This Wednesday, July 15, former Auschwitz guard Oskar Gröning was sentenced to four years in prison for being an accessory to the deaths of 300,000 people in “what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials.” The 94-year-old German has been on trial in the northern German city of Lüneburg since April.
The death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland claimed the lives of 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, during its operation from 1942 to 1945. Gröning’s trial focused mostly on the period from May to July 1944, during which 137 trains brought 425,000 people to Auschwitz and at least 300,000 were killed in the gas chambers.
During the trial proceedings, Gröning testified that he sorted through the belongings of arriving Jews after they went through the selection process that ended with many being sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. His task was to find valuables, particularly banknotes, to help fund the Nazi regime.
The trial speaks to a question that courts have grappled with since the end of the Second World War: how much guilt the legal system can place on people who acted as small cogs within massive human rights violations like the Holocaust. In 2011, German courts set a precedent that death camp guards can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even if that guard is not linked to any specific death. Gröning said he accepts moral guilt but said early on in the trial that he would leave it up to the court to decide his legal guilt.
Earlier this year, the Freedom Center hosted Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later, which featured the stories of two survivors of the death camp: Werner Coppel and Bella Ouziel. Auschwitz’s history of systemic and organized genocide provides a start warning and call to action for those today to stand up against injustice, inhumanity and genocide.
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