Former Auschwitz guard, 94, convicted as accessory to murder

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Auschwitz Guard Charged With 300,000 Counts of Accessory to Murder

LUENEBURG, Germany (AP) -- Oskar Groening confessed during his trial to feeling "moral guilt" for serving as an SS sergeant at Auschwitz. On Wednesday, a court ruled that he was guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and sentenced him to four years in prison.

The 94-year-old, who testified that he oversaw the collection of prisoners' belongings and ensured valuables and cash were separated to be sent to Berlin, listened expressionlessly to the verdict after a 2 1/2-month trial that could set a legal landmark.

The verdict, and presiding Judge Franz Kompisch's thorough and impassioned detailing of the Lueneburg state court's ruling, renewed hope of more 11th-hour prosecutions of former members of the SS who served at death camps - no matter their age.

"This verdict was critical, because this is the first case brought where the prosecution charged a person who wasn't involved in the physical side of mass murder," said the Simon Wiesenthal Center's head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, in a telephone interview from Belgrade.

Click through to see Groening's trial in photos:

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Former Auschwitz guard, 94, convicted as accessory to murder
Former SS sergent Oskar Groening arrives for the judgement at the trial against him in in Lueneburg, Germany Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Groening, 94, who is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz between May and June 1944, has been convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. The state court gave Groening a four-year sentence. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Journalists gather outside the courtroom after a verdict in the case of former SS officer Oskar Groening on July 15, 2015 at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Oskar Groening, 94, sat impassively as judge Franz Kompisch said 'the defendant is found guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases' of deported Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in 1944. AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Former SS sergent Oskar Groening arrives for the judgement at the trial against him in in Lueneburg, Germany Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Groening, 94, who is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz between May and June 1944, has been convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. The state court gave Groening a four-year sentence. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
94-year-old former SS sergeant Oskar Groening looks up as he listens to the verdict of his trial Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Groening, who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool Photo via AP)
Auschwitz survivor Max Eisen shows a photograph from 1940 that shows him, center, with his parents and brothers, Thursday, April 23, 2015, in a courtroom in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Eisen attends the trial against former SS guard Oskar Groening, 93, who is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool via AP)
With the help of a Red Cross worker, former SS guard Oskar Groening, right, leaves the court after the verdict of his trial in Lueneburg, Germany, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Groening, 94, who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
LUNEBURG, GERMANY - JULY 15: Oskar Groening, 94, a former member of the Waffen-SS who worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, awaits the verdict in his trial on July 15, 2015 in Lueneburg, Germany. Groening was accused of complicity in the murder of 300,000 mostly Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz in 1944. He worked as an accountant for the SS at Auschwitz and has admitted moral and personal responsibility for his role there. Groening has been convicted of being an accessory to murder, and sentenced to four years in prison. (Photo by Hans-Jurgen Wege - Pool/Getty Images)
94-year-old former SS sergeant Oskar Groening sits between his lawyers Hans Holtermann, right, and Susanne Frangenberg, left, during the verdict of his trial Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Groening, who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool Photo via AP)
Former prisoner of Auschwitz concentration camp and plaintiff Hedy Bohm , left, and her daughter Vicky Bohm wait in the courtroom for the trial of former German SS officer Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Wednesday July 8 2015 Groening is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he helped the Auschwitz Nazi death camp function by sorting cash and valuables seized from Jews. German prosecutors sought a 3½-year prison sentence for the 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, saying his role there made him an accessory to murder. ( Christian Charisius/Pool Photovia AP)
LUNEBURG, GERMANY - JULY 15: The joint plaintiff's lawyers Cornelius Nestler (L) and Thomas Walther (R) await the verdict in the trial of Oskar Groening, 94, a former member of the Waffen-SS who worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, on July 15, 2015 in Lueneburg, Germany. Groening was accused of complicity in the murder of 300,000 mostly Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz in 1944. He worked as an accountant for the SS at Auschwitz and has admitted moral and personal responsibility for his role there. Groening has been convicted of being an accessory to murder, and sentenced to four years in prison. (Photo by Hans-Jurgen Wege - Pool/Getty Images)
Former SS officer Oskar Groening waits in a courtroom in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Wednesday July 8, 2015. German prosecutors sought a 3½-year prison sentence for the 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, saying his role there made him an accessory to murder. (Christian Charisius/Pool Photo via AP)
Former prisoner of Auschwitz concentration camp and plaintiff Irene Weiss arrives for the trial of a German former SS officer known as the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' on July 1, 2015 at the courtroom at the 'Ritterakademie' venue in Lueneburg, northern Germany. German national Oskar Groening, 94, stands accused of 300,000 counts of 'accessory to murder' in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944. AFP PHOTO / RONNY HARTMANN (Photo credit should read RONNY HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former SS officer Oskar Groening , 94, sits in the courtroom in Lueneburg , northern Germany, Wednesday, July 1., 2015. Groening is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he helped the Auschwitz nazi death camp function by sorting cash and valuables seized from Jews. (Ronny Hartmann/Pool Photo via AP)
Auschwitz survivor William "Bill" Glied shows photos of his sister Anniko, left, his parents Maria and Alexander, center, and of himself as a six-year-old boy in a courtroom in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Thursday, April 23, 2015. Glied attends the trial against former SS guard Oskar Groening, 93, who is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool via AP)
Former prisoner of Auschwitz concentration camp and plaintiff Hedy Bohm arrives for the trial of a German former SS officer known as the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' on July 1, 2015 at the courtroom at the 'Ritterakademie' venue in Lueneburg, northern Germany. German national Oskar Groening, 94, stands accused of 300,000 counts of 'accessory to murder' in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944. AFP PHOTO / RONNY HARTMANN (Photo credit should read RONNY HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images)
