January 15, 2005


The Nazi's testimony (Laurence Rees, January 10, 2005, The Guardian)

After the war, Oskar Gröning took up a hobby. He worked as a manager in a glass factory near Hamburg, but in his own time he became a keen stamp collector. It was at a meeting of his local philately club, in the late 1980s, that Gröning found himself chatting to a man about politics.

"Isn't it terrible," said the man, "that the government says it's illegal to say anything against the killing of millions of Jews in Auschwitz?" He went on to explain to Gröning how it was "inconceivable" for so many bodies to have been burned.

Gröning said nothing to contradict these statements. But the attempt to deny the reality of Auschwitz, the site of the largest mass murder in history, upset him and made him angry. He obtained one of the Holocaust deniers' pamphlets that his fellow stamp collector had recommended, wrote an ironic commentary on it, and posted it to the man from the philately club.

Suddenly, he started to get phone calls from strangers who disputed his view. It turned out that his denunciation of the Holocaust deniers' case had been printed in a neo-Nazi magazine. The calls and letters he received "were all from people who tried to prove that Auschwitz was a huge mistake, a big hallucination, because it hadn't happened".

But Gröning knew very well it had happened - for he was posted to Auschwitz in September 1942, as a 22-year-old member of the SS. Almost immediately he witnessed the arrival of Jews at the camp. "I was standing at the ramp," he says, "and my task was to be part of the group supervising the luggage from an incoming transport." He watched while SS doctors first separated men from women and children, and then selected who was fit to work and who would be gassed immediately. "Sick people were lifted on to lorries. Red Cross lorries - they [the SS] always tried to create the impression that people had nothing to fear." Gröning estimates that 80-90% of those on the first transport he witnessed were selected to be murdered at once.

Later, he witnessed the burning of bodies: "This comrade said, 'Come with me, I'll show you.' I was so shocked that I stood at a distance. The fire was flickering up and the kapo [a prisoner in charge of work details] there told me afterwards details of the burning. And it was terribly disgusting - horrendous. He made fun of the fact that when the bodies started burning they obviously developed gases from the lungs and these bodies seemed to jump up, and the sex parts of the men suddenly became erect in a way that he found laughable."

Gröning was upset by the sights he had seen and went to his boss, an SS lieutenant, and put in a request for a transfer to a front-line unit. "He listened to me and said: 'My dear Gröning, what do you want to do against it? We're all in the same boat. We've given an obligation to accept this - not to even think about it.'"

With the words of his superior ringing in his ears, and his transfer request turned down, Gröning returned to work. He had sworn an oath of loyalty; he believed the Jews were Germany's enemy; and he knew that he could manipulate his life at the camp to avoid encountering the worst of the horror. So he stayed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2005 12:01 AM
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