Reinhold Henning made a living selling milk products before he retired. Hans Lipschis made guitars and Hubert Zafke sold agricultural equipment. Nothing about the ordinary lives of these men, whose average age is 95, reveals their dark past. In fact, if they hadn’t lived so long, probably no one would know their names.
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But Henning, Lipschis and Zafke have found themselves in the news in Germany and around the world. They are the unwilling stars in an extraordinary legal battle underway now in Germany to bring to justice the last living Nazis who served at Auschwitz.
Instead of spending their final days with their families, they have been taken to court, in a wheelchair, on a stretcher, or using a walker, held in jail cells and surrounded by reporters seeking details of what they did or did not do 70 years ago.
Henning, who was a guard at Auschwitz, was indicted last month as an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people. The fact that none of the prosecution witnesses could identify him and there is no proof of his personal involvement in murder did not stop him from being indicted and tried.
Zafke, who was a medic at the extermination camp to which Anne Frank was sent, is accused of being an accessory to the murder of 3,600 people, although there is no evidence that documents his involvement in such acts.
Most of the Germans who served in the camps were never prosecuted. Some of the senior figures were tried, in the Nuremberg and Bergen-Belsen trials in 1945, the Krakow trials in 1947 and the Frankfurt trials in the 1960s. But lower-level functionaries “were swallowed up in German society and lived wonderful lives,” says Prof. Gideon Greif, a historian at the Shem Olam Institute. “It was very convenient for the Germans not to touch them because they did not want to rouse the demons of the past. Germany got used to living with the veteran Nazis.”
Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that nearly 20,000 people served in the death camps but notes that hardly any of them were prosecuted. Because the German justice system focused on senior officials and officers, those that murdered Jews almost on a daily basis got off scot-free, Zuroff says.
The prosecution of these people now is due to the precedent set by the trial of John Demjanjuk, who was convicted in 2011 in Germany as an accessory to the murder of some 30,000 people in the Sobibor camp. Demjanjuk died before his appeal could be heard. But Demjanjuk’s trial determined that it was enough that a person fulfilled a role in an extermination camp to tie him to all the murders that took place in the camp during his period of service. “What is happening in Germany today is a revolution. It is late, but not too late,” Greif says. “To prove the guilt of some ‘nice old man’ there is no longer a need for direct witnesses to the acts. The fact that he served in Auschwitz is enough,” he added.
Greif is not moved by the sight of such frail old men appearing in court to answer charges over actions that happened when they were 20 years old. “There were elderly Jews who were brought to Auschwitz on trains and no one showed them mercy because of their age. Why should we show mercy to these criminals? It’s a very good thing that they won’t be dying in their beds,” he said.
Haaretz checked and found that there are five trials underway right now in courts throughout Germany against people who served in Auschwitz. Dozens of names of additional suspects who served in Auschwitz and Majdanek are on the desks of German prosecutors, ahead of decisions to be made over indictments.
“We are now collecting material against suspects who served in Bergen Belsen and Neuengamme near Hamburg, and against other suspects from Auschwitz,” says attorney Jens Rommel, the new director of the office that investigates Nazi war crimes in Germany. The office collects incriminating material and passes it on to prosecutors throughout Germany, who decide whether or not to indict. Investigators use archival material from Russia and Eastern Europe as well as from Germany and South America, where Nazis are documented as having fled after the war.
Last month saw a moving moment in Henning’s trial, when an Auschwitz survivor, Leon Schwartzbaum, 94, turned to the accused and said in a trembling voice: “We are the same age and we will soon be standing before the court above. Tell the truth about what you and your friends did.”
So far only men have been interrogated and indicted, but this year, the trial of a woman will begin: 91-year-old Helma Kissner, who operated a radio in Auschwitz and is accused of complicity in the murder of 260,000 people.
Not everyone is happy about the process. Mordechai Ciechanover, 82, of Ramat Gan, who served in the “roof-repair commando” at Auschwitz, said: “To put people 90 years old on trial is laughable. Where were the authorities before this?”
Eva Kor, 82, of Indiana in the United States, who was a victim of Josef Mengele’s medical experiments and who lost her parents and two of her sisters at Auschwitz, decided to forgive the Nazis. Last year she shocked observers at the trial of Oskar Groening, an SS man who was an “accountant” for money stolen from prisoners, and who was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people. Kor shook Groening’s hand and embraced him. “I have forgiven the Nazis. Not because they were good people and not to absolve them of their crimes, but to release myself from the bonds of the past and let myself be a happy person,” she said this week in a phone conversation with Haaretz.
Groening himself revealed his Nazi past in the 1980s to fight against Holocaust denial and in the 1990s he testified against another Nazi in Germany. His openness led to his own indictment for his role in the Auschwitz death camp. As opposed to others, Groening did not deny his actions. Rather, he asked for forgiveness. “There is no doubt that I bear moral responsibility. Whether it is criminal responsibility, you will decide,” he told the court.
Groening was sentenced to four years in prison, and is now awaiting the outcome of his appeal. Kor supports the appeal, saying it is foolish to sentence a 94-year-old man to prison and that instead, his testimony should be used for education.
Opinions are divided over the criminal and moral responsibility borne by those who served as young people in low-level positions. According to Greif, “these are exactly the people whose cruelty the average prisoner in Auschwitz encountered every day, every minute. The cruel and sadistic ‘low-level’ individuals were the ones who beat, tortured and humiliated prisoners and denied them food. There is full justification to prosecute these ‘small’ people because in terms of their cruelty they were giants,” Greif said.
Zuroff says: “Of course these people do not bear the main responsibility for the Holocaust, but international law recognizes personal criminal responsibility and rejects the argument of ‘orders from above.’” From Zuroff’s experience hunting Nazis all over the world, he says: “Some of them are proud to this day of what they did for the fatherland.”
Attorney Peter-Michael Deistel, who is defending the medic Zafke, said: “It is very embarrassing that the justice system in Germany, which was negligent in dealing with the Holocaust, is trying to cover this up now and placing responsibility on the wrong people. This is worrisome from a human perspective and dubious historically and politically.”
However, Rommel, of the investigations office, say there is no statute of limitations on murder, adding: “We have a moral obligation. Germany was the country that organized these mass crimes and therefore it must investigate them.”