A hundred-year-old former concentration camp guard will become the oldest person to be tried for Nazi-era crimes in Germany on Thursday when he appears in court for complicity in mass murder.
The suspect, identified only as Josef S., is accused of having “knowingly and willfully” aided in the murder of 3,518 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945.
Allegations against him include aid and encouragement for “the execution by a platoon of execution of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942” and the murder of prisoners “using the toxic gas Zyklon B.”
Josef S, 100, will be the oldest person to ever stand trial for Nazi-era crimes when he appears in court today for aiding and abetting murder at Sachsenhausen death camp (file)
German prosecutors are rushing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice, and in recent years have increasingly focused their attention on lower-ranking Nazi personnel.
The case comes a week after a 96-year-old German woman, who was a secretary in a Nazi death camp, fled in a dramatic fashion before her trial began, but was arrested several hours later.
She, too, was charged with aiding and abetting murder. His trial resumed on October 19.
Despite his advanced age, a medical assessment in August found Josef S. to be fit to stand trial, although court hearings in Neuruppin are limited to a few hours per day. The procedure is expected to last until early January.
“He is not accused of having shot anyone in particular, but of having contributed to these acts through his work as a guard and of having been aware that such killings were taking place in the camp,” he said. said a spokesperson for the tribunal.
Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing several camp survivors and relatives of victims in the case, said even 76 years after the end of World War II, trials like these were needed to hold the perpetrators to account.
“There is no expiration date for justice,” he told AFP.
One of his clients is Antoine Grumbach, 79, whose father Jean was in the French resistance and was killed in Sachsenhausen in 1944.
Josef S served at the Sachsenhausen camp (pictured) from 1942 to 1945 and is accused of aiding and abetting 3,518 murders that occurred during his time there.
He hopes that Josef S. will shed light on the methods used to kill people in the camp, but also that the accused “will say ‘I was wrong, I am ashamed’,” Grumbach told AFP.
The Nazi SS guard detained more than 200,000 people at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1936 and 1945, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and homosexuals.
Tens of thousands of detainees died from forced labor, murder, medical experiments, hunger or illness before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.
Little is known about the accused, other than the fact that he was released from captivity as a prisoner of war in 1947 and went to work as a locksmith in the Brandenburg region of what was then the Communist East Germany, the Bild newspaper reported.
Centennial lawyer Stefan Waterkamp said his client “has remained silent” so far on the charges against him.
If convicted, Josef S. could spend several years in prison, but Waterkamp has said the sentences in cases like this are “mostly symbolic” as the defendants have reached the end of their lives.
Germany has been suing former Nazi personnel since the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk on the grounds that he was part of Hitler’s killing machine, setting a legal precedent.
Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on these grounds rather than murders or atrocities directly related to the accused individual.
Among those belatedly brought to justice were Oskar Groening, accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, former SS guard at Auschwitz.
Both were sentenced at the age of 94 for complicity in mass murder but died before they could be imprisoned.
More recently, former SS guard Bruno Dey was convicted at the age of 93 last year and received a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Prosecutors are investigating eight other cases, according to the National Socialist Crimes Central Investigation Bureau.
Sachsenhausen: Camp where the Nazis designed the gas chambers
Built in 1936 to house high-ranking political prisoners, Sachsenhausen is the camp where the Nazis perfected methods of murder that were extended and used to murder millions of people in larger and more notorious camps such as Auschwitz.
The first executions at Sachsenhausen were carried out by placing prisoners in a room and having them stand against a wall to measure their height, before being shot in the back of the neck through a hidden trap door.
It was found to be effective but took a long time, so the Nazis started cramming people into a ditch where they were shot or hanged.
While this was found to be more effective in killing large numbers of people, it caused the prisoners to panic and made the process more difficult.
The prisoners arrive at the Sachsenhausen camp. The inverted triangle on the front of their uniforms means that these men are not Jews but belong to another category of Nazi “unwanted” – most likely political prisoners, as many were housed in this camp.
It was after these trials that the Nazi executioners came up with the idea of using poison gas with some of the first experiments conducted at Sachsenhausen using small chambers or vans.
Like most other camps, Sachsenhausen was used to harbor and kill Jews, gays and other “undesirables” – but it was also home to a large number of notable politicians and political figures.
Among his detainees were Yakov Dzhugashvili, the eldest son of Joseph Stalin, Paul Reynaud, the penultimate Prime Minister of France, Francisco Largo Caballero, Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic, and the wife and children of the Crown Prince of Bavaria.
It operated as a Nazi camp until 1945 when it was liberated by the Soviets.
During this time, some 200,000 prisoners were sent there, about half of whom died – partly from the executions, but also from illness and overwork.
After the war, the camp continued to function, this time as a Soviet prison, and continued to house political prisoners.
Some 60,000 people were locked up there by the Red Army, including former Nazis, Russians who had collaborated with them, and anti-Communist opponents of Stalin’s new regime.
One of the men who ran the camp during this period was Roman Rudenko, the Soviet chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials.
Some 12,000 people are believed to have died in Sachsenhausen under the Soviets before the camp was definitively closed in 1950.
After its closure, excavations were carried out in an attempt to recover the remains of some of those who died there.
In total, the bodies of some 12,500 victims were found – mostly children, adolescents and the elderly.