The genocide of Jews during World War II is widely considered to be the most heinous event in human history, with an estimated 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945.
Although 70 years have passed, the plight of European Jews during the reign of the Nazis is unlikely to ever be forgotten.
After the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of the war, many of those who worked at Auschwitz stood trial for war crimes, but only 12% were ever tried, meaning that the vast majority escaped prosecution for their crimes.
But some have persevered in the fight for justice, culminating in reports that a 91-year-old woman may stand trial for her involvement in the killing of 260,000 Jews at Auschwitz between April and July 1944.
Woman Facing Death in Prison
According to news reports, the woman was aged just 21 when she worked at the concentration camp as a telegraph operator. Her job was to assist members of the SS within the camp while hundreds of thousands of Jews were cruelly murdered in gas chambers.
The unnamed woman is facing charges for her complicity in the killings of around 260,000 Jews, due to a 2011 case which found that working at a concentration camp is sufficient to establish culpability for murder.
Previously, German courts required proof that workers had committed at least one crime before they could be convicted, but the 2011 decision found that ‘all…activity in Auschwitz was characterised by the fact that it supported multiple murders, without providing support to specific individual acts.’
A German court is set to decide whether the woman will actually stand trial for the offences, given her mature age and likelihood of dying in custody. If charged, she will be the latest of several concentration camp workers to stand trial for war crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust.
In September 2014, 93-year-old Oskar Gröning was charged with being an accessory to murder for his role in aiding the killing of between 300,000 and 425,000 Jews at Aushwitz.
Gröning became widely known as the ‘bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ because of his role as an accountant at the infamous concentration camp. His job involved counting money seized from people at the camps, before sending it back to his Nazi superiors. But despite his largely clerical role, he did not escape the horrors of the Holocaust and frequently witnessed the suffering and killing of people, including children, within the camp.
His trial commenced in April of this year in Germany, with Gröning seeking forgiveness for his role, while maintaining that his involvement was relatively minor. He expressed his ‘moral guilt’ for the atrocities and asked the judges to decide whether he would be considered guilty under criminal law.
After hearing evidence from 60 witnesses over three months, Gröning was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and was sentenced to four years imprisonment.
But due to his old age, many have expressed concerns about whether he will actually serve time in prison. This has been further compounded by Gröning’s decision to appeal against his conviction.
Should Concentration Camp Workers Face Trial?
The question of whether those who worked at concentration camps under the orders of superiors should stand trial at all, let alone some 70 years later, is a polarising one.
On the one hand, those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust are right to feel the need to bring all involved to justice.
Many of those who turned out to watch Gröning’s trial said that they were unable to forgive him, and welcomed the decision to put him to trial despite the nature of his role and the time that has passed.
A collective group of Holocaust survivors released a statement saying that the trial did little to alleviate their pain, ‘but it gives [them] satisfaction that now the perpetrators cannot evade prosecution as long as they live.’
But legal experts have expressed their amazement that such ‘low-level’ players are being prosecuted for serious crimes like murder so long after the events, with some criticising the German government for its delayed action in prosecuting suspects, and even labelling it ‘scandalous.’
Some Holocaust survivors have expressed forgiveness for people like Gröning, saying that prison will achieve nothing. Amongst them is Eva Kor, who even tweeted a photo of herself shaking Gröning’s hand, stating that it did not make ‘any sense’ to send an elderly man to prison.
But while some may forgive, the unimaginable pain and suffering of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, the mentally ill and many other groups at the hands of the Nazi regime will never be forgotten.