IN a sombre apology, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard has expressed his shame at working at a Nazi death camp during the Second World War. Reinhold Hanning is standing trial at the Detmold State Court on trial, in the North West of Germany relating to the deaths of 170,000 people and is facing up to 15 years in jail.
On April 29, from his wheelchair, the former SS sergeant stated in court: “I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organisation.
“I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologise for my actions. I am very, very sorry.”
In front of a number of Holocaust survivors Hanning revealed that he has never spoken of his time at the camp where an estimated 1.1 million prisoners, mostly Jewish, were killed between 1940 and 1945. “I’ve tried my whole life to forget about this time,” he said. “Auschwitz was a nightmare.”
Reporting that he arrived there in January 1942 at the mere age of 20, he said he therefore had no idea how Auschwitz worked. He arrived after being deemed unfit for combat duties following a grenade injury in which he had suffered the year before in Kiev. As an initial task Hanning had to register ins and outs at the camp’s front gate, but soon realised the disturbing truth of what was going on in the gas chambers.
“Nobody talked to us about it in the first days there, but if someone, like me, was there for a long time then one learned what was going on,” he said. “People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned.”
He revealed that later in his service he manned the guard towers with orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape; he later left after 2.5 years of service in June 1944.
Prosecutors argue that as a camp guard Hanning should be held responsible for murders committed at Auschwitz even without evidence that he was directly involved in the killings.
Ninety-five-year-old Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum who was present at the trial, welcomed the apology but added they hoped he would become more vocal in condemning the Holocaust to fight Holocaust denial. He continued: “I am not angry, I don’t want him to go to prison but he should say more for the sake of the young generation today because the historical truth is important.”
In a similar trial that took place July last year, former Auschwitz guard, Oskar Groening was sentenced to four years in prison.