This week marks the 1st anniversary of the trial against Oskar Gröning- the ‘Bookkeeper’ of Auschwitz. So it’s a good opportunity to look back at his life and his trial.
More than 70 years have passed since the liberation of the death camps and many of those involved have now died.
So the trial of Oskar Groening was one of the last of its kind.
Mr Groening, known as the “book-keeper of Auschwitz”, was allegedly responsible for counting banknotes confiscated from prisoners.
Prosecutors in Lueneburg, northern Germany, also allege that he hid victims’ luggage away from new arrivals, to disguise the victims’ fate.
Oskar Gröning (born 10 June 1921) is a German former SS junior squad leader who was stationed at Auschwitz concentration camp.
His responsibilities included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners, and he was in charge of the personal property prisoners had arrived with.
On a few occasions he witnessed the procedures of mass-killing in the camp.
After being transferred from Auschwitz to a combat unit in October 1944, Gröning was captured by the British on 10 June 1945 when his unit surrendered. He was eventually transferred to Britain as a prisoner of war and worked as a forced labourer.
Gröning wanted to join an elite army unit and set his sights on joining the Waffen-SS.Without his father’s knowledge, he did so in 1940 at a hotel where the SS was recruiting. Gröning says his father was disappointed to learn this when he came home after having joined.
His father, a proud nationalist, joined the Stahlhelm paramilitary group after Germany’s defeat in World War One. His anger at how Germany had been treated under the Treaty of Versailles increased when his textile business went bankrupt in 1929.
Gröning describes himself as a “desk person” and was content with his role in SS salary administration, which granted him both the administrative and military aspects he wanted from a career.
Gröning worked as a bookkeeper for a year until 1942, when the SS ordered that desk jobs would be reserved for injured veterans, and that fit members in administrative roles were to be subjected to more challenging duties.Gröning and about 22 of his colleagues travelled to Berlin where they reported to one of the SS economic offices.:They were then given a lecture by several high-ranking officers who reminded them of the oath of loyalty they took, which they could prove by doing a difficult task.The task was top secret – Gröning and his comrades had to sign a declaration that they would not disclose it to family or friends, or people not in their unit. Once this had concluded, they were split into smaller groups and taken to various Berlin stations where they boarded a train in the direction of Katowice with orders to report to the commandant of Auschwitz, a place Gröning had not heard of before.
Upon arrival at the main camp, they were given provisional bunks in the SS barracks, warmly greeted by fellow SS men and provided with food.Gröning was surprised at the myriad food items available in addition to basic SS rations. The new arrivals were curious about what function Auschwitz served. They were told that they should find out for themselves because Auschwitz was a special kind of concentration camp. Immediately someone opened the door and shouted “Transport!”, causing three or four people to leave the room.
The next day, Gröning and the other arrivals reported to the central SS administrative building and were asked about their background before the war.One of the officers said Gröning’s bank clerk skills would be useful, and took him to barracks where the prisoners’ money was kept.Gröning was told that when prisoners were registered into the camp, their money was stored here and later returned to them when they left.
It became clear that Auschwitz was not a normal internment camp with above average SS rations, but that it served an additional function. Gröning was informed that money taken from interned Jews was not actually returned to them. When he inquired further, his colleagues confirmed that the Jews were being systematically exterminated and that this had included the transport of prisoners who had arrived the previous night.
Gröning’s responsibilities included sorting and counting the multitude of currencies taken from arriving deportees, sending it to Berlin, and guarding the belongings of arrivals until they were sorted He said he was astonished to learn of the extermination process,but later accepted his part in it, stating that his work became “routine” after several months.
His bureaucratic job did not shield him completely from physical acts of the extermination process: as early as his first day, Gröning saw children hidden on the train and people unable to walk that had remained among the rubbish and debris after the selection process had been completed, being shot Gröning also heard:
…a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby’s head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.
After witnessing this, Gröning claims he went to his boss and told him that he could not work at Auschwitz any more, stating that if the extermination of the Jews is necessary, “then at least it should be done within a certain framework”.Gröning claims that his superior officer denied this request, forcing him to continue his work.
One night towards the end of 1942, Gröning and his comrades in their SS barracks on the outskirts of Birkenau were awakened by an alarm.They were told that a number of Jews who were being taken to the gas chambers had escaped and hidden in the woods. They were ordered to take pistols and search the woods.When his group arrived at the extermination area of the camp they saw a farmhouse, in front of which were SS men and the bodies of seven or eight prisoners who had been caught and shot. The SS men told Gröning and his comrades that they could go home but they decided to hang around in the shadows of the woods.
They watched as an SS man put on a gas mask and emptied a tin of Zyklon B into a hatch in the cottage wall.
Gröning said the humming noise from inside “turned to screaming” for a minute, then to silence.A comrade later showed him the bodies being burnt in a pit. A Kapo there told him details of the burning, such as how gases developed in the body and made the burning corpses move.
Gröning claims that this disrupted the relative tranquility his job gave him and he claims he yet again complained to his superior.His boss, an SS-Untersturmführer, listened but reminded him of the pledge that he and his comrades made. Gröning thus returned to work. He has declared that he manipulated his life at Auschwitz so as to avoid witnessing the camp’s most unpalatable aspects.
