Prosecutors in Germany have charged a 93-year-old man with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving as an SS guard at the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp. Oskar Groening is accused of helping operate the death camp in occupied Poland between May and June 1944, when 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death. In his job dealing with the belongings stolen from camp victims, prosecutors said among other things he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found. “He helped the Nazi regime benefit economically, and supported the systematic killings,” state prosecutors in the city of Hannover said in a statement. Groening’s attorney, Hans Holtermann, declined to comment on the charges.
Groening has openly talked about his time as a guard and said while he witnessed horrific atrocities, he didn’t commit any crimes himself. In 2005 he told Der Spiegel magazine he recalled one incident on “ramp duty” when 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.” Groening, who lives in the Hannover area, is one of about 30 former Auschwitz guards who federal investigators last year said state prosecutors should pursue under a new precedent in German law.
Jakob W. was 19-years-old and in his third semester studying architecture at college when he received the letter that would, seven decades later, turn him into a suspect for complicity in murder. In the summer of 1942, the young man from a village near Belgrade received his draft notice. Just a few months later, he was standing on a tower hundreds of kilometers away from his home in Yugoslavia. Jakob W. was now an SS guard in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp — and thus a party in the most horrific of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. For two and a half years, he looked down at the factory of human annihilation, day in and day out.
Now, in 2014, Jakob W. lives in a large, southern German city, his house plastered white and his garden filled with roses. A chain-link fence separates his yard from the neighbor’s. A retired civil servant with a degree in architecture, W. has lived here for more than 30 years. Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and black leather shoes, he settles in the living room on a black leather couch, covered in a wool blanket. The room is crammed with carpets; an oak china cabinet overflows with knick-knacks. Above the sofa is an oil painting of a mountain lake at sunrise.
Jakob W. was one of the 30 people targeted by German prosecutors in the fall of 2013, suspected of being accessories to multiple murders. Given the advanced age of the suspects, it is likely that these will be the last legal proceedings in Germany relating to Nazi war crimes. It is now August, and it is the third time that the retiree has received journalists from SPIEGEL. A few days prior, just after his 91st birthday celebration, he learned that state prosecutors in Stuttgart had abandoned the case against him. Jakob W. was already convicted by a Polish court in 1948 in connection with his Auschwitz duties and he cannot be punished a second time.
The elderly man, whose German has a slight Slavic tint, has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. He could now draw a line under his past. But just as he defied investigators earlier this summer when they asked him not to speak to the press, he has no intention of keeping his mouth shut now. He wants to “bear witness,” as he calls it, and share his version of the story. He has only one condition: Anonymity.
SPIEGEL: When did you first hear about the gas chambers?
W.: When you see that so many trains are coming, people arriving, then nobody can say anything. Everyone knew about it.
SPIEGEL: Were you ever inside a gas chamber?
W.: Just once. It was with a surveyor team. I was charged with guarding them. That was in 1943 or 1944.
SPIEGEL: How big was the chamber?
W.: Maybe as big as my entire house, which is 90 square meters (970 square feet). I mean, when one of the trains arrived, with 200 or 300 people, then they, if there were too many, had to wait outside.
SPIEGEL: You could see that from above?
W.: They had to wait in front of the gas chamber for an hour. And then they were led inside. They also heard the screams, but they, the SS people, the … I mean, that’s how it was. That’s how it … happened.
SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when you were standing with the surveyors in the gas chamber?
W.: You can imagine it must have been a big room. It was pretty much a concrete bunker. There were pipes on the outside; I don’t know any more if there were four or six. Then they threw a can inside.
SPIEGEL: You saw SS troops throwing Zyklon B in from the outside?
W.: Yes, of course. Standing on the tower, you could see them coming. It was always a vehicle with two men inside. And then they drove directly there and did a little operation and then you knew: That is the death squad.
Jakob W. was in Auschwitz until January 1945. After that, his unit was sent to defend Breslau, the present-day Polish city of Wroclaw, where he lost his right eye and was wounded in the stomach. To this day, he can only hear out of his left ear. In addition to his wife, he also invited his neighbor to be present during the interview. He wants to show that he has no secrets, and never did.
