German prosecutors are charging Oskar Groening, a 93-year-old former SS guard, with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for his role in operating the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, officials said Monday.
Groening, born in 1921, is one of the last living SS members today. While he has admitted witnessing atrocities during the two and a half years he spent at Auschwitz, he maintains that he never committed any crimes there. Groening said he was mainly in charge of guarding the prisoners' possessions.
Groening is being charged for his time as an Auschwitz guard between May and July 1944, during which an estimated 300,000 people, the vast majority of them Jews, were gassed. Around 1.1 million prisoners died while Auschwitz was in operation.
Prosecutors say Groening helped collect money from prisoners’ belongings for the Nazis. “He helped the Nazi regime benefit economically, and supported the systematic killings,” lawyers said in a statement.
The charge against Groening is part of a renewed push by officials across Germany targeting 30 remaining former SS members who all worked at Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland. This renewed push to prosecute former death camp guards came after a precedent-setting ruling in the Munich trial of John Demjanjuk, a former camp guard who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2011, which overrode the barrier of a statute of limitations on lower-ranking war criminals. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who lived for decades in the United States before being unmasked, died in 2012.
Investigators from Hanover in northwestern Germany, where Groening lives, had taken on three other cases of former SS members, but two were considered unfit for trial, while the third died. In March, Groening was formally declared to be healthy and fit to stand trial.
Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing 20 Auschwitz victims and their relatives in the case against Groening, told the Associated Press that the charges represent a last chance for “justice to one of the SS men who had a part in the murder of their closest relatives.”