Oskar Gröning looks like your average old man. He’s got the silver hair, tired-looking red ringed eyes, and a wrinkled face. He could be your grandfather if not for one simple caveat: he helped in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
The 94-year-old was a member of the SS an accountant in Auschwitz. A bookkeeper, he recorded money found on the clothing and in the luggage of incoming prisoners. This week, he was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Given his old age, he may very well die there, but this decision represents much more than an old German man passing away in jail.
Firstly, this is another example of Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Death need not always come from a monster with sharp teeth and claws. Sometimes, it comes with a smiling face from the most normal-looking person. For instance, if you have ever read Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin you’ll see my point. Nevertheless, Gröning’s case proves that your friendliest neighbor can commit horrible acts, even if they’re just recording money stolen from the pockets of murdered Jews.
Secondly, this is an example of delayed justice, but justice nonetheless. Yes, it is totally unfair that someone like this got to live a full life while millions were killed in their prime. If there is some kind of cosmic, karmic, or godly justice, it has a funny way of remaining dormant sometimes. However, this jail sentence (which is probably more than he deserves) has a powerful implication on the world in which we live. With so many anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers today, the judge who passed the punishment has brought the Holocaust back to vivid life before the eyes of all humanity. It doesn’t matter that almost a century has passed since the slaughter of millions of people. The Holocaust persists on in the survivors and their descendants who carry on their stories and with court cases like this. Just as survivors are dying out, so are their persecutors who remain at large. Both are invaluable ways of keeping the past alive.
It may be fun to have Josef Mengele as a villain in pop culture (The Boys from Brazil, The Marathon Man), but these people who committed unspeakable acts must be brought to justice so that we may never forget as put forth by fictitious Nazi hunter Yaakov Liberman in Brazil. Revenge is definitely part of the equationm but if you find them and kill them, there is no justice. They die and no one learns of their treachery. I know this case of an old Nazi may not be as cool or interesting or as fresh (the Holocaust was only about 20 years before his trial in the early ’60s) as Mossad agents kidnapping Eichmann and putting him on trail in Israel. Be that as it may, Judaism is big on the eye for an eye thing. Since we can’t kill Gröning 300,000 times in a row, a jail sentence will suffice as justice served for now.