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The Life of an Auschwitz Guard

During WWII, Oskar Groening watched as hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths. Is his prosecution now too little too late?


Oskar Groening, at the age of 94, is currently on trial in Germany, charged with being an ‘accessory’ to several hundred thousand murders while he served as an SS officer at Auschwitz during World War II. Last week, prosecutors called for a three-and-a-half year sentence for the former concentration camp guard, who admits moral guilt but denies that he ever committed a crime, as he didn’t personally kill any of the prisoners.

I first met Groening just over 11 years ago in a Hamburg hotel. He had agreed—after a great deal of persuading—to give an interview for the BBC/PBS documentary series ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution,’ that I wrote and produced. I was, frankly, astonished that he had consented to take part in the series. Never before, to my knowledge, had a member of the SS from Auschwitz ever agreed to appear on camera. I was even more surprised by what he had to say. Here is an extract from his testimony, as I recorded it in my 2006 book
Auschwitz: a New History.

In 1942, when he was twenty-one years old, Oskar Groening was posted to Auschwitz. He almost immediately witnessed a transport arriving at “the ramp”—the platform where the Jews disembarked. “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.” He watched while SS doctors first separated men from women and children, and then selected who was fit to work and who should be gassed immediately. “Sick people were lifted on to lorries,” says Groening. “Red Cross lorries—they always tried to create the impression that people had nothing to fear.”

He estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of those on the first transport he witnessed in September 1942 were selected to be murdered at once.

“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 lorry … then when it cried like a sick chicken, they chucked it against the edge of the lorry. I couldn’t understand that an SS man would take a child and throw its head against the side of a lorry  … or kill them by shooting them and then throw them on a lorry like a sack of wheat.”

Groening, according to his story, was so filled by “doubt and outrage” that he went to his superior officer and told him: “It’s impossible, I can’t work here any more. If it is necessary to exterminate the Jews, then at least it should be done within a certain framework.” His superior officer calmly listened to Groening’s complaints, reminded him of the SS oath of allegiance he had sworn and said that he should “forget” any idea of leaving Auschwitz. But he also offered hope—of a kind. He told Groening that the “excesses” he saw that night were an “exception,” and that he himself agreed that members of the SS should not participate in such “sadistic” events. Documents confirm that Groening subsequently put in for a transfer to the front, which was refused. So he carried on working at Auschwitz.

Significantly, Groening did not complain to his boss about the principle of murdering the Jews, merely its practical implementation. When he saw people in front of him who he knew were going to die within hours in the gas chambers, he says his feelings were “very ambiguous.” He says, “How do you feel when you’re in Russia, here’s a machine gun in front of you, and there’s a battalion of Russians coming running towards you and you have to pull the trigger and shoot as many as possible? I’m saying it on purpose like this because there’s always behind you the fact that the Jews are enemies who come from the inside of Germany. The propaganda had for us such an effect that you assumed that to exterminate them was basically something that happened in war. And to that extent a feeling of sympathy or empathy didn’t come up.”

When pressed for the reason why children were murdered, Groening replies: “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.


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