The joint plaintiff's lawyers Cornelius Nestler (L) and Thomas Walther (R) react during the verdict in the case of convicted former SS officer Oskar Groening on July 15, 2015 at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Oskar Groening, 94, sat impassively as judge Franz Kompisch said 'the defendant is found guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases' of deported Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in 1944. AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum shows his tattooed number to the photographer as he waits to enter the court room for the judgment at the trail against former SS guard Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, Germany, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Groening, 94, who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Former SS guard Oskar Groening steps out of a car as he arrives at the back entrance of the court hall prior to a trail against him in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. Groening, 93, is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Former SS guard Oskar Groening sits in ths sun during the noon break of the trial against him in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. 93-years-old Groening faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder at the trial, which will test the argument that anyone who served as a guard at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. Groening said he bears a share of the moral guilt for atrocities at the camp, but told judges it is up to them to decide whether he deserves to be convicted as an accessory to murder. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Auschwitz survivor Eva Pusztai-Fahidi, 2nd from right, from Budapest and her 23-years-old granddaughter Luca Hartai, right, leave the court hall during the noon breaks of the trial against former SS guard Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Auschwitz survivor Eva Pusztai-Fahidi, left, from Budapest and her 23-years-old granddaughter Luca Hartai, right, leave the court hall during the noon breaks of the trial against former SS guard Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Former Nazi death camp officer Oskar Groening sits outside during a break of his trial on April 21, 2015 in Lueneburg, northern Germany. The 93-year-old man dubbed the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' is being tried on 'accessory to murder' charges in 300,000 cases of deported Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers, and faces up to 15 years jail. (Photo by Ronny Hatmann via AFP/Getty Images)
Former SS guard Oskar Groening, left, uses a walking frame as he enters the back entrance of the court hall followed by his lawyer Hans Holtermann, right, for a trail against him in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Oskar Groening, 93, and his lawyer Hans Holtermann are seen during the first day of his trial to face charges of being accomplice to the murder of 300,000 people at the Auschwitz concentration camp on April 21, 2015 in Lueneburg, Germany. Groening was an accountant with the Waffen SS and has been open about his role, claiming in interviews with media that he accepts his moral responsibility. Groening has also written an account of his experience, in what he claims is an effort to counter Holocaust revisionists. State prosecutors accuse Groening of accomplice in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews who arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. (Photo by Andreas Tamme - Pool/Getty Images)
Oskar Groening, 93, arrives for the first day of his trial to face charges of being accomplice to the murder of 300,000 people at the Auschwitz concentration camp on April 21, 2015 in Lueneburg, Germany. Groening was an accountant with the Waffen SS and has been open about his role, claiming in interviews with media that he accepts his moral responsibility. Groening has also written an account of his experience, in what he claims is an effort to counter Holocaust revisionists. State prosecutors accuse Groening of accomplice in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews who arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. (Photo by Andreas Tamme - Pool/Getty Images)
Auschwitz survivors Hedy Bohm, right, and Eva Pusztai-Fahidi sit in a court room in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (Ronny Hartmann/Pool Photo via AP)
Auschwitz survicor Eva Kor sits in a court room in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)
The room is packed with media during a news conference organized by the International Auschwitz Committee on the eve of a trail against former SS guard Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Monday, April 20, 2015. Groening, today 93, faces a trail on Tuesday, April 21, and is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
A picture taken on April 21, 2015 shows files ahead to a trial of former Nazi death camp officer Oskar Groening at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. The 93-year-old man dubbed the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' is being tried on 'accessory to murder' charges in 300,000 cases of deported Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers, and faces up to 15 years jail. Ronny Hartmann via Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture taken on April 20, 2015 shows a general view of the 'Ritterakademie' venue in Lueneburg, northern Germany. The 'Ritterakademie' is the venue of the trial against former SS guard Oskar Groening, that will start on April 21, 2015. For seven decades Oskar Groening has been haunted by memories of serving in Auschwitz, while denying ultimate responsibility for the mass murder at the Nazi death camp. From April 21, 2015, the 93-year-old faces the Lueneburg court that will decide on his guilt. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann via Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
Auschwitz survivors Hedy Bohm, from Toronto, Canada, from left, and Eva Pusztai-Fahidi from Budapest, Hungary, and the Exicutive Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee Christoph Heubner attend a news conference organized by the International Auschwitz Committee on the eve of a trail against former SS guard Oskar Groening in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Monday, April 20, 2015. Groening, today 93, faces a trail on Tuesday, April 21, and is accused of helping to operate the death camp Auschwitz between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 were almost immediately gassed to death. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Defendant Oskar Groening sits in the dock of the court in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard faces trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, in a case that will test the argument that anyone who served at a Nazi death camp was complicit in what happened there. (Julian Stratenschulte/Pool Photo via AP)
German neo-Nazi Thomas Wulff (C) is surrounded by police as he stands in front of the venue of the trial against a former Nazi death camp officer on April 21, 2015 in Lueneburg, northern Germany. 93-year-old Oskar Groening dubbed the 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' is being tried on 'accessory to murder' charges in 300,000 cases of deported Hungarian Jews who were sent to the gas chambers, and faces up to 15 years jail. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann via Pool/Getty Images)
People walk through a street of the old town of Lueneburg, northern Germany, on April 20, 2015. A trial will start in Lueneburg on April 21, 2015 against former SS guard Oskar Groening. For seven decades Oskar Groening has been haunted by memories of serving in Auschwitz, while denying ultimate responsibility for the mass murder at the Nazi death camp. From April 21, 2015, the 93-year-old faces the Lueneburg court that will decide on his guilt. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann via Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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"This paves the way for additional trials of individuals who did not literally pull the trigger but who were part of the implementation of the Final Solution."

