SS guard, 94, says he is ‘ashamed’ of his role at death camp but says: ‘I have never been a Nazi and knew nothing of the gas chambers’ as he goes on trial under juvenile law in Germany
- Johann Rehbogen, 94, was a guard at Stutthof, east of modern-day Gdansk
- Rehbogen worked at the Nazi camp from June 1942 to September 1944
- Prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to hundreds of deaths
- He is being tried as a juvenile because of his young age when he served the Nazis
- More than 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof during World War II
A former Nazi concentration camp guard has voiced his shame at having been part of the SS but told a German court he was unaware of the systematic killings there.
Johann Rehbogen, 94, stands accused of complicity in mass murder at the Stutthof camp near what was then Danzig, now Gdansk, in Poland.
In a statement read out by his lawyer, Rehbogen said: ‘I’m of course ashamed to have been part of the SS. But I still don’t know today if I would have had the courage to do otherwise.’
He said he was forced into joining the Schutzstaffel troops, as ‘there would have been reprisals against my family if I hadn’t gone’.
Johann Rehbogen (pictured in court last week) stands accused of complicity in the murders of several hundred Stutthof camp prisoners between 1942 and 1944
Johann Rehbogen sits in a wheelchair for the beginning of the third day of his trial at the regional court in Muenster on Tuesday
‘When I saw the detainees I knew that the SS was wrong, but I didn’t have a choice,’ said Rehbogen, who served as a watchman from June 1942 to September 1944 at Stutthof.
He denied knowledge of the gruesome crimes at the camp.
‘I knew nothing of the systematic killings, I knew nothing of the gas chambers as well as the crematoria,’ he told the court.
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‘I was ashamed of the conditions that the detainees were in, and felt sympathy for them, even if that’s probably not the right word as I was not suffering like they were.’
He said he ‘would have liked to leave’ but added that ‘I did not trust myself to speak with anyone and had no-one I could trust’.
‘I will only say that I am not a Nazi, I never have been one, and never will be.’
More than 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof and prosecutors argue that as a guard, Rehbogen, pictured arriving in court, was an accessory to at least hundreds of those deaths
But lead prosecutor Andreas Brendel said that there were ‘ways out’ of serving at the camp for guards like Rehbogen.
‘We believe that the guards knew a lot more than what has been recounted today,’ he said.
Rehbogen, a German man from the western district of Borken, North Rhine-Westphalia state, is a retired landscape architect and divorced father-of-three, according to German media.
His statement marks a rare occasion for victims and their relatives to hear directly from the accused on the alleged crimes committed seven decades ago.
At the trial opening last week, the defendant shed tears as he heard written testimony from Holocaust survivors who now live in the United States or Israel.
He is charged with being an accessory to the murders of several hundred camp prisoners.
These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed in June 1944 and ‘probably several hundred’ Jews killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis’ so-called ‘Final Solution’.
Aged 18 to 20 at the time, and therefore now being tried under juvenile law, Rehbogen is ‘accused in his capacity as a guard of participating in the killing operations,’ Dortmund prosecutor Andreas Brendel told AFP.
Murdered: The crematorium at the former German Nazi concentration camp Stutthof in Sztutowo, northern Poland, where prisoners were gassed, shot, starved and killed with an injection of gasoline to the heart
If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison – even though, given his age and the possibility of an appeal, he is considered unlikely to serve any time behind bars.
Christoph Ruecken, a lawyer representing an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who now lives in the United States, said: ‘It would be an important sign for us if (Rehbogen) stood there to confirm the reality.’
‘An apology would be good.’
Although the trial is late in coming, Ruecken said it ‘eases the suffering of my client’.
‘A punishment would be symbolic for such an old man but that’s important in times like now when nationalism and anti-Semitism are returning,’ he said.
‘It’s important to show that the rule of law says you will face the court if you do these things.’
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helped locate some 20 Stutthof survivors for the case to serve as possible witnesses, emphasized that such trials are important, even more than 70 years after the end of World War II.
‘The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,’ said the center’s head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff.
Many survivors, along with relatives of victims, are also joining the trial as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law.
Fight for justice: Many of the 20 survivors of Stutthof, pictured, will be attending the trial, as will relatives of some of the 60,000 people murdered in the death camp
Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving SS personnel, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
He was sentenced not for any atrocities he committed, but on the basis that he served as a cog in the Nazi killing machine at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.
German courts subsequently convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for mass murder.
However both men, convicted at age 94, died before they could be imprisoned.
At his trial in 2015, Groening apologised and sought forgiveness. He also admitted ‘moral guilt’ although he denied any legal culpability.
Like Groening, Hanning told his victims he was sorry.
He admitted to being ‘silent all my life’ about the atrocities because he felt deep shame, not having spoken about it even to his wife, children or grandchildren.
Another trial against a 96-year-old former medical orderly at the Auschwitz death camp collapsed in 2017 because he suffers from dementia.
Wheelchair-bound Hubert Zafke had faced 3,681 counts of being an accessory to murder at the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but his trial ended in disarray.
Death camp: A picture shows some of the beds used at Stutthof in Sztutowo, northern Poland
Even though the number of suspects is dwindling, the special federal prosecutor’s office in Ludwigsburg that investigates Nazi war crimes still has multiple cases ongoing.
In addition to looking at camps like Stutthof, Buchenwald, Ravensbrueck, Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg, it is also investigating former members of the mobile killing squads known as the ‘Einsatzgruppen.’
The Stutthof case is the first time a prosecution is going to trial using this line of reasoning for a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard.
But prosecutors have expressed confidence it can be applied, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof even though its sole purpose was not murder.
Stutthof was established in 1939 and underwent several iterations, initially being used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the nearby city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea coast.
From about 1940 onward, it was used as a so-called ‘work education camp’ where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens who had run afoul of their Nazi oppressors, were sent to serve sentences and often died. Others incarcerated there included criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, which was overflowing, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
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