Sing Arbeit macht frei (Work liberates) in Auschwitz II Birkenau concentration camp located in the west of Krakow, Poland. Picture: ISTOCK
Sing Arbeit macht frei (Work liberates) in Auschwitz II Birkenau concentration camp located in the west of Krakow, Poland. Picture: ISTOCK

A former SS guard went on trial on Tuesday in Germany charged with complicity in mass murders at a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2, in a case bearing symbolic and moral weight.

The 94-year-old man from the western district of Borken served as a watchman from June 1942 to September 1944 at the Stutthof camp near what was then the free city of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland.

He was not publicly named by prosecutors, but Die Welt daily identified him as Johann R, a landscape architect who once worked for North Rhine-Westphalia state authorities.

The trial marks a new attempt in Germany’s race against time to prosecute surviving Nazis, after a legal precedent was set in 2011.

Dressed in a wool suit, the accused entered the courtroom in a wheelchair, with a walking stick in his right hand.

He is accused of being an accessory to the murders of several hundred camp prisoners, the regional court of Muenster said, more than seven decades after the end of World War 2.

These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed on June 21 and 22 1944, as well as “probably several hundred" Jewish prisoners killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis’ so-called final solution.

As a watchman 18 to 20 years old at the time, he was “accused in his capacity as a guard of participating in the killing operations”, said Dortmund prosecutor Andreas Brendel. “Many people were gassed, shot or left to die of hunger,” said Brendel.

As the guards were a crucial part of the camp system, the man “knew about the killing methods” there, said prosecutors.

But when interrogated by police in August 2017, the accused insisted he knew nothing about the atrocities in the camp, Die Welt reported.

Asked why the camp detainees were so thin, he reportedly told investigators that food was so scarce for everyone that, figuratively speaking, two soldiers could fit into one uniform.

News agency DPA quoted the man's lawyer as saying he planned to make a statement during his trial.

Stutthof was set up in 1939 and would end up holding 110,000 detainees, 65,000 of whom perished, according to Museum Stutthof.

The defendant was being tried before a juvenile court as he was not yet 21 at the time of the crimes.

Court hearings would probably last a maximum of two hours due to the defendant's advanced age even though, Brendel said, “mentally, he is still fit”.

If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, but given his age and the possibility of an appeal the defendant is thought to be unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

Brendel said that German law had no statute of limitations on murder, but he  pointed to the moral imperative to pursue the case.

“Germany owes it to the families and victims to prosecute these Nazi crimes even today. That is a legal and moral question.”

Ben Cohen, grandson of camp survivor Judy Meisel, spoke at the trial of the catharsis that the legal process had given her.

“Her being able to witness some of this process even from afar is a sense of closure,” he said. “To have Germany listening to her is very powerful for her.”

Germany has been racing to put surviving SS personnel on trial, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

He was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have personally committed, but on the basis that he was a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine by serving at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.

German courts later convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for the mass murders.

But both men, convicted at age 94, died before they could be imprisoned.

Prosecutors have also filed charges against another former SS guard at Stutthof, a 93-year-old from the city of Wuppertal. It remains to be determined if he is fit to stand trial.

Historian Peter Schoettler underlined “an important humanitarian and legal reason” to push on with the justice process, stressing that “the rule of law should not allow for exceptions”.