Join Date: Jul 2019
What actually leads to a normal person working at a concentration camp? This is worth reading imo.
The life of an Auschwitz guard
During WWII, Oskar Groening watched as hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths. Is his prosecution now too little too late?
Oskar Groening, at the age of 94, is currently on trial in Germany, charged with being an ‘accessory’ to several hundred thousand murders while he served as an SS officer at Auschwitz during World War II. Last week, prosecutors called for a three-and-a-half year sentence for the former concentration camp guard, who admits moral guilt but denies that he ever committed a crime, as he didn’t personally kill any of the prisoners.
I first met Groening just over 11 years ago in a Hamburg hotel. He had agreed — after a great deal of persuading — to give an interview for the BBC/PBS documentary series ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution,’ that I wrote and produced. I was, frankly, astonished that he had consented to take part in the series. Never before, to my knowledge, had a member of the SS from Auschwitz ever agreed to appear on camera. I was even more surprised by what he had to say. Here is an extract from his testimony, as I recorded it in my 2006 book “Auschwitz: a New History.”
In 1942, when he was twenty-one years old, Oskar Groening was posted to Auschwitz. He almost immediately witnessed a transport arriving at “the ramp” — the platform where the Jews disembarked. “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 should be gassed immediately. “Sick people were lifted on to lorries,” says Groening. “Red Cross lorries — they always tried to create the impression that people had nothing to fear.”
He estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of those on the first transport he witnessed in September 1942 were selected to be murdered at once.
“This process [of selection] proceeded in a relatively orderly fashion but when it was over it was just like a fairground. There was a load of rubbish, and next to this rubbish were ill people, unable to walk, perhaps a child that had lost its mother, or perhaps during searching the train somebody had hidden — and these people were simply killed with a shot through the head. And the kind of way in which these people were treated brought me doubt and outrage. A child was simply pulled on the leg and thrown on a lorry … then when it cried like a sick chicken, they chucked it against the edge of the lorry. I couldn’t understand that an SS man would take a child and throw its head against the side of a lorry … or kill them by shooting them and then throw them on a lorry like a sack of wheat.”
Groening, according to his story, was so filled by “doubt and outrage” that he went to his superior officer and told him: “It’s impossible, I can’t work here any more. If it is necessary to exterminate the Jews, then at least it should be done within a certain framework.” His superior officer calmly listened to Groening’s complaints, reminded him of the SS oath of allegiance he had sworn and said that he should “forget” any idea of leaving Auschwitz. But he also offered hope — of a kind. He told Groening that the “excesses” he saw that night were an “exception,” and that he himself agreed that members of the SS should not participate in such “sadistic” events. Documents confirm that Groening subsequently put in for a transfer to the front, which was refused. So he carried on working at Auschwitz.
Significantly, Groening did not complain to his boss about the principle of murdering the Jews, merely its practical implementation. When he saw people in front of him who he knew were going to die within hours in the gas chambers, he says his feelings were “very ambiguous.” He says, “How do you feel when you’re in Russia, here’s a machine gun in front of you, and there’s a battalion of Russians coming running towards you and you have to pull the trigger and shoot as many as possible? I’m saying it on purpose like this because there’s always behind you the fact that the Jews are enemies who come from the inside of Germany. The propaganda had for us such an effect that you assumed that to exterminate them was basically something that happened in war. And to that extent a feeling of sympathy or empathy didn’t come up.”
When pressed for the reason why children were murdered, Groening replies: “The children are not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood in them. The enemy is their growing up to become a Jew who could be dangerous.”
Clues as to how it was possible that Oskar Groening felt helpless women and children were “enemies” who had to face “extermination” can be found in his life before he was posted to Auschwitz. He was born in 1921 in Lower Saxony, son of a skilled textile worker. Groening’s father was a traditional conservative, “proud of what Germany had achieved.” One of Groening’s earliest memories is of looking at photographs of his grandfather, who served in an elite regiment of soldiers from the Duchy of Brunswick: “His position impressed me terribly when I was a boy — he was sitting on his horse and playing his trumpet. It was fascinating.”
After Germany’s defeat in World War I Groening’s father joined the right-wing Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), one of the many ultra-nationalist organizations that flourished in the wake of what they proclaimed was the humiliating peace of Versailles. His father’s anger at the way Germany had been treated grew more intense as his personal circumstances became more strained — lacking capital, his textile business went bankrupt in 1929. In the early 1930s young Oskar joined the Stahlhelm’s youth organization, the Scharnhorst.