Many knew that he was once a guard in Auschwitz, including his three sons, colleagues at work and the Protestant pastor from the local church. Even the Chancellery and the German president’s office knew. In 2011, Jakob W. wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-President Christian Wulff complaining that the state had docked his pension by €59 ($78) per month due to his violation of the “principles of humanity” during the Nazi period. A law passed by Helmut Kohl’s government made the decrease possible. His petition was politely rejected.
W.: In Auschwitz, I would have a week of daytime shifts and a week of nighttime shifts on the towers and then a week with the labor squads outside the camp.
SPIEGEL: Were you alone in the tower during your shifts?
W.: Yes, but at night there were two of us for the 12-hour shift, swapping out every three hours. In between, you could get some sleep. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, there is that famous gate through which the trains drove into the camp. Up above in the building was our break room for night shifts.
SPIEGEL: What do you remember about your service on the towers?
W.: Twelve hours is a long time. When it was hot, you had to stand the whole day in the sun. When it was cold, you had to constantly hop from one foot to the other. There you are, six meters (19 feet) up and you aren’t allowed to go down, not even to pee.
SPIEGEL: What did you think about when you were up there?
W.: In the morning, all the prisoners had to go to work, somewhere to build roads. In the evenings, they came back in. In between times, there was nobody to be seen in the camp. During those times, we would read. I had a Bible with me, or a newspaper. That wasn’t forbidden.
SPIEGEL: You read the Bible on the guard towers?
W.: I am an Protestant Christian. And I believe it was God’s will that I was just a guard. And not in a firing squad.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever shoot a prisoner in Auschwitz?
W.: I never shot anybody.
SPIEGEL: From the towers, you had a view of the entire camp. Did you ever see another SS soldier shoot a prisoner?
SPIEGEL: Did you ever see a prisoner trying to escape?
W.: No, but it happened. They were mostly acting out of desperation. They jumped onto the fence and were shot to death.
SPIEGEL: But you never saw such a thing?
W.: I never shot anybody.
SPIEGEL: Did you have any contact with the prisoners?
W.: Yes, but it was mostly the German ones.
SPIEGEL: And you talked with them?
W.: They only spoke to us if we spoke to them first. Because many of us would say things like “shit Jews” or “stinking Jews,” it’s their fault that we are here. I would almost say that the majority blamed the Jews for the fact that we had to stand guard there. We used the informal “du” (you) when speaking to them and they had to use the formal “Sie” (you) when they replied.
SPIEGEL: What did you talk about with them?
W.: One time we had this women’s labor squad, a couple of really young ones. And so I asked: “Why are you here?” Then she answered: “Because I’m Jewish.” And what are you supposed to say then?
SPIEGEL: Did you see the corpses being burned?
W.: The crematorium chimneys weren’t very tall. Depending on the wind direction, it stunk badly. And starting in 1944, the crematoria weren’t able to keep up. Next to them was a ditch, perhaps three or four meters across. A fire was burning in the trench day and night. Two men were always carrying straps that they used to pull them (Eds. note: the corpses) out of the gas chamber, removed the straps and threw them into the fire. If you were standing in the area, it was impossible to look away.
SPIEGEL: So you were on a tower near the gas chambers?
W.: We always changed. The fence was right behind the gas chambers and the towers were behind that. You could see it. A huge fire was burning.
SPIEGEL: A huge fire of corpses?
W.: It never went out. Day and night. You get used to everything. Nobody could leave. And you couldn’t complain, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
As Jakob W. was talking about this dark chapter of German history, his wife was sitting next to him, knitting. Sometimes she would help him recall something or complete his sentences. She knew many of the details. She says that sometimes, at birthday parties of friends or family members, her husband would start talking about Auschwitz out of the blue.
The story of SS guard Jakob W. got its start in Beška, a small town near Belgrade where so-called Danube-Swabians, as Yugoslavia’s German-speaking population was known, lived at the time. In April 1941, Hitler’s troops marched into Yugoslavia. For W., that is an important detail. He never had German citizenship, he was Yugoslavian. And he says he also isn’t responsible for the fact that, starting in 1942, the SS began sending long-serving SS guards to the front and replacing them with ethnic Germans. In the second half of the war, half of all guards were ethnic Germans.
Polish historian Aleksander Lasik maintains a database of SS members who served in concentration camps. He can substantiate that 45 men from W.’s home district served in Auschwitz. Jakob W. himself estimates that the number from Beška was around 20, including a cousin of his and a schoolmate. If that is true, Beška could very well have been the village with the highest concentration of Auschwitz personnel.
