aged 18 in 1945 would now be 88 – so there is looming a question of whether in 1945 such persons weren’t below the age of full criminal responsibility

    An eighteen year old in 1945 would have been barraged with Nazi Government propaganda since the age of six – and educated within that worldview, with no contrary view being expressed by those he might see as the guardians of morality – the Roman Catholic Church. Both Catholicism and Protestantism effectively caved in to Nazi demands. Nazism controlled the perception of Good and Evil

    I think what might serve is for an accused person to make a formal declaration before a Court of his or her involvement, without penalty being applied. This would obviate the need for Court process unless the defendant opted to have his guilt or innocence tested in Court

    I don’t think that this would be tantamount to letting the person off – It would just be a stage towards recognising – as one soon must – that there can be no more trials of defendants now largely entering their dotage, and who were, at the time of the crimes, below the age of full criminal responsibility

    • Crazycatkid

      You must be kidding. Try them as adults for their very, very adult actions. In this case looting terrified and condemned innocent civilians of their personal posessions, their very humanity, and then their lives. Sheesh! Throwing babies against the wall! If that didn’t “jog” his conscience into a more humane and unselfish state, then he, at any age, is guilty.
      If we allow 18 year olds…or 16year olds to conspire in the mass murder of babies, mothers and innocent people and then we excuse them of such behavior, what have we become?
      Monsters, like they are. Just monsters.

  • Mickey Oberman


    “By his own admission he was an enthusiastic Nazi, but one without blood on his hands.”

    Six million killed but one can never find a German who killed anyone.

    Mickey Oberman

  • There is no time limit on murder. That is what has been done. I have seen dachau and bergen belson. There is no time limit on that kind of inhumanity. I know the people that did not get found will still have their day in court. If not on earth then when they get to hell.

  • I am working on a new book regarding Holocaust survivors children and grandchildren (2G,3G, second and third generation …

    Send the info to,

    Please send material including: poems,art work, essays, belief in G-d, philosophy regarding the Shoah, Yiddish expressions,language you spoke as a child,characteristics you learned from your parents, did your parents speak about the Shoah, what profession were your parents, what profession did you enter.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg