Hundred-year-old Nazi death camp guard says he is 'innocent' at trial

Hundred-year-old Nazi SS death camp guard claims he ‘did absolutely nothing’ and is ‘innocent’ at trial accusing him of 3,518 counts of accessory to murder

  • The man, identified only as Josef S, is accused of complicity in 3,518 murders 
  • 100-year-old went on trial in Neuruppin, 40 miles north of Berlin, and told the court today: ‘I am innocent’
  • Josef S is now the oldest person ever put on trial for Nazi-era crimes 
  • He served as a guard at the Sachsenhausen death camp from 1942 until 1945

A 100-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, the oldest person charged with complicity in the murder of thousands of detainees, told a German court that he ‘did absolutely nothing’ and is not guilty at his trial.  

The centenarian, identified only as Josef S, appeared in court on Friday charged with ‘knowingly and willingly’ assisting in murder of 3,518 people at the Sachsenhausen death camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1942. 

Charges against Josef S., who was an SS paramilitary and a camp watchman, include aiding and abetting the ‘execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942’ and the murder of prisoners ‘using the poisonous gas Zyklon B’.

‘I am innocent,’ Josef told the court on Friday, adding that he did ‘absolutely nothing’. 

‘I didn’t do anything at all in Sachsenhausen. I am not guilty, because I know nothing about it,’ Josef said, reported DPA news agency.      

‘Everything is torn’ from his head, Josef S. said, as he complained he was the only one in the dock.

His defence lawyer did not permit questions concerning Josef’s life during World War II after saying at the opening of the case on Thursday that his client would not respond to the charges.   

The Sachsenhausen camp detained more than 200,000 people between 1936 and 1945, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people.

Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labour, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.  

Josef S, 100, is the oldest person ever put on trial for Nazi-era crimes as appears in court charged with complicity in murder at the Sachsenhausen death camp

Josef is charged with complicity in 3,518 murders by aiding and abetting ‘executions by firing squad’ and the murder of prisoners ‘using the poisonous gas Zyklon B’

Josef’s defence had said at the opening of the case on Thursday that he would not speak about his time at the camp, but would only provide details about his personal life.

His refusal to speak about the camp is significant because trials of former guards provide a chance to amass new evidence about what happened at Nazi death camps and enter it into historical record. 

Other guards – including ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ Oskar Groening – have spoken about their activities at the camps during their trials.

Arriving alone at the hearing with his walking aid, Josef S. recounted in detail his past, including his work at his family’s farm in Lithuania with his seven siblings before his enrolment in the army in 1938.

After the war, he was transferred to a detainees camp in Russia before he was sent to Brandenburg state in Germany where he worked as a farmer and later as a locksmith.

Speaking with a clear voice, he spoke about his past birthdays with his daughters and grandchildren, or about his late wife.

‘My wife always said that ‘there’s no other man in the world like you’,’ said the widower since 1986.

Josef remains free during the trial. Even if convicted, he is highly unlikely to be put behind bars given his age.

On Thursday, the bespectacled man answered the judge with a clear voice when asked about his name, age and home address.

Josef was visibly proud when he replied that he will ‘celebrate my 101st birthday, on November 16.

The executive vice president of the Auschwitz Committee expressed disappointment at the lawyer’s announcement that the suspect would not comment on the allegations.

‘I found him surprisingly robust and present. He would have the strength to make an apology and he would also have the strength to remember,’ Christoph Heubner told reporters outside the building. 

‘Obviously, however, he does not want to muster the strength to remember, and for the survivors of the camps and for the relatives of the murdered who have come here to hear some truth spoken, this means once again a rejection, a disparagement and a confrontation with the continued silence of the SS.’

Opening the case on Thursday, prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the court: ‘The defendant knowingly and willingly aided and abetted this at least by conscientiously performing guard duty, which was seamlessly integrated into the killing system.’

A survivor of Sachsenhausen, 100-year-old Leon Schwarzbaum, attended the trial as a visitor.

‘This is the last trial for my friends, acquaintances and my loved ones, who were murdered, in which the last guilty person can still be sentenced – hopefully’ Schwarzbaum, who also survived the Auschwitz death camp and Buchenwald concentration camp, told dpa.

Leon Schwarzbaum, a Holocaust survivor, holds up a picture of his relatives as he attends the court hearing in the town of Neuruppin, Germany

Josef’s trial is being held by the Neuruppin state court – close to where the camp was located – but has been moved from the courthouse to a converted sports hall in the town of Brandenburg.

Hearings will last just a few hours each day due to Josef’s advanced age. The case is expected to continue until January.

He is just the latest elderly member of the Nazi genocide machine to be put on trial for crimes committed during the Second World War. 

The case comes a week after a 96-year-old German woman, who was a secretary in a Nazi death camp, dramatically fled before the start of her trial but was caught several hours later.

She too has been charged with complicity in murder. Her trial resumes October 19.

Prosecutors have been going after camp administrative staff in recent years, relying on a 2011 ruling that meant former Nazis can be held responsible for deaths in camps where they worked even if it cannot be proved they personally killed anyone.

Despite his advanced age, a medical assessment in August found that Josef S. was fit to stand trial. The proceedings are expected to last until early January.

‘He is not accused of having shot anyone in particular but of having contributed to these acts through his work as a guard and of having been aware such killings were happening at the camp,’ a court spokeswoman said. 

Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing several camp survivors and victims’ relatives in the case, said that even 76 years after the end of World War II, trials like these were necessary to hold perpetrators to account.

‘There’s no expiry date on justice,’ he told AFP.

One of his clients is Antoine Grumbach, 79, whose father Jean was in the French resistance and was killed in Sachsenhausen in 1944.

He hopes Josef S. will shed light on the methods used to kill people in the camp, but also that the accused ‘will say “I was wrong, I am ashamed”,’ Grumbach told AFP.

The Nazi SS guard detained more than 200,000 people at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1936 and 1945, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people.

Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labour, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. 

If convicted, Josef S. could spend several years in jail but Waterkamp said sentences in cases like these are ‘mostly symbolic’, given that the accused have reached the end of their lives. 

Germany has been hunting down former Nazi staff since the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent.

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.

Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.

Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder but died before they could be imprisoned.

Most recently, former SS guard Bruno Dey was found guilty at the age of 93 last year and was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Prosecutors are investigating eight other cases, according to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.

Separately in the northern German town of Itzehoe, a 96-year-old former secretary in a Nazi death camp is on trial for complicity in murder.

She dramatically fled before the start of her trial, but was caught several hours later. Her trial resumes on October 19. 

Josef S served at the Sachsenhausen camp (pictured) from 1942 until 1945, and is accused of complicity in 3,518 murders that happened during his time there

Sachsenhausen: Camp where the Nazis ‘perfected’ mass murder

Built in 1936 to house high-ranking political prisoners, Sachsenhausen is the camp where the Nazis perfected killing methods that were scaled up and used to murder millions at larger and more notorious camps such as Auschwitz.

Early executions at Sachsenhausen were done by putting prisoners into a room and asking them to stand against a wall to have their height measured, before they were shot in the back of the neck through a hidden hatch.

This proved effective but time-consuming, so the Nazis began piling people into a ditch where they were either shot or hanged.

While this proved better at killing large numbers of people, it caused prisoners to panic and made the process more difficult.

Prisoners arrive at the Sachsenhausen camp

It was after these trials that Nazi executioners landed on the idea of using poison gas with some of the earliest experiments carried out at Sachsenhausen using small chambers or vans.

Like most other camps, Sachsenhausen was used to house and kill Jews, homosexuals and other ‘undesirables’ – but it also housed a large number of notable politicians and political figures.

Among its inmates were Yakov Dzhugashvili, Joseph Stalin’s eldest son, Paul Reynaud, the penultimate Prime Minister of France, Francisco Largo Caballero, Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic, and the wife and children of the Crown Prince of Bavaria.

It operated as a Nazi camp until 1945 when it was liberated by the Soviets. 

During that time some 200,000 prisoners were sent there, about half of whom died – in-part due to executions, but also from disease and over-work.

After the war the camp continued to function, this time as a Soviet prison, and continued to house political prisoners.

Some 60,000 people were locked up there by the Red Army, including formers Nazis, Russian who had collaborated with them, and anti-Communist opponents of Stalin’s regime.

One of the men running the camp during this time was Roman Rudenko, the Soviet’s chief prosecutor during the Nuremburg Trials.

It is thought some 12,000 people died in Sachsenhausen under the Soviets before the camp was permanently closed in 1950.

After it was closed, excavations were carried out to try and recover the remains of some of those who died there.

In total, the bodies of some 12,500 victims were recovered – mostly children, adolescents and elderly people.  

Former Nazi guards who faced justice years after their crimes

The planned opening of the trial in Itzehoe came one day before the 75th anniversary of the sentencing of 12 senior members of the Nazi establishment to death by hanging at the first Nuremberg trial.

It also comes a week before separate proceedings in Neuruppin, near Berlin, against a 100-year-old former camp guard.

Seventy-six years after the end of World War II, time is running out to bring people to justice for their role in the Nazi system.

Prosecutors are currently handling a further eight cases, including former employees at the Buchenwald and Ravensbrueck camps, according to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.

In recent years, several cases have been abandoned as the accused died or were physically unable to stand trial.

The last guilty verdict was issued to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July at the age of 93.

Historically, it had been difficult to persecute former Nazis for murders at concentration camps because of the difficulty of proving that they were directly involved in the killing.

But the conviction of John Demjanjuk in 2011 set a legal precedent whereby guards and staff could be held responsible for deaths at camps where they served even if it cannot be proved they killed anyone.

The ruling set off a wave of new litigation and broadened the scope of targets to include camp administrators such as Furchner – who is the only woman to stand trial over Nazi-era atrocities in recent years.  

Here, MailOnline looks at others who have faced justice years after their crimes took place…

John Demjanjuk

John Demjanjuk during his trial in Munich in 2009 over the murder of 27,900 Jews at a Nazi death camp following 30 years to try prosecute him after he moved to Ohio

Ukrainian-American Demjanjuk was a Nazi guard who served at the Sobibor, Majdanek, and Flossenbürg death camps between 1942 and 1945.

Originally conscripted into the Soviet Red Army, Demjanjuk was captured by the Nazis in 1942 and became a ‘Trawniki man’ – a name for eastern European Nazi collaborators recruited from prisoner-of-war camps.

After the war he married a West German woman he met in a displaced persons camp and emigrated to the US, where he settled in Ohio.

In 1977, Israeli investigators identified Demjanjuk as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ – a guard at the Treblinka death camp notorious for his cruelty, and had him extradited in 1986 to face trial.

He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death, but his conviction was quashed in 1993 when Israel’s Supreme Court heard evidence that ‘Ivan’s’ true identity was another Soviet man named Ivan Marchenko.

While the identity has never been conclusively proved, it was enough to cast reasonable doubt on the case and Demjanjuk was released.

He returned to the US, but was stripped of his citizenship in 2002 and in 2009 Germany had him extradited to stand trial accused of being accessory to the murder of some 30,000 inmates at Sobibor who died while he was there.

Demjanjuk was a test-case. Previously, it had been difficult to convict former Nazis guards of murder at the death camps because it was necessary to prove they had been directly involved in the killings.

But lawyers persuaded a judge that it was reasonable to convict Demjanjuk of being an accessory to murder simply by working at the camp, whether or not he was directly involved in the killing.

In May 2011 he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but was released pending appeal. He died the following year.

However, the case set a crucial legal precedent and opened up a wave of litigation against camp guards and administrative staff for their roles in the Nazi’s genocidal death machine. 

Oskar Groening – ‘The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ 

Oskar Groening, a 94-year-old former SS sergeant looking up as he listens to the verdict of his trial at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany in 2017

The former Auschwitz-Birkenau guard Oskar Groening as a young man in an SS uniform

Born in 1921 in Lower Saxony, Groening was the son of a textile worker father and housekeeper mother who died when he was four years old.

His family had a military history, as Groening’s grandfather had served in an elite regiment of troops from the Duchy of Brunswick.

Raised in a conservative household, radical politics entered Groening’s life at a young age as his father joined far-right group Stahlhelm – meaning Steel Helmet – in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

Groening joined Stahlhelm’s youth wing only a few years later, in the early 1930s, before swapping to the Hitler Youth after the Nazis seized power.

Groening finished school with top marks aged 17, and began working as a bank clerk before the outbreak of war just months later. 

Groening resolved to join an elite unit of the new German military, and settled on the Waffen SS.

Accepted into the unit, Groening spent a year there before being ordered to report to Berlin for a special duty – helping to run the Auschwitz death camp.

Upon arrival, Groening was assigned to the administrative branch – a position that would earn him his nickname as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz. 

It was some time before he learned the camp’s true purpose and, once he found out, Groening did complain and request a transfer to a combat role.

However, he never objected to the killing of Jews and others at the camp – only the methods being used – and, once his transfer request was rejected, he settled into a comfortable life eating extra rations the guards were provided and getting drunk with his fellow officers.

Groening served at the camp from 1942 until 1944 when he got his wish and was sent to fight the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge.

Captured by the British in 1945, he was transferred to the UK where he worked as a farm labourer, later returning to Germany to work as a the manager of a glass factory.

Groening spoke rarely of his experiences at Auschwitz until the mid-2000s, when he revealed his role as a way to hit back against Holocaust deniers.

He gave several prominent interviews during which he spoke candidly about gas chambers, ovens and burial pits, as well as taking jewellery from the dead.

In 2014 he was charged by German prosecutors as being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people who died in Auschwitz during his time there, and in July 2015 he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in jail.

Groening appealed against the sentence, and in 2018 he died in hospital before beginning his jail term.   

Bruno Dey 

Last year 93-year-old Bruno Dey, pictured, was convicted for his part in the Holocaust after serving as an SS guard at Stutthof 

The last guilty verdict was issued to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July at the age of 93. 

He was accused of complicity in the murder of 5,230 people when he worked at the Stutthof camp near what was then Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland.

Dey acknowledged last year that he had been aware of the camp’s gas chambers and admitted seeing ’emaciated figures, people who had suffered’, but insisted he was not guilty.

Josef S. 

Josef, a 100-year-old former guard at the Sachsenhausen camp, has gone on trial for complicity in the murder of 3,518 people at the camp.

The man, whose surname wasn’t released in line with German privacy laws, is charged with aiding and abetting the ‘execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942’ and the murder of prisoners ‘using the poisonous gas Zyklon B’.

He is alleged to have worked at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1942 and 1945 as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing

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