The Auschwitz Files Why the Last SS Guards Will Go Unpunished
Part 4: Symbolic Convictions?
The investigators also remembered lists of thousands of SS members from Auschwitz that had been compiled in Fritz Bauer's day.
The prosecutors conducted a dragnet-type investigation, eliminating anyone born before 1912, because they were presumably no longer alive. Then they presented the remaining files to pension insurance funds and other insurance agencies. In the end, the team had assembled 30 names and addresses, which they forwarded to the relevant public prosecutor's offices in the places where these people lived in the fall of 2013.
Some of them were vicious characters who had been given lengthy prison terms decades ago by the Allies or in East Germany. But they did not come under scrutiny in Ludwigsburg because of their complicity in specific crimes, but because they were parts of the machinery that engaged in systematic killing.
One of them was Hermine G., who worked as a secretary in the telex section of the commandant's office, from which reports on the murdered Jews were sent to Berlin. Another was Jakob W., a guard who had served in the camp for two-and-a-half years, primarily in the watchtower. "Of course, if we hadn't been there Auschwitz wouldn't have existed," he admits. But W., who later became an architect and a German civil servant, does not feel guilty in either a criminal or a moral sense.
A Question of Fairness
The advanced age of the accused is irrelevant to the legal assessment of their cases. Of course, many observers consider it absurd to convict 88-year-olds under juvenile law for crimes committed 70 years ago. But what is fair?
Esther Bejarano, the 89-year-old chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, has something to say about that. She was a young woman when she arrived at the death camp, but she survived because of her musical abilities. The SS needed her for the concentration camp's so-called girls' orchestra.
Bejarano lives in a small apartment in Hamburg. Despite her advanced age, she is full of energy, although she has never been willing to appear in trials against former SS members -- a burden she says she could not endure. Of course, she welcomes the new investigations, she says, albeit with some bitterness. "This is such a farce," she says. "These people should have been punished right away after 1945." Bejarano will never forgive the judiciary for its failings, no matter what happens in German courtrooms today.
For Bejarano, it is a question of how the former SS members behave in court. Those who continue to espouse the "horrible ideology" must be "severely punished," she says, whereas those who show remorse should receive leniency.
There is only one thing this clever, effervescent musician would find intolerable: acquittals. "From a symbolic standpoint, they have to be convicted, no matter what," she says. "They were there and they participated, even if they were personally not guilty of any misconduct."
But such a Solomonic solution is not an option. The German legal system has no provisions for symbolic punishments. A person is either guilty or innocent.
Insiders expect that the evidence will only lead to trials in two cases at most. And if the two elderly defendants are indeed convicted, the share of SS members from Auschwitz who received a guilty verdict in Germany will have reached a new high: 0.48 percent.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan