By ALISON SMALE / NYTimes.com
LÜNEBURG, Germany — In what is likely to be among the last chances to bring justice for the Holocaust, a German court convicted a 94-year-old former SS soldier of colluding in mass murder, and delivered an unstinting depiction both of the horrors of Auschwitz and the depths of German guilt.
The former soldier, Oskar Gröning, was sentenced on Wednesday [July 15,2015] to four years in jail for complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews who were brought to the Nazis’ grimmest death camp in the summer of 1944.
In a sweeping 75-minute speech, Judge Franz Kompisch presented what amounted to a reckoning with decades of German justice and the failure to prosecute thousands of perpetrators. The judge made it plain that every German had a choice about how far to go along with the Nazis.
“This is a point that must be made clearly,” the judge said. To join the SS and take “a safe desk job” at Auschwitz “was your decision.” He added, “It was perhaps affected by the era, but it was not because you were unfree.”
Mr. Gröning, a trained bank teller who during his 12-week trial offered chilling insight into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was employed there from September 1942 to October 1944, assigned to seize cash and valuables from arriving prisoners.
While he was not accused of gassing prisoners, Mr. Gröning’s trial suggested that he had witnessed enough violence and cruelty to have a clear understanding of the systematic mass murder carried out at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“You had freedom to think,” Judge Kompisch said to Mr. Gröning. Yet “you asked to join the SS.”
The main lawyer for the dozens of plaintiffs, Thomas Walther, called Mr. Kompisch’s judgment “historic,” saying that it was wonderful for his clients and could serve as a corrective to decades of lax prosecution of Nazis in German courts.
On Wednesday, the state prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt announced that another former SS soldier who worked at Auschwitz, this one 92, is facing charges of being an accessory to murder. But with World War II having ended 70 years ago, the number of people who could be tried for Nazi crimes is dwindling.
In a biting passage, the judge noted that the state prosecutor’s office of Lüneburg, a midsize jurisdiction, handled some 30,000 cases a year. By comparison, he noted, experts say 6,500 people worked for the SS at Auschwitz, yet only 49 of those have been convicted.
As the judge took the court on a journey to what he described as a seemingly distant past, the only sound in the makeshift courtroom — a meeting hall converted to accommodate interest in the trial — was the low background buzz of interpreters working in English, Hungarian and Hebrew.
The sentence exceeded the three and a half years that state prosecutors had requested. Mr. Gröning’s lawyers had sought an acquittal.
Both state prosecutors and Hans Holtermann, a lawyer for Mr. Gröning, said they would consider whether to appeal in the next week. If so, it could be months before any sentence is final. Mr. Gröning would not be jailed during that time.
The judgment came a day after Mr. Gröning, increasingly frail though mentally alert, offered the court what he clearly intended as a direct apology for his crimes. “I am truly sorry,” he said. He refrained, however, from asking forgiveness from his victims.
Mr. Gröning’s remarks as the trial opened on April 21 offered a remarkably clear if often harrowing account of his time in Auschwitz. He admitted his moral complicity, but stopped short of an apology. On July 1, he addressed the court once more, saying that the evil of the Holocaust was too great to entitle him to a pardon from anyone other than God.
None of the dozens of plaintiffs, who joined state prosecutors in accusing Mr. Gröning, were in court on Wednesday. Their lawyers said that the judge’s surprising decision on Tuesday to move immediately to a verdict meant that none had had the time to get back to Lüneburg.
But Leon Schwarzbaum, 94, like Mr. Gröning, was on hand. Although not a plaintiff, he had come especially from Berlin to see if justice would be done. Born in Hamburg in 1921, transported to Auschwitz from a Polish ghetto in 1943, Mr. Schwarzbaum said he lost 30 relatives in the Holocaust. He survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and at least one other camp.
Mr. Schwarzbaum said afterward that, although too long delayed, justice had been served.
For decades, the German legal system made it difficult to prosecute former SS members and camp guards if there was no direct evidence linking them to the mass killings of the Holocaust.
But the case of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who immigrated to the United States after World War II, changed that. A former autoworker, he was eventually extradited and sentenced in Munich in 2011 to five years in prison for his involvement in the killing of 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He died in 2012, before his appeal could be heard.
This opened the path for prosecutors in Germany to charge aging former camp personnel with complicity in the Holocaust.
Among those who helped pioneer the shift in German legal thinking was Mr. Walther, a former judge who went to work in 2006 for Germany’s central office for tracking Nazi war crimes, based in Ludwigsburg.
Mr. Walther and his colleague Cornelius Nestler represented 51 of the 65 plaintiffs. Some of the survivors had directly confronted Mr. Gröning with their memories in searing testimony.
Hedy Bohm, 87, told the court that she had never expected the chance to appear as a witness at the trial of one of her German persecutors. But most of all, she said, she wanted to hear Mr. Gröning say “three little words: I am sorry.” He uttered them, but attached such qualifications that, she said, the apology would in fact not be enough.
Several of the other plaintiffs said that what they sought was an apology and a legal judgment. As Eva Fahidi, 90, put it, it was not a matter of sending an old man to live out the rest of his days in a jail as much as getting a formal acknowledgment of the unspeakable pain the Nazis had inflicted. She lost 49 relatives.
Mr. Walther said that Mr. Kompisch and his two judges had clearly listened closely to the plaintiffs’ account of how they were violently uprooted from homes across Hungary and delivered into what the judge described as a “Nazi-perfect” construct that hid behind euphemisms and a bureaucratic division of labor.
The judge went into excruciating detail on the three-day rail transports to Auschwitz and the sorting of prisoners into two groups: those “saved” to work and the masses stripped of their last possessions and gassed.
In his final statement to the court on July 7, Mr. Walther virtually assumed the identities of the Hungarian Jews he represented. “We survivors of Auschwitz have the right to accuse and, for our murdered families, we have the duty to do so,” he said. “We accuse because of time, which heals no wounds but instead burns them deeper into our souls.”