Seventy years after committing his crimes, a former guard at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp was convicted yesterday on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. The former SS member, Oskar Groening, is now 94 years old. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Groening kept the books at Auschwitz. He is recorded to have kept watch over the stolen possessions of Jewish prisoners and to have collected their money, just as they were being marched off to be killed. Groening admitted to these charges and accepted "moral guilt" for aiding in the atrocities of the Holocaust. His lawyers had argued that he should be acquitted since he did not actively partake in the murders, but the judge held otherwise. Groening had been complicit in the atrocities and had played a part in the horrific crimes that transpired at Auschwitz.
Groening was not oblivious to the mass executions at Auschwitz or the ways in which they were carried out. Back in 2005, he admitted to being "on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place." He knew about the gas chambers, why they were there, and who was being killed.
The "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz" may be one of the last Nazi-era war criminals to see justice. The sentence of four years may seem short, but prosecutors were not aiming in particular for a long sentence. They were seeking a conviction, first and foremost. Prosecutor Thomas Walther told The Associated Press:
"For us, it was not a big question of whether it is three, four, five, six years in prison — that was never a topic. It is an excellent verdict."
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said of the verdict:
"Albeit belatedly, justice has been done. Mr. Groening was only a small cog in the Nazis' death machine, but without the actions of people like him, the mass murder of millions of Jews and others would not have been possible . . .
We urge authorities (in Germany) — and in other European countries — not to relent in the quest for bringing the perpetrators of the biggest crime in the history of mankind to justice."
Groening's conviction comes as anti-Semitism is seeing an alarming rise in many European countries. Perhaps this conviction will remind us, if only momentarily, of the atrocious potential for evil in the human race -- and of the constant need to resist prejudice.
This conviction is also a reminder that proximate justice is the only justice that humanity can exact. Groening's four years in prison will be little more than symbolic, as they cannot come close to paying for the unfathomably weighty crime of aiding in the death of 300,000 people. Nevertheless, the symbolism is important and a cause for thankfulness.