Oskar Groening, currently standing trial in Lunenburg, Germany, may not be the last Nazi prosecuted for war crimes committed during the Holocaust. In fact, if lawyers are able to argue convincingly that the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was an accessory to 300,000 murders at Auschwitz, they will endorse a template by which dozens more could be tried for their roles in the Nazi death machine.
Whatever the decision, one thing is certain: we are nearing the end of the era of Nazi hunting. At 93, Groening is healthy and aware. By all appearances, he is fit to be tried, even at this later stage in life.
But he is the exception. As the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, put it last week, “It would very much surprise me if Oskar Groening… is not cursing his good health and bad luck. For if he had lived to a slightly younger age, or had been in bad health, it is almost certain that he never would have been prosecuted in a German court for his complicity in the crimes committed at the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.”
For every elderly Nazi who may yet be brought before the courts, many more will die without being held to account. Soon, there won’t be anyone left to prosecute. That’s reason enough to pay close attention to the Groening trial, but even if there were hundreds more cases like it on the slate, this particular one would stand out. Groening has proven himself an unusual defendant right from the start.
Unlike many Nazi war criminals prosecuted before him, he has not tried to deny his role at Auschwitz. Quite the opposite – he has affirmed that he played a part in the Nazi extermination effort and that he is morally complicit in the diabolical operation at Auschwitz. “This moral guilt,” Groening told the courtroom during testimony, “I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility.”
That apology hardly suffices as penance, especially since Groening maintains he is not legally guilty. But it is nonetheless distinct in the history of Nazi trials, and Groening appears to be sincere. On the fifth day of the trial, Groening even embraced one of the survivors who testified against him, and kissed her on the cheek. He has also spoken out against Holocaust deniers for years, issuing a powerful message to those who shamelessly claim the Nazi genocide is a myth: “I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria,” he has said. “I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened. I was there.”
It’s tempting to think maybe we should make an exception in the case of Oskar Groening, just this one time, and allow a man who obviously regrets his past to live out his remaining years in peace. But that misses the point. Oskar Groening’s job was to sort through the confiscated property of prisoners brought in cattle cars to Auschwitz. He witnessed Jews and others being gassed to death. In his own way, he helped make that happen.
He was there, and nothing can change that. — YONI