SPIEGEL: How did you get to Auschwitz?
W.: We were told that the train would leave from Indija, a village next door to Beška, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1942. SS people there received us. They told us that we weren’t allowed to get off the train anywhere. We traveled in a passenger train to Vienna, where the last car was separated from the train. It went to Auschwitz.
SPIEGEL: You were sitting in the last car, in other words?
W.: Yes. We were seated according to last name. “S” to “Z” were sitting in the last car and had to go to Auschwitz. It was by chance. When a train arrived in Vienna, the SS divided up the passengers. Names were called out alphabetically. And when one car filled up, they started with the next one.
SPIEGEL: How did the journey continue?
W.: When we arrived in the Auschwitz train station, we immediately marched the two kilometers to the Birkenau camp. First, they cut our hair short, vaccinated us and gave us tattoos. Mine was an upside-down “A,” which stood for my blood type. We initially received three months of training, including on a firing range. Lying down, standing, everything you can imagine.
SPIEGEL: Where were the others from?
W.: Our group was mostly made up of Germans from abroad, from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Jakob W. insists that he had no choice. Research conducted by the historian Jan Erik Schulte indicates that conscriptions into the Waffen SS in 1942 Yugoslavia were “essentially predominantly compulsory affairs.” As such, W.’s case began with a violation of the Hague Conventions, which expressly prohibits drafting foreign citizens to bear arms.
When W. arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was officially designated as a prisoner of war camp. Originally, SS head Heinrich Himmler had wanted to use prisoners of war to establish a network of defensive forts and barricades to protect German settlers in Eastern Europe. But then he had the site expanded into the largest death camp in the Nazi’s machinery of destruction.
At the time, Auschwitz was part of the German Reich, with Hitler having annexed the region following the attack on Poland. Ultimately, the complex included three main camps and around 50 subsidiary camps. Many prisoners were brutally murdered in the sub-camps as well, but gas chambers were only to be found in the core camp (“KL Auschwitz I”) and in the 140 hectare (346 acre) sea of barracks known as Auschwitz-Birkenau (“KL Auschwitz II”).
Surrounding Birkenau were thousands of cement poles connected to one-another by electric fencing. On the outside of the fence stood the guard towers of varying heights, with SS guards wielding spotlights and machine guns on top. Surrounding those barriers was an additional string of guard towers, allowing the SS to control a huge swath of terrain. They were to prevent prisoners from escaping while performing labor outside the camp. At times, there were 3,000 guards on duty.
W.: If you had a daytime shift, it ended at six in the evening. Then we went to the canteen. Afterwards you could request to leave the camp and you could go as far as the Auschwitz train station. The girls from Katowice, the nearest larger city, would always go there.
SPIEGEL: So you would leave the camp during the evenings?
W.: Yes, yes, of course. There were many bars. Most played skat and drank beer.
SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?
W.: People weren’t enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn’t end well, that it couldn’t been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you’re a soldier …
In the personnel files of camp staff members, there are official declarations stating, “I may not cause bodily harm or death to opponents of the state (prisoners).” It also states, “I am aware and I have been informed today that I will be punished by death if I misappropriate Jewish property of any kind.” The SS team at Auschwitz — a camp where the indiscriminate torture, robbing and murder of people was part of everyday life — were required to pledge in advance to do precisely the opposite.
One could view forms like that as a special form of cynicism. Or one could see it as a pseudo-legal facade aimed at covering up the Holocaust. One provision called for “absolute secrecy” to be maintained. In practice, it had no meaning.
W.: My brother visited me once. He began serving as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1941. I didn’t get any vacation at the time. He wrote to me that he had been given five days of special leave to visit me.
SPIEGEL: When was that?
W.: He arrived at the train station in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. There was a home for visitors and he called me from there. I picked him up and we walked around the entire camp. He wore a Wehrmacht uniform, but that didn’t draw any attention in Birkenau.
SPIEGEL: And what did your brother say about the concentration camp?
W.: What did he say? He knew about it. Half of our village was in the SS and everyone had said something about it at home.
SPIEGEL: How did you feel about your brother’s visit?
