A FRAIL, white-haired former Nazi SS guard has described in harrowing detail how he watched one of his comrades batter to death the baby of a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz extermination camp and admitted that was "morally complicit" in the crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust.
93-year-old Oskar Gröning, who served in the SS at Auschwitz from 1942 until 1944, shook visibly as he told a court in the German city of Lüneburg how, shortly after he arrived at the Nazi death camp, he was dispatched to the so-called "ramp" where prisoners were selected either for work or immediate death in the gas chambers.
"There was a little baby left lying behind on the ramp, after the main group was marched away, and it was crying," Gröning told the court.
"I turned round and saw one of my comrades pick up the child. He grabbed it by the legs and smashed it again and again against the iron side of a truck until it was silent - when I saw that my world broke down," he added.
Gröning, a weak and ageing widower, clad in a striped shirt and beige pullover, struggled into court with the help of a Zimmer frame and two orderlies.
He faces charges of complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz during the summer of 1944. He is one of a handful of elderly former Auschwitz guards whom German justice authorities are hoping to prosecute before they die.
So far, however only Gröning, who joined the SS as a 20-year-old during the opening stages of the Second World War, has been declared fit enough to stand trial. Legal experts have described him as "probably the last Auschwitz guard to face justice".
As his trial opened in a converted cinema in Lüneburg, Gröning sat slumped in his court room seat opposite two elderly women, both Auschwitz inmates who managed to survive, and some 20 relatives of the estimated 1.1 million Jews murdered in the death camp.
They stared at the former SS guard almost in disbelief. Several had flown from America and Canada to attend the trial.
Gröning described himself to the presiding judge. Franz Kompisch. as an unwilling SS Auschwitz guard and claimed he knew nothing about what went on at the death camp before he arrived there in 1942.
He said he had joined the SS as a young man because he wanted to be a member of a "smart elite" unit that "looked down on ordinary soldiers", explaining to the court: "They were covered in glory and I wanted to be one of them."
He said he realised things were different at Auschwitz shortly after he arrived because all the guards were given extra rations of vodka and sardines.
"When we got drunk in the evening, the other guards told me that this was the place where the enemies of the German people were 'disposed of'. I didn't at first understand what they meant," he insisted. "Then I began to realise that Auschwitz was very different from the concentration camps in Germany."
Soon afterwards Gröning was sent to the ramp at Auschwitz to sort out the belongings left by Jewish prisoners who were being sent to the gas chambers.
"Then I saw what my comrade did with the baby," he told the court. "I told him I thought what he did was wrong, but my comrade replied: 'What did you want me to do - run after the mother and give her back her baby? You can't do that. I had to kill the baby,' the guard told me."
The then 20-year-old SS guard said he experienced other horrors at Auschwitz first hand.
"One day we were sent into some woods to catch prisoners who had escaped. Several were hiding in a barn. I watched as one of my comrades threw a gas canister into the building. I heard them all screaming. They were all killed. It was my first experience of gassing," he told the court.
Gröning said he repeatedly asked his SS superiors to be transferred away from the death camp, but was refused permission until the last days of the war when he was sent to fight in the Ardennes.
"Because of my job in Auschwitz, I am without question morally complicit in the killing of millions of people, most of whom were Jews. I ask them for forgiveness," he told the court. But he added: "Whether I am legally guilty is a matter this court must decide."
The former SS guard, who said he was weaned on anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda which depicted Jews as grasping, hooked-nosed "Enemies of the Reich" has been described as the "book-keeper of Auschwitz".
A former saving bank employee, his job in at the death camp was to sort out the belongings and cash stripped from prisoners before they were sent to their deaths.
He maintains that he never injured a prisoner himself and insists that he has "never found inner peace" since the nightmare he experienced at Auschwitz.
Holocaust survivors and their relatives have stressed that it is hugely important that a German court is putting Gröning on trial.
"Punishment is not the issue at stake," 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor Hedy Bohm told The Independent. "We just want Gröning convicted for what he did."
Despite more than 120,000 German investigations into Nazi war crimes after 1945, only 560 perpetrators were convicted by the German courts.
Most were acquitted because judges insisted on the evidence of eyewitnesses in order to convict suspects. Thousands were let off because they claimed they were simply "obeying orders."
However the German justice authorities were obliged to rethink their stance following a legal precedent set by the conviction of the Ukrainian-born former death camp guard, John Demjanjuk, by a Munich court in 2012.
Demjanjuk, who worked at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, was convicted without witnesses, on the basis of his military pass which showed that he worked at the camp.
His mere presence at Sobibor, all of whose inmates were murdered, was enough to convict him of complicity in genocide.
Gabor Altmann, a Hungarian Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz lost his sister and her daughter on the ramp at the death camp after they were dispatched to the gas chambers.
Gabor Altmann is, like Gröning, now in his 90s. He now lives in New York but was too frail to attend the trial.
But his daughter Sarah and her two teenaged daughters were in court in Lüneburg. "My father wants nothing more than to see Gröning convicted," she told The Independent.
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