Former SS officer in Nazi Germany, Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, has died aged 96.
Groening was convicted in 2015 as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
He was only the third person to be convicted as an accessory to Nazi murders, and was due to serve a four-year prison sentence for the horrors he helped to inflict.
He died last Friday, before he ever saw the inside of a jail cell.
Oskar Gröning, a corporal in Hitler’s Waffen SS who became known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz and was one of the very last Germans to face war-crime charges arising from the Holocaust, dies at 96 https://t.co/zbWxjjNG7a
— NYT Obituaries (@NYTObits) March 12, 2018
Groening grew up friends with the daughter of an Jewish Ironmonger who lived nearby. He and Anne Selig used to play marbles on the street, he told the magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, The New York Times reports.
But when German soldiers vandalised Anne’s father’s store and erected a sign outside saying, “Germans do not buy from Jews”, Groening didn’t see it as an injustice.
Raised as a member of Hitler’s Youth, the soon-to-be Nazi saw nothing wrong with hating Jews. So much so that he and his friends would sing about “shedding Jewish blood” to “make things good again”.
“Back then,” he told Der Spiegel. “We didn’t even think about what we were singing.”
At the age of 21, Groening, who had been employed as a bank clerk before the war, volunteered to join the elite Waffen-SS before transferring in 1942 to work at Auschwitz, AAP reports.
His job was to count the money he found among the belongings of prisoners, and to send it to SS headquarters in Berlin.
At least 1.1 million people were killed in the camps at Auschwitz, CNN reports. Those sent to the gas chambers and tortured by the guards were mostly Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but also Poles, homosexuals, disabled people and other minorities.
“I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria,” Groening told the BBC in 2005, AAP reports. Groening said he never directly took part in the killings, rather he was “a small cog in the gears”.
But even “small cogs” saw great benefits in supporting the Holocaust machine at the deadly concentration camps. Groening and his peers enjoyed tinned sardines, bacon, vodka and rum – luxuries denied to most civilians and that were world’s away from what was offered to the camp’s prisoners.
“We arrived in Auschwitz, and there were all these things that we had not seen for a long time,” he said at his trial, The New York Times reports.
He never denied his Nazi past and accepted “moral responsibility” for the Holocaust on the first day of his trial, AAP reports.
Yet he still appealed for clemency on grounds of old age in a bid to avoid jail. These appeals were unsuccessful.
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For decades after the war, German courts argued that the top Nazi leadership was principally to blame for the mass murder of Jews. It was thought lower-ranking individuals – like Groening – were bound by a chain of command and, therefore, less culpable.
That approach changed radically after the 2011 conviction of former camp guard John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty as an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews.
“Their victims never had any appeals, nor did their tormentors have any mercy, consequently these perpetrators don’t deserve either,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organisation that has worked to track down the world’s remaining Nazis, AAP reports.
During Groening’s four-month trial in 2015, the court heard harrowing evidence from camp survivors and from Groening, who at one point recounted how an SS soldier had smashed a crying baby’s head against a truck.
In a written statement to the court, Groening said he could not ask Holocaust survivors for their forgiveness because he was not entitled to it, considering the scale of their suffering.
“I can only ask God for forgiveness,” wrote Groening.
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