A 100-year-old former Nazi security guard who worked at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is now on trial at the Landgericht Neuruppin court in Brandenburg, Germany, on Thursday.
Known only as “Josef S,” due to German privacy laws, the man was 21 years old when he first became a guard at Sachsenhausen in 1942.
Bringing back memories of the landmark trial of Ohio man John Demjanjuk, who had immigrated to the US and worked as an autoworker for decades, until he was finally repatriated and stood trial as a 90-year-old, the case has elicited a range of opinions across Europe.
Like Demjanjuk, it has been many decades since wartime crimes took place; and memories, even of atrocities like those that took place in concentration camps, are not always completely accurate. Some say that putting a 100-year-old man on trial is inappropriate.
Others believe it is never too late to prosecute any individual for the crime of even one murder; in the case of Josef S, it is a matter of the murders of a total of 3,518 prisoners, at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp near Berlin.
Seventy-six years after the end of World War II, the man stands accused of complicity in the shooting of prisoners of war from the Soviet Union as well as the murder of other people by the use of the infamous Zyklon B gas.
100-year-old former Nazi guard oldest person to stand trial for war crimes
He is the oldest individual to stand trial for his alleged WWII-era crimes at a time when many of the perpetrators are already long deceased.
But the Demjanjuk trial a decade ago set an important precedent in that the former SS guard was charged with and found guilty of aiding and abetting the crimes — until that point, those who stood trial had to have been charged with direct participation in the murders of those who lived in concentration camps.
After that point, the defense that the individual was “just following orders” from higher-ups or perhaps that the person worked peripherally to the killings would have precluded them from being charged.
In a case that has been continued, 98-year-old camp secretary Irmgard Furchtner will also soon stand trial for her part in the murders of 10,000 people at the Stutthof camp. As a secretary for the Nazis, her alleged knowledge of atrocities likely would not have brought her before the court prior to the Demjanjuk case.
The pretrial hearing of 100-year-old former Nazi guard Josef S is taking place today in a sports hall at a prison in Brandenburg an der Havel, where it began amid strict security this morning.
Arriving to court in a wheelchair, and carrying a briefcase, the accused entered the building using a walker. He had reportedly lived in the area for many years, working as a locksmith. He has made no public statements regarding his case and his attorney, Stefan Waterkamp, told prosecutors that he would make no comment at the trial regarding the allegations.
Jews, prisoners of war, political opponents, resistance fighters, gays killed at Sachsenhausen
However, the lawyer stated that the defendant would speak about his personal circumstances at the hearing today.
Josef S, who was 21 when he first worked as a guard at Sachsenhausen in 1942 is now almost 101. His trial is scheduled to continue until January of 2022.
Public prosecutor Cyrill Klement stated at the hearing “The defendant supported this knowingly and willingly – at least by conscientiously carrying out guard duty, which was perfectly integrated into the killing regime,” regarding the systematic killings that took place at Sachsenhausen between 1941 and 1945.
Scores of thousands of people died at Sachsenhausen, which was located in Oranienburg, north of Berlin. The people sent there included resistance fighters, Jews, political opponents of the Nazis, homosexuals and prisoners of war, including the Russians who Josef S. allegedly killed.
After a gas chamber was installed at the concentration camp in 1943, 3,000 people were massacred there as the war was ending because the Nazis there declared they were “unfit to march.”
Despite the many decades since the end of the war, there are at least 17 survivors of the infamous camp, all plaintiffs in the proceedings, who will speak out at the trial about what they experienced there.
Christoffel Heijer was a child of six when he last set eyes on his father. Johan Hendrik Heijer, another survivor, was one of 71 resistance fighters from Holland who had been murdered at Sachsenhausen.
“Murder is… not a crime that can be legally erased by time,” Heijer told interviewers from the Berliner Zeitung.
Leon Schwarzenbaum, who is himself 100 years old, is another survivor of Sachsenhausen — but this incredible man also went on to survive imprisonment at the equally infamous Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps as well.
Telling reporters that he hopes the trial of the former-Nazi will end in a conviction, he added Josef S’ court proceedings were the “last trial for my friends and acquaintances and my loved ones who were murdered.”
Last year, much like his fellow Nazi SS member, concentration camp guard Bruno Dey was convicted of complicity in 5,000 murders at the same camp where secretary Furchner had also worked.
Of the 3,000 guards at the Stutthof concentration camp alone, only 50 were convicted, according to a BBC report. After his conviction, Dey was convicted of complicity in mass murder but given only a suspended sentence.
Furchner never showed up for her trial, which had been scheduled to begin last week north of Hamburg, escaping from a nursing home and taking a taxi out of town. After being apprehended in the city of Hamburg, she was released from custody earlier this week and her trial has been scheduled to begin on October 19.