Reinhold Hanning, 94, told a courtroom in western Germany that he had never spoken about his time as a SS guard in Auschwitz — even with his family members — but wanted to apologize Friday for his involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. He said he was aware of what was happening at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was stationed from 1942 to 1944, and was “ashamed” of his time there.
"I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization," he said, the Associated Press reported. "I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it, and I apologize for my actions. I am very, very sorry."
The statement comes as Holocaust survivors, who shared their stories as the trial opened several months ago, have urged Hanning to speak out about his experiences. He remained quiet until breaking his silence Friday. Hanning reportedly joined the SS in 1940 at age 18 after serving in the Hitler Youth from 1935. He fought in several battles during the World War but was injured by a grenade in 1941.
Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning accused of helping murder Jews 'knew what was going on' | https://t.co/dTdnTNYICY JEW LIAR !
— Omar Zaid, M.D. (@OmarZaidMD) March 12, 2016
The aging, former Nazi guard is not facing charges of direct involvement in any killings, but prosecutors say he was an accessory in the murder of at least 170,000 people. They argue, as a guard at Auschwitz, he met Jewish prisoners as they arrived to the camp and possibly even escorted some to the gas chambers.
His lawyer read a statement by Hanning saying he did not know what occurred at Auschwitz when he first arrived but learned early on about the massacres there. He said he registered patrols and work details and was not involved in killings.
"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 told the court in the statement. "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."
An Auschwitz survivor, Leon Schwarzbaum, who attended the trial, said he was happy Hanning apologized, but that it was not enough, the AP reported.
"I lost 35 family members, how can you apologize for that?" Schwarzbaum, 95, said. "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."
At least 1.1 million people are believed to have been killed in Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. More than 6 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during the Holocaust.
In the past, prosecutors had to bring forward evidence that the defendants had a direct hand in the killings. But a new precedent was set in 2011 when the so-called "bookkeeper of Auschwitz," John Demjanjuk, was sentenced for complicity in mass murder.
Two others — including a man and a woman — are also being accused as accessories to murder at Auschwitz, Reuters reported. Another individual died earlier this month days before his trial began.