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Doc examines the trial of Oskar Groening

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Oskar Groening at his trial.

Is it OK to prosecute people for crimes against humanity, even if they weren’t directly involved in the actual killings? This is one of the questions asked in a new documentary, The Accountant of Auschwitz, which opens on June 8.

Directed by Toronto filmmaker Matthew Shoychet and recently screened at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, The Accountant of Auschwitz focuses on the high-profile trial of former SS officer Oskar Groening in Germany, and the importance of continuing to prosecute the remaining Nazi war criminals.

For decades after the Second World War, Germans grew indifferent to the Nuremberg trials and other subsequent war criminal prosecutions. There seemed to be little enthusiasm or political will for them. It was difficult for Germans to accept the idea of large-scale prosecutions, when so many of their friends and relatives were linked to the Holocaust in some form or another.

In the 1950s and ’60s, many convicted Nazis had their sentences reduced, and many others were acquitted. Of 22 defendants at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1965, for instance, 16 were released within three years. One example, which was outlined in the documentary,  is Hans Stark, who poured the poison Zyklon B into the gas chambers and was released after three years.

By the ’60s, the German justice system (which comprised many former Nazis) made it so prosecutors had to prove that the accused committed a specific atrocity against a specific person. Thus, it became impossible to prosecute guards and other support staff who worked at the camps.

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This all changed with the 2009 Demjanjuk trial in Germany. After being convicted some 15 years earlier in Jerusalem, but then acquitted after new records came to light showing that  he wasn’t Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible, Ivan Demjanuk went back to the Untied States, where he worked at an automobile factory. The U.

S. Justice Department continued investigating him and discovered that he had worked during the war as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland. With prosecutor Thomas Walther’s help, Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany, put on trial and, at age 91, was found guilty of accessory to murder.

What was crucial here was that the court ruled that just serving as a guard at a death camp made him complicit, regardless of how minuscule his role was. This set a precedent in Germany and prosecutors started to look for more guards, more “cogs in the wheel,” as Toronto’s Bill Glied, a survivor and co-plaintiff in the Groening trial, would call them.

The Demjanjuk trial was one of two issues that would come to haunt Groening. The other was a 2005 interview he gave to the BBC, in which he exposed his own role in the Holocaust. Prior to that, Groening was a virtual unknown, living out his life peacefully in a small German town. During the war, his role at Auschwitz was primarily sifting through the luggage of new arrivals at the death camp and collecting their valuables.

He explained this and the mechanics of the Holocaust in amazing detail in the interview, which he gave primarily because he had come across someone who denied that the Holocaust happened.

“I see it as my duty now,” he says in the interview, “to face up to the things I witnessed and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened.… I was there.”

The German prosecutors, including Walther, were able to tie him to the Hungarian deportations of 1944. By proving that he stood on the ramp at Auschwitz during their selection process, even for just one day, they argued successfully that he was complicit in the Holocaust.

The unique thing about this trial is that it was one of the few in which the accused not only admitted his role, but actually described what happened. As Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz says in the film, “He deserves some credit for testifying to the truth of what he saw.”

Although he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, Groening, who was 93 when the trial started, died before spending a day behind bars.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is one of the best Holocaust documentaries in decades and raises other important issues, like whether it’s fair to try someone 70 years after he committed a crime. It also raises questions about whether Groening’s trial was merely a way for Germany’s justice department to rectify its past failures. It opens June 8 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. n