LUENEBURG, Germany (Reuters) - A 94-year-old German man known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the murder of 300,000 people at the Nazi death camp, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials.
Betraying little emotion, white-haired Oskar Groening sat with his arms crossed, looking around the court room while the judge explained the verdict.
After the hearing, he shuffled out of court, hunched over a walking frame with his head bowed. He remains free until a decision on whether and how much of his jail time he will have to serve.
Groening did not kill anyone himself while working at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but by sorting bank notes seized from trainloads of arriving Jews he helped support the regime responsible for mass murder, prosecutors argued.
The trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were minor participants in the Nazi regime, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, were themselves guilty.
At the end of the roughly three-month trial, the judge said Groening had lived in peace and quiet since the end of the war, going unpunished for “an unfathomable crime”.
“Mr Groening is not a monster,” said Judge Franz Kompisch, adding that he had taken an easier path by avoiding fighting at the front. “You chose the safe desk job,” he told the accused.
“What you consider to be moral guilt and what you depict as being a cog in the wheel is exactly what lawmakers view as being an accessory to murder,” said Kompisch.
The now frail Groening has admitted moral guilt but said it was up to the court to decide whether he was legally guilty. He said earlier this month he could only ask God to forgive him as he was not entitled to ask this of victims of the Holocaust.
Angela Orosz-Richt, a Jew who was born in Auschwitz and a co-plaintiff in the court case, said the fact that the trial had been held and Groening had been convicted was more important than the length of his prison sentence.
“I hope this important trial has also helped to educate today’s generation about what really happened and to combat anti-Semitism,” she said.
Jewish groups also welcomed the verdict.
“Albeit belatedly, justice has been done,” said World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in a statement. “Mr Groening was only a small cog in the Nazi death machine but without the actions of people like him, the mass murder of millions of Jews and others would not have been possible.”
If Groening decides not to appeal, the verdict takes legal effect and then prosecutors decide when, whether and where Groening would actually go to jail, a court spokeswoman said.
During his time at Auschwitz, Groening’s job was to collect the belongings of deportees after they arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
Groening, who was 21 and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at the camp in 1942, inspected people’s luggage, removing and counting any bank notes and sending them on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.
The charges against him related to the period between May and July 1944 when 137 trains carrying roughly 425,000 Jews from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. At least 300,000 of them were sent straight to the gas chambers, the indictment said.
Many Germans are keen to draw a line under the Holocaust and seal the post-war democratic identity of their nation. Some find distasteful the pursuit of old men, often in poor health, for crimes committed nearly 70 years ago.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Caroline Copley and Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Robin Pomeroy