A retired German judge turned Nazi hunter is enlisting help from Canadian Jews to prosecute a former Auschwitz guard.
Thomas Walther, who retired from the bench in Bavaria several years ago and has since been pursuing Nazi war criminals in Germany, does not necessarily seek eyewitness testimony of atrocities. Rather, he is turning to Canada to find “co-plaintiffs” – close relatives of Holocaust victims whose testimony can assist the prosecution.
Walther, a former prosecutor, is limiting his search to next-of-kin of Hungarians who were deported to Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944.
In just 10 weeks from May to July of that year, 437,000 Jews from Hungary and Transylvania were packed onto dozens of trains and shipped to the death camp, where most were murdered. Some historians have called it the Holocaust’s most concentrated slaughter.
Walther is seeking testimony in the case against Oskar Groening, now 92, who was an S.S. sergeant at Auschwitz from 1942 to October, 1944 and was responsible for guarding the cash and possessions of new arrivals as they stepped off the trains.
Groening was never punished after the war and has claimed innocence. In 1948, a tribunal cleared him of war crimes. Since then, he has lived a peaceful life in Lower Saxony and worked as a manager of a glass factory.
Earlier this year, prosecutors in Hanover, Germany closed their preliminary investigation into Groening and judged him fit to stand trial. He is charged with aiding and abetting murder in the so-called “Hungarian Action.”
“He was responsible for all the money the Jews brought inside luggage and inside their clothes hidden in secret places,” Walther told The CJN in an e-mail interview from Germany.
Groening, who would have overseen the arrival of between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews a day, “was one small cog in the killing machine,” said Walther. “But all these ‘small cogs’ had to work together in this factory of death.”
He explained that under German criminal law, a co-plaintiff can be a close family member of a murder victim, such as a child, sibling or half-sibling. In the case of Groening, the co-plaintiff would not have to appear in a German court but would have his or her testimony recorded in Canada by Walther and a colleague, who would then submit it as evidence.
Walther agreed a loved one’s testimony is comparable to a victim impact statement used in Canadian courts. A relative can speak about his or her family before the war and “all details which are important for him, whenever he thinks about his loved ones and his family [from] that time.”
Their testimony “will make obvious and visible that the transports during the Hungarian Action [were] not only simple figures and numbers… [victims were] humans who were brutally gassed and murdered within few days in 1944,” Walther said.
A lengthy 2005 profile in the German magazine Der Spiegel referred to Groening as “the bookkeeper from Auschwitz.”
“He counted the money of dead Jews and stood guard as incoming freight trains unloaded their wretched human cargo,” it added. “He says he didn’t commit any crimes.”
Walther, 71, who works pro bono on Nazi files, said he has found about a dozen co-plaintiffs in the United States but so far, none in Canada. In 2012, he and a colleague travelled to Israel to find co-plaintiffs in the prosecution of two Ukrainian guards at the Belzec death camp.
Walther said the evidence against Groening includes the so-called Kassa transport list – a detailed tally of the dates, places of origin and number of passengers on trains that left Hungary in the spring of 1944 to Auschwitz and passed through the Slovakian town of Kosice (Kassa in Hungarian), where Hungarian gendarmes handed the passengers over to the Nazis. There were 147 of these trains, each with an average 3,000 Jews aboard.
Walther noted that Jews from other countries arrived at Auschwitz on Groening’s watch, notably survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, which was liquidated in August, 1944.
Instead of retiring as a judge in 2006, Walther took a job at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg, Germany. He has a personal connection to these cases.
His father, Rudolf, who ran a construction firm in Erfurt, a city in central Germany, hid two Jewish families during the Kristallnacht riots in 1938 and later helped them get out of Germany.
Walther has been widely credited with changing German legal thinking in the conviction of low-level cogs in the Nazi death machine. As in the case of Groening, he has compared the death camps to a factory and argued that anyone who worked there bears responsibility for the “product” – in this case, mass murder. It was no longer necessary to prove specific acts of killing.
The argument was seen as a boon in the case of John Demjanjuk, the notorious “Ivan the Terrible,” who was sentenced to death by a court in Israel in 1988. The verdict was later overturned.
But in 2011, a German court convicted Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Dutch Jews at Sobibor and sentenced him to five years in prison. He was released pending an appeal and was moved to a nursing home, where he died the following year at the age of 91.
There were no witnesses and scant evidence about what Demjanjuk’s role was at Sobibor, but the German court was satisfied that his mere presence at the camp made him part of the murder machine.
“It is really not a new theory or a complete new way of thinking,” Walther explained. “It is much easier. If you realize the ‘death machine’ as a machine, then all little parts of the machine…work. Otherwise the machine does not work. So finally, the thinking changed.”
A Canadian parallel to co-plaintiff is “co-complainant,” explained Rafael Wugalter, a Montreal translator and McGill University law school graduate who is assisting Walther in this case.
The testimony of a loved one – and Walther is not dismissing eyewitness evidence from the survivors of the Hungarian Action themselves – ”humanizes the events,” said Wugalter. “It reminds everyone, including the judges, that we’re not talking about statistics here.”
Walther plans to distribute a questionnaire to willing participants to determine whether their evidence is valuable, Wugalter said
As for Groening, the Der Spiegel interview painted a picture of a haunted man who has never quite recovered from his experiences at Auschwitz.
“Every night and every day I remember it for the nightmare it was,” he was quoted as saying. “Down the years, I have heard the cries of the dead in my dreams and in every waking moment. I will never be free of them.”
Walther said Groening’s trial won’t start until later this year or early next year.
“He is healthy now,” Walther noted. “But we do not have too much time.”
Contact Walther at [email protected] or Wugalter at 438-934-6550.