German former SS officer Oskar Groening, dubbed the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, asked for “forgiveness” over his role in mass murder at the Nazi death camp, as his trial began Tuesday.
“For me there’s no question that I share moral guilt,” the 93-year-old former Nazi told the judges, admitting that he knew about the gassing of Jews and other prisoners.
“I ask for forgiveness,” he said at the trial, which was attended by almost 70 Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives, while insisting he never physically harmed a prisoner himself.
Given the advanced age of most Nazi war crimes suspects, Groening is expected to be among the last to face justice, 70 years after the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of World War II.
He is being tried on 300,000 counts of “accessory to murder” in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in 1944, and he faces up to 15 years in jail.
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.
He also performed “ramp duty”, guarding the luggage stolen from deportees as they arrived by rail at the extermination and forced labour camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, they said.
Prosecutor Jens Lehmann said the defendant, by diligently performing his daily duties, had made “at least a low-level contribution” to the “smooth operation” of the death camp.
Groening, a widowed father of two adult sons, said that as a young man he had volunteered for the SS because, in the fervour of wartime, “we wanted to be part of it”, insisting he knew nothing at the time about the gas chambers.
Speaking in a firm voice, he recounted acts of barbarism he witnessed at Auschwitz, including when an SS guard killed a crying baby by smashing its head against a truck.
Groening said he was “shocked” and asked to be transferred to the front three times, but that his requests were denied.
The defendant also said that once he passed a gas chamber and heard cries “growing louder and more desperate, until they fell silent”.
Reflecting on the Holocaust, he said: “What kind of hatred was behind it? I just can’t understand it.”
The trial, was adjourned later Tuesday, and scheduled to run until July 29.