Nothing felt more natural for Oskar Groening, who was only 11 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933, than to ease from the Stahlhelm’s Scharnhorst into the Hitler Youth. He adopted the values of his parents and judged that the Nazis “were the people who wanted the best for Germany and who did something about it.” As a member of the Hitler Youth he took part in the burning of books written by “Jews or others who were degenerate.” And he believed that, by doing so, he was helping rid Germany of an inappropriate, alien culture. At the same time, he thought National Socialism was demonstrably working on the economic front:
“Within six months [of the Nazis coming to power] the 5 million unemployed had vanished from the streets and so everybody had work. Then [in 1936] Hitler marched into the Rhineland [demilitarized under the terms of the Versailles treaty] and simply occupied it — nobody tried to stop him. We were terribly happy about this — my father opened a bottle of wine.”
In the meantime, young Oskar went to school. He eventually finished high in his final class and, at 17, began a traineeship as a bank clerk. Just a few months after he started work in the bank war was declared; eight out of the 20 clerks were immediately conscripted into the army and their places taken by young women. This meant that the remaining trainees such as Groening could “get jobs they would have never normally reached. For example, I had to take over the cash till.”
Despite this unexpected advance in their banking careers, as they heard news of Germany’s quick victories in Poland and France the trainees were filled with “euphoria” and a feeling that “you wanted to be part of it.” Oskar Groening wanted to join an “elite” unit of the German army, just as his grandfather had done. And for this young man only one unit fulfilled his dream: the Waffen SS, formed from a unit of the SA, the Nazi storm troopers, for those times “when it was important to have a unit you could absolutely rely on.”
So, without telling his father, Oskar went along to a hotel where the Waffen SS were recruiting and joined up. “And when I came home my father said, ‘I was hoping that because you were wearing glasses you wouldn’t be accepted.’ And then he said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll see what you’ll get out of this.’” Committed as his father was to the Nationalist cause, he was reluctant to see his son go to war.
What Oskar Groening got out of his membership of this elite corps was, initially, a job in SS administration as a bookkeeper. He was not at all displeased by this posting: “I’m a desk person. I wanted to work in a job that had both the soldier’s life and also the bureaucratic aspect.”
He worked as a bookkeeper for a year until September 1942, when the order came through that fit, healthy members of the SS working in salary administration centers were to be transferred to more challenging duties, with the administrative jobs reserved for returning veterans disabled at the front: “So, under the assumption that we would now enter a fighting unit, about 22 of us went with our luggage and got on a train to Berlin. It was very strange, because generally an order would have come for us to go to a troop-mustering place — but that didn’t happen.”
Groening and his comrades reported to one of the SS economic offices, located in a “beautiful building” in the capital. They were then directed to a conference room where they were addressed by several high-ranking SS officers.
“We were reminded that we had sworn an oath with the motto ‘My loyalty is my honor,’ and that we could prove this loyalty by doing this task which was now given to us — the details of which we would find out later. Then a subordinate SS leader said we were to keep absolutely silent about this task. It was top-secret, so that neither our relatives or friends or comrades or people who were not in the unit were to be told anything about it. So we had to march forward individually and sign a statement to this effect.”
Once in the courtyard of the building, Groening and his comrades were split into smaller groups, given their individual destinations, and then transported to various Berlin stations where they boarded trains. “We went south,” says Oskar Groening, “in the direction of Katowice. And our troop leader, who had the papers, said we had to report to the commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. I’d never heard of Auschwitz before.”
Groening and his group arrived late in the evening and were directed by military police to the main camp, where they reported to the central administrative building and were allocated “provisional” bunks in the SS barracks. The other members of the SS they met in the barracks that night were friendly and welcoming. “We were accepted by the people who were there and they said, ‘Have you eaten anything yet?’ We hadn’t, and so they got us something.” Groening was surprised that in addition to the basic SS rations of bread and sausage there was also extra food available, consisting of tins of herring and sardines. Their new friends also had rum and vodka, which they put on the table and said, “Help yourself.”
“We did this, and so we were quite happy. We asked, ‘What kind of place is this?’ and they said we should find out for ourselves — that it’s a special kind of concentration camp. Suddenly, the door opened and somebody said, ‘Transport!’ which caused three or four people to jump up and vanish.
