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23 Apr 2015 00:00
A cargo wagon is parked at the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim. (Reuters)
A survivor of Auschwitz who lost 119 members of her family in the Holocaust, has confronted Oskar Gröning, the former SS guard who is on trial for complicity in the murder of 300 000 Jews, appealing to him to take responsibility for his actions.
Ninety-three year old Gröning, referred to as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, sat impassively in the courtroom as Eva Mozes Kor, from Terre Haute, Indiana, greeted him by name before launching into a dramatic account of her internment at Auschwitz extermination camp where the former SS officer worked for two years.
Kor described how within 30 minutes of her family’s arrival from Romania in May 1944 at the selection platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau – where Gröning’s task was to take prisoners’ suitcases – her family was “ripped apart forever” after her parents were sent to their deaths, and she and her 10-year-old twin sister Miriam were picked out by the notorious doctor Josef Mengele to take part in his infamous experimentation programme on twins.
“Of our family, only Miriam and I survived because we were used in Dr Mengele’s experiments,” the 81-year-old told the court.
“We became part of a group of twins girls, thirty sets of them aged two to 16 ... who were taken to a processing centre where they cut our hair short and took our clothes away.
Two Nazis and two prisoners restrained me [and] began heating a needle.
Kor, one of 60 third-party plaintiffs from around the world who are due to address the court during the four-month trial, described the “dirty bunk beds crawling with lice and rats” and of being “starved of human kindness and of the love of the mother and father we once had”. She added: “We had no rights but a fierce determination to survive one more day.”
She held the court spellbound as she recalled being a “Mengele twin” and the rigid experiment schedule she and Miriam were forced into. “On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we would be placed naked in a room for up to eight hours. They would measure our body parts ... it was very demeaning. On alternate days – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays – we were brought to a lab where they took a lot of blood from my left arm and injected it five times into my right arm.”
She developed a fever and nearly died. “Mengele came to see me. He looked at the thermometer and laughed sarcastically, saying: ‘Too bad. She’s so young. She only has two weeks left to live’. I knew he was right but I refused to die. I made a silent pledge to ensure that I’d do everything in my power to survive and be reunited with my sister,” she said.
When the two sisters saw each other again after weeks of separation, her sibling refused to talk about what had happened to her. “We did not talk about it until 1985,” she said.
They later discovered that had one of them died, the other would have been killed with an injection to the heart so that Mengele could carry out a “comparative autopsy” on them. Her sister discovered only much later in life that her kidney had never grown larger than that of a 10-year-old’s due to the testing.
Miriam died of cancer in 1993. Kor looked towards Gröning as she told him she forgave him any wrongdoing, but added: “My forgiveness does not absolve the perpetrator from taking responsibility for his actions. Neither does it diminish my need to know what happened there, including wanting to know exactly what it was Mengele injected us with. After 70 years I have still not been able to find out.”
On the second day of what will be one of the last ever Nazi trials, state prosecutor Jens Lehmann sought to emphasise the extent to which Gröning, who volunteered for the SS at the age of 19 or 20, was an enthusiastic follower of the regime.
He described Gröning’s upbringing with a German nationalist father who encouraged him to join the youth wing of the nationalist paramilitary organisation the Stahlhelm (steel helmet), which was subsequently subsumed into the Hitler Youth.
His brother, Gerhard, had been a Hitler Youth leader before becoming an officer in the Wehrmacht.
Gröning’s later wife, who had been engaged to Gerhard before he fell at Stalingrad, had been a member of the Band of German Maidens, the girls’ wing of the Nazi party. Lehmann said Gröning had also followed the request of the Nazi leadership to renounce his membership of the protestant church, effectively switching his allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi party.
“Even within the SS you were in a minority when you decided to follow orders and do this,” Lehmann told him.
Detailed questioning of Gröning, a retired bank clerk, reinforced a picture of the highly compartmentalised division of labour within Auschwitz, and the importance that non-commissioned officers such as Gröning – who has described himself as a “small cog in the wheel” – had in the smooth running of the mass killing machine that operated there.
Gröning showed no emotion as he described how he watched as the freight trains rolled into the arrival platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the prisoners tumbled out. “How was the mood of the people?” judge Franz Kompisch asked him. “Clueless,” Gröning said. “They had no idea what was going on. That changed over time ... as depending on where they had come from and what they had heard, some suspected something, others suspected nothing.”
But he repeatedly stressed the importance that was drummed into every soldier of keeping order, by keeping the trains rolling, and clearing the arrival ramp and adjacent platform immediately after a train had been unloaded to ensure the next one could be opened as soon as possible.
“The capacity of the gas chambers and the crematoria was quite limited,” he explained to the court, his thin, liver-spotted hands gesticulating towards the judge. “If the trains had unloaded before a previous train had been processed, this would have disturbed the order, and chaos would have ensued. For the sake of order, we waited until one train was entirely processed, including removing the luggage, before opening another one.”
He recalled that two doctors would be on duty at a time to “decide who was fit for work and who wasn’t”. Those who were not were sent directly to their deaths. Asked by Lehmann whether he knew about specific changes that were made during his period of deployment to the organisation of Auschwitz and its management structure, Gröning said: “No, I’m just a poor, small, non-commissioned officer.”
Outside the courtroom, Kor repeated her feelings of compassion for Gröning, but said: “He’s still rationalising it. He’s trying to minimalise his role as much as possible by saying he only stood and watched. But it could be that bearing witness to what he did in this court case is the best thing he’s ever done in his life. Isn’t that sad?”
The trial continues. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
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