I first learned about the trial of SS guard Oskar Groening in January when I flew to Montreal to see my parents. Upon entering the house, I was startled to find Thomas Walther, a retired German judge, drinking tea in the kitchen. Thomas had just finished interviewing my father about his experience in Auschwitz and my father had agreed to be a co-plaintiff in the case against Groening.
On April 22, SS guard Oskar Groening was charged as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz between May and July 1944. Among this number were my grandfather, aunt, her week-old baby, and 50-100 of my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins. I offered to escort my father to the trial, knowing full well that he would think it absurd to go back to Germany to sit in a courtroom with an SS officer from Auschwitz. And that was, in fact, his reaction.
“I wish he was more purely a bad guy,” I heard myself comment to a friend. To my mind, Oskar Groening seemed not the best Nazi to be facing the court at the advanced age of 93. After all, he had been identified as an SS officer back in the 1980s, when he had refuted the claim of a Holocaust denier that Auschwitz had not happened. He himself claimed to have been just a “cog in the wheel.”
Yet my brief encounter with Mr. Walther and his mission to bring the testimony of as many Hungarian survivors as he could to the trial compelled me in ways that I could not articulate or consciously understand. It seemed essential to bear witness to the testimonies and to honor the work of Thomas and his colleagues, if only because their many petitions to the German courts to bring SS officers to trial on the charge of accessory to murder had been ignored for years. Although uncertain about what I was to encounter, I decided to attend the trial with my 16 and 18 year old daughters. Their attendance would ensure the transmission of their Holocaust inheritance to their children; one more generation to hold and transmit memory.
Time collapsed quickly in Luneburg. On the first day of the trial, security in front of the makeshift courtroom was tight. I did not scan the crowd to see where the neo-Nazis were holding their protest but focused instead on the warm embrace of young anti-fascists who had taken time off from work to listen to their shaming history. A thick row of police was planted firmly around the building. Inside, efficient and officious uniformed men were demanding to see identification which was a problem as our passports had been left at the hotel. The police are here to protect us, I reminded myself.
I could not shake off the thought that a mere 71 years ago with our passports stamped JUDE, police intent would have been to kill us. And where would Oskar Groening have been? He would have been supervising SS soldiers, anxious to keep order on the Auschwitz platform and to collect our money and belongings after we were escorted by dogs and guns to our death. My newborn cousin, I imagined, went quietly in his mother’s arms to the gas chamber. He would not have disturbed Groening, who testified that he requested a transfer out of Auschwitz only after another baby, left in a pile with a parent’s prayer for mercy, was smashed to death against a truck to stop its annoying cry.
Groening was not given his transfer. In response to the judge’s questioning, he stated that on at least one day, he worked a 24 hour shift to make sure order was maintained for the disposal of the Jews. After all, it was difficult to deal with the line of trains that waited on the platform. The Jews, starving and suffocating for days in locked cattle cars, had to wait for the doors to be opened one car at time to avoid chaos and ensure an organized selection to the right or to the left. “The crematorium had limited capacity” Groening explained. The number of Jews the gas chambers could dispose of in one 24 hour period – was just about 5,000.
As I listened to Groening’s dispassionate ramblings, the lens of my imagination focused narrowly on the platform, on the families wrenched apart and annihilated, the teenagers selected and tortured in slave labor camps. Where was my 18 year old father standing? I searched for him in the Auschwitz photos flashed on the evening news and in the newspaper articles that sprouted up everywhere. How many days had he been in the cattle car? Where was he on the platform? Did he say goodbye to his father, his sister? How long was he in Auschwitz before being sent on the death march to the slave labor camps at Mauthausen, Melc, and finally, to Ebensee where he was liberated. I had spent a lifetime reading Holocaust literature yet did not know what had happened to my own father whose trauma was sealed and buried.
By the second day, any ambivalence I had about the trial had evaporated. Without a cog – I knew with certainty — a wheel won’t turn. I did not hear “mea maxima culpa” in Groening’s opening statement that he was “morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews.” This acknowledgment was not redemptive or healing. I felt neither an impulse to forgive nor any particular desire to see him jailed. Listening to him respond to the judge’s pointed questions aroused neither empathy or anger but rather a black hole of profound emptiness and loss.
The trial became more painful each day as small details of the depravity and horror of Auschwitz emerged. Each day highlighted with increasing clarity the many trials that had not happened, and reminded me of the thousands of men like Groening, now dead, who had lived fulfilling, complacent lives. It was only in the silence of the room as the survivors read their testimonies that I felt a sense of sanctity and reconciliation.
My body has returned to New York but my heart and mind are in a German courtroom. My father is content because we are safely home. My daughters have been up late studying for tests but they take time each day to search the internet for news reports of the trial and recent testimonies. Fourteen survivors will testify in front of five German judges over the next two months. Genocide 70 years later is still genocide.