The Auschwitz Accountant

The Holocaust is, without any doubt, one of the most terrible genocides in history. Hundreds of Nazis were executed for their role in the murder of 11 million people. And now one more person faces the consequence for his role. Oskar Groening is on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Groening believed the Nazis wanted the best for Germany and did something about it. He joined the Hitler Youth the same year Hitler came to power. He burned books written by Jews. He thought National Socialism would help his country.

Groening sounds like everything post-World War II society despises and shuns. But should he be forced to stand trial now, at the age of 93, seventy years after the end of his war? And why is he only on trial now, when most of his fellow soldiers were tried in the late 1940s?

The Nazis Party relied on propaganda to recruit people to their cause. This strategy certainly worked on Groening, who joined the Waffen-SS in 1940 against his conservative father’s wishes.  About a year after he started working as a bookkeeper, the Nazis decided that desk jobs should be reserved for injured soldiers. They sent Groening to Auschwitz, the most infamous of all Nazi extermination camps.

When he and 22 other SS men arrived, they were greeted warmly and given food and bunks. It sounds like the beginning of any other war story, right? Just meeting the other guys. But minutes after their arrival, someone yelled “Transport!” and several of the guards left the room.

Like most Nazis later put on trial for war crimes, Groening claims he didn’t know what the purpose of Auschwitz was. According to his version of the story, the information was kept from the new guards for as long as possible. But there is no way to keep the systematic murder of people a secret for very long.

The next day, Groening was taken to taken to barracks where the prisoners’ money was kept. He was told his background in banking would be useful, but wasn’t informed that no one would ever get their money back. He soon noticed that Auschwitz received higher-than-average rations, and his colleagues informed him that he was working in an extermination camp.

His job became sorting and counting the money taken from prisoners and sending it to Berlin. He also “guarded” the personal effects of prisoners until they were sorted. For this, the media has dubbed him “The Auschwitz Accountant.”

One night, Groening witnessed a soldier beating a baby against a truck until it stopped crying. He asked his supervisor to transfer him to the front. The man refused and told him to get back to work.

He tried again one more time, after witnessing in person the gassing of prisoners, but the supervisor reminded him of the oath he had taken and sent him back to his desk. Groening’s request to be sent to the front lines was finally granted and he became a British P.O.W. before returning home to Germany.

And now, 70 years later, he is on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, a crime which, in Germany, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. The trial started on April 20.

Groening’s lawyers will no doubt argue that now is a bad time to try him, since he is 93 and went seven decades without any repercussions. In fact, he has become an avid opponent of Holocaust denial.

His trial seems to be a final attempt from Germany to bring Nazis to justice, as many have either died or no longer live in Germany, and many Holocaust survivors have already passed away. As for this particular man, however, the jury will have to decide if he shares legal guilt, as he already admits to moral guilt. But oddly enough, even a survivor of his terrible work “feels pity for him.”