A 94-year-old former SS guard went on trial Thursday for complicity in the murders of 170,000 people at Auschwitz, with the hearing opening with a survivor’s harrowing testimony.
More than seven decades after the end of World War II, Reinhold Hanning appeared in court in the western town of Detmold to face charges over his role at the notorious death camp in occupied Poland.
The trial is the first of three scheduled this year against former SS men, as Germany races to prosecute ageing Third Reich criminals.
Dressed in a tweed suit, the white-haired, bespectacled widower, who owned a dairy store after the war, kept his eyes trained on the table in front of him during the hearing, and left his lawyer to answer the judge’s questions.
Hanning planned to listen to what the witnesses had to say before deciding if he should take the stand, his lawyer told AFP.
One of them, Leon Schwarzbaum, 90, pleaded with Hanning to tell the truth.
“We are almost the same age. We’ll both face our highest judge soon,” he told the defendant, urging him to explain why 35 members of his family “and millions of Jews, Roma and others” had to be killed.
Schwarzbaum also recounted the starvation and constant fear of dying that plagued Auschwitz prisoners.
Those who sought to escape were killed by dogs and their bodies left as a warning to others, he said, adding that regular executions and the endless stream of people sent to the gas chambers sowed terror.
“I was constantly afraid of dying from hunger or being selected (for the gas chamber),” he told the court.
The survivor, who was sent to Auschwitz when he was 22 years old, said: “I still dream of it often.”
– ‘Failures of justice system’ –
Hanning stands accused of having watched over the selection of which prisoners were fit for labour, and which should be sent to gas chambers.
He is also deemed to have been aware of the regular mass shooting of inmates at the camp, as well as the systematic starvation of prisoners.
“Through his capacity as a guard, he facilitated… the several thousand killings of inmates by the main perpetrator,” prosecutors said.
Hanning has admitted to working in Auschwitz but denies a role in the killings.
He faces between three and 15 years in jail, but in view of his advanced age and the period required for any appeals, he is unlikely to serve time.
But Christoph Heubner, vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee representing victims, said the trial was an opportunity to make up “for the failures of Germany’s justice system”.
Among the 6,500 former SS personnel at Auschwitz who survived the war, fewer than 50 have been convicted.
Holocaust survivor Angela Orosz, who will also testify against Hanning, told AFP that “without these people and their active support for the Holocaust, what happened in Auschwitz, the murder of 1.1 million people in just a few years, would not have been possible.”
Due to the strong interest in the trial, Thursday’s hearing was held at Detmold’s chamber of commerce, which can hold more people.
A blue banner reading “Let’s not forget” was also draped outside.
– Last chance to speak out –
For many survivors, the trial was also one of the last opportunity to “speak before a German court,” said chief judge Anke Grudda, before giving Schwarzbaum the floor. Two other survivors will follow on Friday.
Thursday’s trial came on the heels of last year’s high-profile case against Oskar Groening, dubbed the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”.
Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.
But the legal foundation for prosecuting ex-Nazis changed in 2011 with the German conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk, solely on the basis of his having worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.
At least two other cases are due to be heard this year before German courts.
One of them concerns former SS medic, Hubert Zafke, 95, who is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in killings.
Zafke was a medical orderly at the camp in a period when 14 trains carrying prisoners — including the Jewish teenage diarist Anne Frank — arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Another former guard at Auschwitz, 93-year-old Ernst Remmel, is set to stand trial in April.