W.: I was glad. My cousin, who was also a guard in Auschwitz, got a day off as well. The three of us walked around the camp. You have to imagine it being like a large village. The prisoners weren’t there, they were at work.
SPIEGEL: Do you show him the crematoriums where the gas chambers were located?
W.: He saw it, of course. That evening we went back the train station and into the bar.
Jakob W. says that, while serving in Auschwitz, he saw a military newspaper that included a want ad seeking Wehrmacht medics for the front. He claims that he then twice told his superior that he would prefer to join the combat troops. After the second time, he says, the company commander threatened to jail him for insubordination if he made any further attempt. There is, however, no written proof that this happened.
The public prosecutor in Stuttgart opened an investigation into W., part of which was W.’s presence on the tracks when a transport train from Berlin arrived at Auschwitz in 1943. The Jewish prisoners had often been underway for days by the time they arrived. On a siding at the freight depot, new arrivals would be “selected,” as it was called in the Nazi vernacular. From there, the SS people would either march them in columns to the camp or transport them by truck. Most were murdered immediately in the gas chambers and forced labor awaited the others.
SPIEGEL: What was it like when you received the train full of prisoners?
W.: There would be a whistle to duty and they would call “step up”. Then you would move into position, about 20 meters from the train, which had already arrived. They would open the doors from the outside and we had to encircle the train until the people had been unloaded. They would then be taken into the camp by the guards responsible for internal camp supervision.
SPIEGEL: Did the people arriving attempt to flee?
W.: They were so intimidated. Before their departure, they were told they were being taken to a labor camp and that nothing would happen to anyone unless they tried to run away. In the gas chambers, they saw the nozzles and thought they were going to take a shower. Before entering, they had to stack their clothing in neat piles.
Surviving prisoners have differing memories of their arrival at Auschwitz. Some recall glaring spotlights and shouting SS troops. Others speak of being greeted by men in civilian clothing in a “very friendly” manner. The friendliness was meant to provide the victims with a sense of security and to prevent panic.
Researchers are convinced today that the division of labor in the industrial killing machine significantly reduced the inhibition threshold of staff. They estimate that the percentage of pathological murderers among the perpetrators to be 10 percent at the very highest. They believe that others who aided in the killing hesitated, had doubts and pangs of conscience. But they then somehow talked themselves into believing that they didn’t have anything to do with the crime in question.
SPIEGEL: Do you bear any guilt for what happened?
W.: No, I don’t have that feeling. We gave the Jews what was left of our bread, which otherwise would have been thrown away. We set it on their toolboxes near the place where they got water. I never did harm to any Jew. But I also wasn’t able to help any of them.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel a something like a sense of moral guilt?
W.: No. I spoke to them in a friendly manner; I never hit, kicked or killed any. I do not feel like a criminal just because I had to guard them. Germany had invaded Yugoslavia and that was a crime against humanity and international law. Then the Nazis conscripted me and brought me to Auschwitz. And how was I supposed to get away from there? If I had deserted, they would have shot me.
The German justice system tried once before, in the late 1970s, to serve justice on Jakob W. But the case was ultimately closed. Back then, he told investigators that he hadn’t known what “was happening inside the camp.” He also didn’t mention anything about being part of the selection on the unloading ramp. He only said: “My insight wasn’t that extensive.” Was it just a self-serving assertion to avoid incriminating himself? Today, Jakob W. says he can no longer remember the questioning. What he does say is that it would be absurd to claim that people didn’t know what was happening inside Auschwitz. “When the crematorium is constantly burning, then everyone knows that something is going on.”
SPIEGEL: What happened to you once the war ended?
W.: As an SS member, I was placed in an American camp for prisoners of war. At the end of 1946, I was in Dachau along with perhaps 6,000 prisoners. We were housed in three-story barracks and wore our old uniforms. My great coat was still torn up from the injury. Then, one morning, we were told that the Jews from Auschwitz would be coming today as witnesses.
SPIEGEL: They were supposed to identify you?
W.: There were around 20 men. They were from a special unit that led their own people to the gas chambers and they had to take them from there to the crematorium in wagons. They were all young people.
SPIEGEL: How was the encounter?
W.: They all had the right to spit on and denounce us. Instead they went past us, looked at us and said: “You poor pigs. Where are your officers and Blockführer?”