The man, named only Josef S., served as a guard and member of the Nazi SS militia at the Sachsenhausen death camp near Berlin, where tens of thousands were killed in the effort to Nazi extermination.
“I haven’t done anything wrong, I’m innocent,” he said.
The court ruled that the man, who turns 101 next month, is mentally and physically fit to stand trial for just over two hours at a time.
Stefan Waterkamp, the suspect’s lawyer, told reporters that justice would have been better done if the trial had taken place earlier, closer to the alleged crimes.
The case is the latest in a series of trials of people who played subordinate roles in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes and were often very young at the time. In 2011, a Munich court found former guard John Demjanjuk guilty of complicity in the murder of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor death camp, setting a precedent that has since allowed lower-ranking suspects to be prosecuted. .
Representatives of Holocaust victims said these late trials of junior regime members came after many high-ranking Nazis were either not prosecuted or were given light sentences in the decades following the war. Until the 1990s, German authorities instead focused on restitution efforts, said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center who attended the trial this week.
On Thursday, prosecutor Cyrill Klement detailed the murders and ill-treatment that were commonplace in Sachsenhausen, a camp set up in 1936 that served as a model for the network of facilities that then spread across occupied Europe.
He told the court how the SS murdered thousands of people using what he described as a neck gun unit, a room where unsuspecting prisoners were shot in the back of the head and then cremated. Others were murdered with gas, first in gassing vehicles and later in a gas chamber using the cyanide pesticide Zyklon-B. Before the murders, SS medics examined the victims for gold teeth which were then removed from their corpses.
Towards the end of the war, most of the victims were Soviet prisoners of war, many of whom were Jews. The prosecutor said the accused allowed the killings because he was monitoring inmates from watchtowers, armed and dressed in SS uniforms.
Sixteen co-plaintiffs joined the prosecutor’s case against the suspect, including concentration camp survivors and their relatives from Germany, Israel, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Peru.
Leon Schwarzbaum, a German who survived Sachsenhausen and other Nazi camps, is also 100 years old and attended the trial in a wheelchair. “He’s old and sick, and I’m old and sick too, but I have come,” he told reporters.
Antoine Grumbach, whose father, a French soldier, was killed at Sachsenhausen, is one of the co-plaintiffs and has traveled from France to attend the trial.
“The world must know how this machinery worked … The SS guards were the accomplices of the murderous machinery of the concentration camps,” Mr Grumbach told reporters on Thursday.
Mr Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was very important to continue to pursue the last remaining Nazis as a lesson to younger generations about the horrors of the Nazi era, at a time when war crimes and crimes against humanity are occurring across the world.
“The younger generations will learn a lot about the Holocaust, about war, about justice and about democracy,” he said.
Write to Bojan Pancevski à [email protected]
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