German prosecutors today said an 11th hour plea for clemency by a former SS guard dubbed the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz has failed and that he is headed to jail.
Oskar Groening, 94, had been fighting against his four-year sentence for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 death camp prisoners on the ground that he was too unwell to serve it.
But prosecutors in Luneburg now say his last appeal for clemency has failed and they expect him to be behind bars by the end of January.
He was first sentenced in July 2015 for his part in running the death camp, where he was involved collating and shipping back to Berlin the possessions of the dead.
Groening never denied being at Auschwitz in Nazi occupied Poland and admitted it was an extermination center where inmates were not expected to survive.
In 1942, when he was 21, Groening was sent to Auschwitz. He saw the horrors that took place there almost immediately.
‘I was standing at the ramp,’ he says, ‘and my task was to be part of the group supervising the luggage from an incoming transport.
‘Sick people were lifted onto trucks. Red Cross trucks —they always tried to create the impression that people had nothing to fear.
‘This process of selection proceeded in a relatively orderly fashion but when it was over it was just like a fairground. There was a load of rubbish, and next to this rubbish were ill people, unable to walk, perhaps a child that had lost its mother, or perhaps during searching the train somebody had hidden—and these people were simply killed with a shot through the head.
‘And the kind of way in which these people were treated brought me doubt and outrage. A child was simply pulled on the leg and thrown on a truck … then when it cried like a sick chicken, they chucked it against the edge of the truck
‘I couldn’t understand that an SS man would take a child and throw its head against the side of a truck, or kill them by shooting them and then throw them on a truck like a sack of wheat.’
Groening, who spent a year in Britain after the war as a prisoner, sang with a YMCA choir in the Midlands and Scotland, keeping quiet about what he had done.
Later, when pressed about the murder of children, he said: ‘The children are not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood in them. The enemy is their growing up to become a Jew who could be dangerous.’
Although his main job was collating and sending back to Berlin the possessions of those murdered in the gas chambers, he served on ‘ramp duty’ – the place where the doomed Jews were sorted after arrival into those who would live to work and those who would be immediately gassed.
He heard a baby crying. ‘I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs…’ he said. ‘He smashed the baby’s head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.’
He added: ‘Every night and every day I remember it for the nightmare it was. It was in 1942 that my SS chiefs in Berlin ordered me there.
‘The Jews had diamonds and gold worth millions and it was my duty to make sure all of it got to Berlin.
‘Down the years I have heard the cries of the dead in my dreams and in every waking moment. I will never be free of them.
‘It was completely understood by all that the majority were going straight to the gas chamber, although some believed they were only going to be showered before going to work. Many Jews knew they were going to die.
‘On one night in January 1943 I saw for the first time how the Jews were actually gassed. It was in a half-built farmyard near to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
‘A gas chamber was built there. We were searching the wood nearby for prisoners who had escaped.
‘There were more than 100 prisoners and soon there were panic-filled cries as they were herded into the chamber and the door was shut.
‘Then a sergeant with a gas mask went to a hole in the wall and from a tin shook Zyklon B gas pellets inside. In that moment the cries of the people inside rose to a crescendo, a choir of madness.
‘These cries I have ringing in my ears to this day. This guilt will never leave me. I can only plead for forgiveness and pray for atonement.’
Groening forgot the genocide, settled down to climb the management ladder at a glass factory, and kept quiet about his past.
It was only the prosecution of death camp guard John Demjanjuk in 2011 that paved the way for him to be charged.
Demjanjuk was found guilty without a single eyewitness left alive to say what his duties at the extermination camp of Sobibor had been: he was found guilty by dint of the fact he was there.
The same rule applied to Groening. He never killed anyone, but Auschwitz functioned because of men like him.