The man, named only as Josef S., served as a guard and member of the SS Nazi militia at the Sachsenhausen death camp near Berlin, where tens of thousands of people were killed as part of the Nazi extermination effort.
Dressed in a sweater and hiding his face behind a blue folder, the centenarian appeared in court Friday in the northeastern town of Neuruppin, the second day of a trial that is expected to stretch into early next year.
“I have done nothing wrong at all, I am innocent,” he said.
The court decided that the man, who will turn 101 next month, is mentally and physically fit to stand trial for just over two hours at a time.
Stefan Waterkamp, the suspect’s lawyer, told reporters that justice would have been better served had the trial happened earlier, closer to the alleged crimes.
The case is the latest in a series of trials of people who played junior roles in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes and often were very young at the time. In 2011, a Munich court found the former guard John Demjanjuk guilty of accessory to the murder of nearly 30,000 people in the Sobibor death camp, setting a precedent that has since allowed the prosecution of low-ranking suspects.
Representatives of Holocaust victims said these late trials of junior regime members came after many higher-ranking Nazis were left unprosecuted or given mild sentences in the decades after the war. Up to the 1990s, German authorities focused on restitution efforts instead, said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center who attended the trial this week.
On Thursday, prosecutor Cyrill Klement detailed the murders and mistreatment that were commonplace at Sachsenhausen, a camp set up in 1936 that served as a model for the network of facilities that later expanded across occupied Europe.
He told the court how the SS murdered thousands of people using what he described as a neck shot unit, a room where unsuspecting prisoners were shot in the back of the head and then cremated. Others were murdered by gas, first in gassing vehicles and later in a gas chamber using the Zyklon-B cyanide-based pesticide. Before the killings, SS doctors would examine the victims for gold teeth that were later pulled out of their corpses.
Toward the end of the war, most of the victims were Soviet prisoners of war, many of them Jewish. The prosecutor said that the defendant had enabled the murders because he watched over the inmates from the watchtowers, armed and wearing an SS uniform.
Sixteen co-plaintiffs joined the prosecutor’s case against the suspect, including survivors of the concentration camp and their relatives from Germany, Israel, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Peru.
Leon Schwarzbaum, a German man who survived Sachsenhausen and other Nazi camps, is also 100 years old and attended the trial in a wheelchair. “He is old and ill, and I am old and ill, too, but I have come,” he told reporters.
Antoine Grumbach, whose father, a French soldier, was killed in Sachsenhausen, is one of the co-plaintiffs and traveled from France to attend the trial.
“The world must know how this machinery operated…SS guards were the accomplices of the murderous machinery of the concentration camps,” Mr. Grumbach told reporters on Thursday.
Mr. Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was very important to keep prosecuting the last remaining Nazis as a lesson to younger generations about the horrors of the Nazi era, at a time when war crimes and crimes against humanity are happening across the globe.
“Younger generations will learn much about the Holocaust, about the war, about justice and about democracy,” he said.
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