Gröning’s application to transfer to a unit on the front-line was successful, and in 1944 he joined an SS unit fighting in the Ardennes.He was wounded and sent to a field hospital before rejoining his unit, which eventually surrendered to the British on 10 June 1945, on his birthday
He realised that declaring “involvement in the concentration camp of Auschwitz would have a negative response”, and so tried not to draw attention to it, putting on the form given to him by the British that he worked for the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Main Economic and Administrative Office)instead.
He did this because “the victor’s always right”, and that things happened at Auschwitz which “did not always comply with human rights”.
Gröning and the rest of his SS colleagues were imprisoned in an old Nazi concentration camp.He was later sent to Britain as a forced labourer in 1946 where he had a “very comfortable life”. He ate good food and earned money, and travelled through the Midlands and Scotland giving concerts for four months, singing German hymns and traditional English folk songs to appreciative British audiences.
Gröning was released and returned to Germany in 1947 or 1948.
But when the war was over – and he was released from a British prison – he did not speak of his role at Auschwitz. Upon return to Germany, Gröning lived with his father-in-law.[At the dinner table, they once made “a silly remark about Auschwitz”, implying that he was a “potential or real murderer,” which Gröning said enraged him, banging his fist on the table, demanding: “This word and this connection are never, ever, to be mentioned again in my presence, otherwise I’ll move out!”Gröning said that this request was respected.
Instead he began a normal, middle-class life in Lueneburg Heath in Lower Saxony, where he worked at a glass-making factory until retirement.
It was not until he heard people denying the Holocaust had ever happened, decades later, that he suddenly felt the need to speak up.
“I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria,” he told the BBC in the 2005 documentary Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution”
“I was on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place.”
He spoke of witnessing an SS soldier murdering a baby, and how the treatment of the prisoners had “horrified” him.
But he said that at the time he believed that killing Jews – including children – was the “right” thing to do.
“We were convinced by our world view that we had been betrayed… and that there was a great conspiracy of the Jews against us.”
However, Mr Groening says he did not take part directly in the killing, and described his role as “a small cog in the gears”.
“If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent,” he told Der Spiegel in 2005.
In the book accompanying the BBC documentary, historian Laurence Rees describes the experience of listening to Mr Groening speak about his time at Auschwitz as a “strange experience”.
He says Mr Groening “shields himself” from taking full responsibility, by referring to the power of family beliefs and propaganda, but that he does not claim to have purely been following orders.
“He carried on working at Auschwitz not just because he was ordered to but because… he thought the extermination programme was right.
“It’s just that that ‘right’ then turns out not to be ‘right today.”
In September 2014, it was reported that Gröning had been charged by state prosecutors with having been an accessory to murder for his role at Auschwitz receiving and processing prisoners and their personal belongings. The indictment stated that Gröning economically advanced Nazi Germany and aided the systematic killing of 300,000 of the 425,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz by 137 railway transports during the summer of 1944.
The trial commenced on 20 April 2015 at Lüneburg Regional Court (Landgericht). In an opening statement, Gröning asked for forgiveness for his mainly clerical role at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, by saying: “For me there’s no question that I share moral guilt,” the 93-year-old told the judges, acknowledging that he knew about the gassing of Jews and other prisoners. “I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide”.
During the trial several of the 60 ‘co-claimants gave evidence.Eva Mozes Kor who was 10 years old when she arrived at Auschwitz, testified that she and her twin sister were used for the cruel medical experiments conducted by Josef Mengele
and that she had lost her parents and older sisters in Auschwitz. Kor conversed with and embraced the defendant after giving evidence,while other holocaust survivors in the courtroom protested against this gesture.Another witness, Max Eisen who was 15 years old at the time of entry into Auschwitz, described the brutality of the extermination part of the camp, including extracting gold teeth from dead victims. On 12 May 2015, Susan Pollack, an 84-year-old Briton, gave evidence how she was taken from Hungary to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; describing the living conditions encountered at Auschwitz, she said: “I was in a barrack with about 800 other girls … we were losing weight, we weren’t able to use our minds anymore”. On the same day, Ivor Perl, an 83-year-old Briton who was born in Hungary into a religious Jewish family, also gave evidence;Perl testified that he was 12 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz and that he and his brother lost his parents and seven siblings in the Holocaust In July, Irene Weiss, an 84-year-old survivor from the United States, testified that her family was torn apart on arrival at Auschwitz in May 1944, during the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews and that she had lost both her parents, four siblings and 13 cousins at Auschwitz.
On 15 July 2015 he was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 JewsReacting to the sentence, Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor said that she was “disappointed” adding: “They are trying to teach a lesson that if you commit such a crime, you will be punished. But I do not think the court has acted properly in sentencing him to four years in jail. It is too late for that kind of sentence… My preference would have been to sentence him to community service by speaking out against neo-Nazis. I would like the court to prove to me, a survivor, how four years in jail will benefit anybody.”
Although I do believe Oskar Gröning was guilty albeit by association and complicity, I do think Eva Mozes Kor makes a valid point. It would have been more beneficial to have sentenced him to community service by speaking out against neo -Nazis and go to schools and talk about his time and the crimes he was complicit in, in Auschwitz
What a wonderful woman she is though, I hope she will be an example to all of us.