BERLIN – A 100-year-old man went on trial in Germany Thursday, accused of being an accessory to murder for serving as a Nazi SS guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin during World War II.
The trial of the defendant, who is charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder, was held at the Neuruppin state court, which moved the proceedings to a prison sport hall in Brandenburg for organizational reasons.
The suspect, who was identified only as Josef S. in keeping with German privacy rules, is alleged to have worked at Sachsenhausen between 1942 and 1945 as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing.
The suspect's lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, told the court that his client did not want to comment on the allegations, German news agency dpa reported. There are no formal pleas in the German legal system.
Authorities say the defendant is considered fit enough to stand trial despite his advanced age, though the number of hours per day the court is in session will be limited.
More than 200,000 people were held at Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. Tens of thousands of inmates died of starvation, disease, exhaustion from forced labor and other causes, as well as through medical experiments and systematic SS extermination operations including shootings, hangings and gassing.
Exact numbers on those killed vary, with upper estimates of some 100,000, though scholars suggest figures of 40,000 to 50,000 are likely more accurate.
“The defendant knowingly and willingly aided and abetted this at least by conscientiously performing guard duty, which was seamlessly integrated into the killing system,” prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the court.
A survivor of Sachsenhausen, 100-year-old Leon Schwarzbaum, attended the trial as a visitor.
“This is the last trial for my friends, acquaintances and my loved ones, who were murdered, in which the last guilty person can still be sentenced — hopefully” Schwarzbaum, who also survived the Auschwitz death camp and Buchenwald concentration camp, told dpa.
The executive vice president of the Auschwitz Committee expressed disappointment at the lawyer's announcement that the suspect would not comment on the allegations.
“I found him surprisingly robust and present. He would have the strength to make an apology and he would also have the strength to remember,” Christoph Heubner told reporters outside the building. “Obviously, however, he does not want to muster the strength to remember, and for the survivors of the camps and for the relatives of the murdered who have come here to hear some truth spoken, this means once again a rejection, a disparagement and a confrontation with the continued silence of the SS.”
The opening of the trial comes a week after the opening of another elderly concentration camp suspect's trial was disrupted.
A 96-year-old former secretary for the Stutthof camp’s SS commander skipped the opening of her trial at the Itzehoe state court in northern Germany. She was tracked down within hours and proceedings are to resume on Oct. 19.