After a good night’s sleep, Groening reported once more with the other new arrivals to the central SS administrative building. They were quizzed by a number of senior SS officers about their background before the war. One of the officers said he could make use of Groening’s experience as a bank clerk, and took him to the barrack where prisoners’ money was kept.
So far Oskar Groening’s personal experience of Auschwitz was that it was a “normal” concentration camp for the detaining of political prisoners or other “enemies of the state,” albeit one where the rations for the SS members were particularly good. But, as he began his task of registering the prisoners’ money, he learned for the first time about the additional, “unusual” function of Auschwitz. “The people there [working in the barracks] let us know that this money didn’t all go back to the prisoners —Jews were taken to the camp who were treated differently. The money was taken off them without them getting it back.” Groening asked, “Is this to do with the ‘transport’ that arrived during the night?” His colleagues replied, “Well, don’t you know? That’s the way it is here. Jewish transports arrive, and as far as they’re not able to work they’re got rid of.” Groening pressed them on what “got rid of ” actually meant, and, having been told, says that his reaction was one of astonishment.
“It was a shock, that you cannot take in at the first moment. But you mustn’t forget that not only from 1933 [Hitler’s acquisition of power], but even from before that, the propaganda I got as a boy in the press, the media, the general society I lived in made us aware that the Jews were the cause of the First World War, and had also ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ at the end. And that the Jews were actually the cause of the misery in which Germany found herself. We were convinced by our worldview that there was a great conspiracy of Jewishness against us, and that thought was expressed in Auschwitz. … The enemies who are within Germany are being killed — exterminated if necessary. And between these two fights, openly at the front line and then on the home front, there’s absolutely no difference — so we exterminated nothing but enemies.”
Groening arrived at Auschwitz just as the Nazi extermination machine was settling into a ruthlessly efficient pace of destruction. By the summer of 1942, shortly before Groening arrived, Auschwitz was receiving transports of Jews from all over Europe, including Slovakia, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
After Groening had been working at Auschwitz for several months, his work, he says, had become “routine.” He sorted out the various currencies that had been taken from the new arrivals, counted the moneys and sent it to Berlin. He still attended selections, not to participate in the decision-making process about who should live and who should die — those decisions were made by SS doctors — but to ensure that the belongings of the Jews were taken away and held securely until they could be sorted. This was done in an area of the camp that came to be called “Canada,” because that country had become a fantasy destination — a land rich in everything.
Groening manufactured for himself what he considered to be a tolerable life at Auschwitz. In his office he was insulated from the brutality, and when he was walking around the camp he could avert his eyes from anything that displeased him. In normal circumstances he had nothing to do with the crude mechanics of the killing process — there was generally no reason for him to visit the remote corner of Birkenau where the murders took place. The only reminder that different nationalities were coming to the camp was the variety of currencies that crossed Groening’s desk — one day French francs, another Czech korunas, the next Polish zlotys (and always American dollars) — plus the array of liquor taken from the new arrivals — Greek ouzo, French brandy and Italian sambuca.
Says Groening, “We didn’t feel any empathy or sympathy towards one or other Jewish group from any particular country unless you were keen on getting a particular kind of vodka or schnapps — the Russians had a lovely type of vodka. … We drank a lot of vodka. We didn’t get drunk every day — but it did happen. We’d go to bed drunk, and if someone was too lazy to turn off the light they’d shoot at it — nobody said anything.”
Although Groening does not exactly use the word “enjoyable” to describe his time at Auschwitz, it is hard to see how that is not an apt description of the life he paints.
“Auschwitz main camp was like a small town. It had its gossip — it had a vegetable shop where you could buy bones to make broth. There was a canteen, a cinema, a theatre with regular performances. There was a sports club of which I was a member. There were dances — all fun and entertainment.”
And then there was the other “positive” side of life at Auschwitz for Oskar Groening — his comrades: “I have to say that many who worked there weren’t dull, they were intelligent.” When he eventually left the camp in 1944, he went with some regrets:
“I’d left a circle of friends who I’d got familiar with, I’d got fond of, and that was very difficult. Apart from the fact that there are pigs who fulfil their personal drives — there are such people — the special situation at Auschwitz led to friendships which, I still say today, I think back on with joy.”