Auschwitz concentration camp bookkeeper, Oskar Groening, faces trial for his role in the murder of 300,000 men, women, and children. This case comes under unusual circumstances, mainly because at age 93, he is one of the few Nazis complicit of war crimes who is still alive today, and unlike many of his cohorts, has spoken openly about his role in the camps, which he says is to debunk the claims of Holocaust deniers claiming the atrocity to be a myth.
Groening was 21 when he was assigned to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, where between then and 1945, nearly 1.5 million people, 90 percent who were Jews, were murdered through gassing, burning, hanging, shooting, or put through sadistic medical experiments. Nearly a third of the people murdered at Auschwitz, and Birkenau, its sister camp containing the death factories, were children. Groening witnessed these atrocious crimes, but described himself as a “small cog in the wheel,” as he was not directly involved in the selection of who would be liquidated. His primary role was to go through the luggage left behind by the victims, collecting money and valuables, which was then sent to Nazi headquarters in order to fund Germany’s war campaign. However, many consider his role as ‘death’s bookkeeper,’ enough to make him an accessory to the murder of the 1.5 million victims.
Adding to the drama of the trial is witness and Holocaust survivor from New York, Hedy Bohm, age 86. Bohm was a teenager living in Hungary, when she along with over 425,000 other Jews were deported to the Auschwitz in 1944, less than a year before the concentration and death camp was liberated by the Soviet army. In her testimony, she recounted her experience of arriving at the camp and the trauma that followed.
The torturous journey began in the Nazi established ghettos, where Jews were rounded up and forced to march to an unknown destination. Children were herded into wagons, while adults were forced to walk or run at gunpoint to the train tracks where cattle cars awaited them. There they were crammed onto the wooden cars, locked in and forced to stand while traveling for several days at a time. After arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau entrance, the ones who did not die from asphyxiation on the way, were thrown off the trains and forced to leave their luggage and belongings behind, which were collected and inspected by people like Groening.
Of the 425,000 Jews who were transported via 137 trains to the death camps, 300,000 were sent immediately to their deaths. Bohm recalled walking with her mother and the Nazi officer with the baton ordering her mother to go to the left, while she was sent to the right. She cried after her mom, who turned to glance at her before she continued on her way to the horrific death that awaited her. They never saw each other again.
The case of Groening, who is now facing trial, and role as bookkeeper in the Auschwitz concentration camp, first came up during the 1980’s, however, the courts decided not to prosecute anyone who was not directly involved in the killings. The case came up again two years ago, but was also declined. However, many others in the prosecution disagreed with that decision, citing the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was ruled as being complicit to Nazi murder crimes in the Sobibor death camp, despite the lack of evidence showing that he was directly involved in the murders themselves.
Thomas Walther, the German judge who built this case, leading to the trial faced by the bookkeeper of the Auschwitz concentration camp, is now retired. He believes that being just a “cog in the wheel,” is not sufficient enough reason for a criminal to declare himself innocent, and believes that many more, who were let off easy, should have been prosecuted. Bohm, herself, says she wants to see Groening declared guilty, but rather than having him sent to jail at his age 93, feels that he must accept responsibility over his complicity, rather than just claim he was a “cog in the machine.”
By Bill Ades