He was standing on a train platform after Hungarian Jews had been unloaded at the Nazi death camp. The unwitting condemned already had been sent to the gas chambers. The newly arrived slave laborers had been sent in a different direction.
Left behind on the platform was a crying infant. As the child cried, one of the now 93-year-old Oskar Groening’s fellow SS officers approached it, grabbed it by the leg, dashed its head against a nearby truck, then tossed the lifeless body into the truck.
As horrific as that story is, what might have been more shocking was Groening’s next observation.
“I don’t know what else I could have expected the guard to do with the baby,” he mused. “I suppose he could have shot it, though.”
The casual acceptance of brutality that the former Waffen SS officer displayed even 70 years after the Third Reich was destroyed provided a rare insight into the twisted nature of the Nazi death camp mindset. Even from a man who admitted in court that he carried “moral guilt” if not legal guilt for the Holocaust, there was no notion that, perhaps, the baby did not need to have been killed.
He made the same point in his testimony Thursday. “I did not expect any Jews to survive Auschwitz,” he said.
Efraim Zuroff, director and head Nazi hunter for the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Groening’s testimony, even in its cool detachment, is unique and historically important.
“In my 35 years of trying to bring Nazis to justice, I’ve not met one Nazi who expressed any regret,” he said. “Even now, his words show how deeply the attitudes that made the Holocaust possible run.”
Zuroff noted that Groening hardly deserves credit for coming forward, at 93. He said he once had hoped that nearing the ends of their lives, more old Nazis “would want to come clean before they had to meet their maker.”
That has not been the case with others. Zuroff noted that other Nazi war crimes defendants have tended to claim the wrong person was arrested or that they did not do what they were charged with doing. Groening, therefore, is different.
Still, his testimony exposes the flaws in a decades-long German policy of pursuing only Nazis who could be shown to have blood on their hands.
Groening fully admits he was enthusiastic in his backing of Hitler. He described standing with another guard as he dumped the poison Zyklon B into a panel above a mass “shower room” and how he could hear the screams diminish after that. He talked about how, upon arriving to work at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time, he was informed that a large part of the camp was devoted to “discarding” the arriving Jews deemed unfit for slave labor.
Groening knew about and watched all that happened at the death camp. He didn’t actively kill people, but as the prosecution in this case is arguing, his actions made what happened possible. In fact, prosecutors note that his collecting cash that the doomed Hungarian Jews carried when they arrived at Auschwitz, and eventually hauling boxes of it to Berlin, “made it possible for the Nazis not only to continue but to profit from mass murder.”
Previously, the attitude of the guards who staffed Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps has been inferred only from the experiences of survivors or liberators. That’s why Groening’s words fill a void, Zuroff said.
Groening is an important figure, others note, because he is German. Other recent trials have focused on Eastern Europeans. Groening was a proud product of Hitler’s Fatherland.
Michael Wolffsohn, a German historian and expert on German Jewish history, noted in an email answer to questions that Groening was “an exception to the rule. He DID admit his crimes.”
It’s difficult to see actual justice coming from the case, however, Wolffsohn said, when the defendant is 93.
“The trial as such is counterproductive,” he wrote. “A maximum sentence of six years for the murder of 300,000! It would have been better to just analyze Groening’s statement. Justice and law are not always identical.”
Still, the trial has had an impact. In a recent opinion poll, about half of all Germans said they believed it was time to “draw a line under the Holocaust” and move on. But the reaction to Groening’s testimony has overwhelmed such notions.
In particular, the German press has been highly critical that this case took decades to bring to trial. The influential Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted in an editorial that “German justice, after the court agreed to take this case, should have asked the victims and the world to be forgiven for having delayed the punishment of the Nazi killers for so long, and even until a point where punishment barely makes sense.”
The newspaper noted that one of the witnesses against Groening, Eva Moses Kor, 81, who was born in Romania, had been a 10-year-old who survived Auschwitz only because she was a twin, a class of people valued by Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experiments. During the trial, she stared at Groening and said, “Mr. Groening, I want you to come out clearly. Tell the young neo-Nazis that Auschwitz really existed and Nazi ideology has produced no winners, only losers.”
The neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers were not likely to listen, however. Ursula Haverbeck, one of Germany’s more infamous Holocaust deniers, was in court for Groening’s initial testimony. But after listening to his detailed description of what happened in the camp, she merely noted “he’s been turned.” To her, he’s now a traitor.
Thomas Wulff, a convicted German neo-Nazi, provided a similar view as he stood hoping to get in to see the trial. “This is a late, Allied revenge trial,” he said. “Groening was a victim of his time and now he’s a victim of the German justice system.”
Another newspaper, though, noted that the trial really isn’t about punishing an old man. “It’s about identifying the most severe injustice, as long as those responsible are still alive,” wrote the Stuttgarter Zeitung. “That this so far has not happened, as German justice was blind for so long, does not change the demands of justice.”
“Nazi perpetrators got away because statutes of limitations expired and the legislature failed to intervene,” added the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. “Cases were terminated, leaving historians and critical lawyers stunned. . . . Many trials of elderly offenders imploded. The reasons were profane: illness and death.”
And Pascal Durain, writing in the newspaper Mittelbayrische Zeitung, said the trial is a reminder that Germany has debts to pay, as do all former death camp workers.
“Groening owes the truth to the audience,” Durain wrote. “The court owes him a verdict. The state of law owes justice to the survivors. And Germany owes all a message that no perpetrator will get away.”