Kompisch acknowledged that Groening was born in a different time, growing up after World War I in Germany in a right-wing nationalist family, in a society where Jews were portrayed as a danger to the country. However, he said Groening joined the SS of his own volition when he had many other options.

"You didn't want to stand on the sidelines," Kompisch told Groening, who listened attentively for more than an hour and a half as the judge detailed the ruling, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water. "You wanted to be there."

In his job at the death camp, for which he has been dubbed the "accountant of Auschwitz," Kompisch said Groening was part of the "machinery of death," helping the camp function and also collecting money stolen from the victims to help the Nazi cause.

Though he knew exactly what was going on at the camp, he did not have himself transferred away, which likely would have meant serving on the deadly Russian Front, Kompisch said.

"It is a question of courage and a personal decision," he said. "You decided on a job where the possibility of your own death was relatively minimal."

"What you, Mr. Groening, see as moral guilt is exactly what the law sees as accessory to murder," the judge said.

Groening walked out of the courtroom after the verdict without talking to reporters.

The charges related to a period between May and July 1944 when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most were immediately gassed to death.

Unusually for trials of former Nazi camp guards, Groening was open about his past throughout the 17 days of hearings.

In their verdict, judges went beyond the 3 1/2-year sentence prosecutors sought. Groening's defense team had argued for acquittal, contending that as far as the law is concerned he did not facilitate mass murder.

Kompisch said Groening deserved respect for having been open about what he did and having testified, but that given the enormity of the crime it would have been inappropriate to impose a lower sentence.

Both sides have a week to appeal, and both prosecutors and the defense said they would consider whether to do so. Defense lawyer Hans Holtermann said Groening remains free in the meantime, and given his age and the possible length of appeal proceedings it was uncertain whether he would actually go to prison.

Dozens of Auschwitz survivors and their relatives joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, as German law allows, though none were present for the verdict.

"It doesn't matter to me if Oskar Groening got two, three or four years in prison. What matters to me is that this trial was held, and that he got convicted for his crimes," Angela Orosz-Richt, a co-plaintiff who testified at the trial, said in a statement.

The moral is that "no matter how old you are, you will have to face justice," said Orosz-Richt, who was born at Auschwitz and lives in Montreal.

Lawyer Thomas Walther, a former prosecutor of Nazi-era crimes who represents 51 co-plaintiffs, was instrumental in advancing the new legal theory that service in a death camp is enough to prosecute someone as an accessory to murder. He said the verdict could lead to new prosecutions.

"It is really an unbelievable confirmation of our argument," he said.

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum, 94, who was not a co-plaintiff but came to see the verdict, said he could not forgive Groening. "Maybe he took the ring from my mother's finger as she was forced off the train."

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