(photo credit: REUTERS)
A 94-year-old German man who worked as a bookkeeper at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on Wednesday of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and sentenced to four years in prison, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials.
Oskar Groening did not kill anyone himself while working at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but prosecutors argued that by sorting the bank notes from trainloads of Jews arrivals, he helped support the regime responsible for mass murder.
Jewish organizations both in Israel and abroad were quick to praise Groening’s conviction, which resulted in a four year jail sentence.
“Albeit belatedly, justice has been done,” Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a statement Wednesday. “Mr. Groening was but a small cog in the Nazi death machine, but without the actions of people like him, the mass murder of millions of Jews and others would not have been possible. It was the right decision to put him on trial despite his old age, and it was right that he was handed a jail sentence. He may have to spend his final years in confinement, but that is a small punishment for the unspeakable crimes in which he was complicit.”
Lauder said he believed that there should be no impunity or closure for those guilty of perpetrating the Holocaust, irrespective of their advanced age.
The trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews, were guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system was no.
During his time at Auschwitz, Groening’s job was to collect the belongings of the deportees after they arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
“The conviction of Oskar Groening for his actions sends an unequivocal message that, although he may not have led or directly participated in the atrocities at Auschwitz, he was clearly an accessory to the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis,” the UK’s Holocaust Educational Trust said in a statement Wednesday, asserting that his actions directly facilitated the murder of 300,000 Jews.
Several Jewish organizations emphasized the educational value of the conviction as well.
“The world has to understand that it is not an excuse to have worked on the economic system” of the camps, Holocaust educator Rabbi Avraham Krieger told The Jerusalem Post. “He knew that he was part of a whole machinery of killing. Just because didn’t hold a gun or pour gas into the gas chamber it doesn’t change the picture.”
Dr. Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, agreed, saying that the trial provided an opportunity to “educate a generation that is all too distant from the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi-hunter, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, told the press that he hoped that the conviction would pave the way for even more prosecutions of people who served in the death camps.
“It is abundantly clear that the window of opportunity to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice will soon be closed, which makes the expedition of these cases of exceptional urgency,” Zuroff said, calling on the German government to free up all necessary resources to fast track such cases.
In past years, prosecutors in Frankfurt decided not to pursue the case against Groening and other concentration camp workers, saying there was no causal link between their actions and the killings that occurred around them.
Prosecutors in Hanover disagreed, emboldened by the case of John Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder despite there being no evidence of his having committed a specific crime while a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, also in Poland. Demjanjuk died in a German care home in 2012.
Speaking to the Post last year regarding the case of concentration camp guard and Waffen SS trooper Johann Breyer, Zuroff said that he would not previously have been interested in going after Breyer, as “evidence of a specific crime against a specific victim” was required. Evidence of service in a camp was deemed insufficient. However, after the successful 2011 conviction of Sobibor guard Demjanjuk, the evidentiary bar was lowered.
“For almost 60 years, any person the prosecutors wanted to prosecute, they had to prove that the person had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, and in many cases that was quite hard to do, and many people in a sense got off the hook because of this requirement,” Zuroff explained at the time.