The trial of German former SS officer Oskar Groening, dubbed the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, heard horrific descriptions Wednesday of the Nazi death camp, from prisoners’ arrivals to grisly “medical” experiments.
“Everything happened in an orderly fashion,” the 93-year-old former Nazi calmly told the judges on the second day of the hearing, expected to be among the last of its kind given the advanced age of most Nazi war crimes suspects.
Groening, who is on trial for 300,000 counts of “accessory to murder” in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944, was pressed on how the camp was organised.
The court in the northern city of Lueneburg near Hamburg probed his alleged complicity in the deaths after the opening day Tuesday heard how he had volunteered for the SS four years earlier.
Groening, who begged “forgiveness” for his “moral guilt” but contests legal culpability, described three occasions of “ramp duty” at the spot where deportees arrived by rail at the extermination and forced labour camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
He was stationed at Birkenau, known as Auschwitz II, about three kilometres (two miles) from the main camp, which had three rail tracks leading up to it, meaning it could host three arriving convoys at the same time.
“It was a bit turbulent because the area was not very big,” the elderly defendant told a hushed courtroom.
– ‘They all walked’ –
Prosecutors said Groening served as a bookkeeper, who sorted and counted the money taken from those killed, collecting cash in different currencies from across Europe to fill the coffers in Berlin.
They also say that, during “ramp duty”, he guarded luggage stolen from deportees on their arrival.
Groening, who faces up to 15 years in jail, painted a picture of a well-managed triage at Birkenau, which was “very orderly and not as strenuous as it was on the ramp at Auschwitz-I”.
Jewish deportees arrived in cattle wagons filled with up to 85 people.
Two doctors would inspect them “visually” to determine “who was fit for work and who was unfit for work”, he said.
“The only difference with Auschwitz I is that there were no trucks to transport. They all walked,” Groening said, adding that further on were gas chambers and crematoria.
At this point his voice choked up slightly and, facing a silent courtroom and 67 Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives, who are co-plaintiffs, he stooped slightly to take a break.
He was asked about the reaction of new arrivals. “They had no idea what was going on,” he replied.
But as Nazi operations in Hungary progressed, “it changed, depending on what city they came from”.
“Some suspected something and the others didn’t suspect anything,” he said.
– ‘She’s so young’ –
The court then heard from Eva Kor, a US-based survivor, who told of her experiences at the hands of the camp’s infamous doctor Josef Mengele, who had a fascination for twins.
Within just 40 minutes, she said she saw her parents and two of her sisters, aged 12 and 14, disappear from sight on the ramp at Birkenau.
She and her twin sister, Miriam, were 10 years old and managed to survive the regular mystery injections from the so-called “Angel of Death”.
Kor, a small energetic 81 year old wrapped in a blue jacket, remembered how, suffering a high fever, she saw Mengele at her bedside, then “laugh sarcastically”.
“Too bad, she’s so young. She has only two weeks to live,” she recalled him saying.
Crawling on the floor because she was unable to walk, Kor said she went on to find her sister who had been injected with a substance to freeze the growth of her kidneys.
“If I had died, Miriam would have been killed with an injection in the heart. Mengele would have performed comparative autopsy,” she said.
On January 27, 1945, the two watched as Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz.
“They had smiles on their faces. They gave us chocolate, cookies and hugs. That was our first taste of freedom,” Kor said.
Later, in October, when they returned to their home in Hungary, they discovered they were the only ones to have come back.
“There were only three pictures on the dusty floor, that was all that was left of my family.”