An SS Officer Remembers: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz
Part 2: Counting the money of the dead.
Gröning helped guard prisoner luggage on the Auschwitz ramp against theft.
"What does that mean?" asks Gröning.
"It means that some of them will be exterminated," says another man.
Gröning is taken to an office the next morning where he informs the superior officer their that he has been trained in banking. He is assigned to "Inmate Money Administration." An aide instructs him on his new duties and informs him that the Jews are required to surrender their money when they arrive in the camp. It is placed into a wooden box, and Gröning's job will be to sort it and, from time to time, deliver it to the main administrative office for Berlin.
He also learns that most Jews are sent to the gas chambers. The next day, Oskar Gröning begins counting money.
He believes in Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. He believes that it is the Germans' duty to destroy global Judaism. He believes that Germany lost World War I because of the Jews. And he wants Germany to win this war.
He eats well, works diligently and sleeps well. The men in the SS sleep in comfortable beds covered with soft, checkered quilts. They once belonged to the Jews.
After two months in the camp, Gröning is given an additional task. More and more trains are now arriving at the ramp, and someone has to stand guard to make sure none of the luggage is stolen. It is on the first day of his new assignment that he witnesses the baby's head being smashed into the truck.
He lies in bed at night, unable to sleep. You've gotten yourself into a vile situation, he thinks. He draws a line between individual excesses and mass murder committed by the society as a whole. He believes the excesses are barbaric, but the mass murder legitimate.
He goes to his commanding officer and says: "If this is always the way things are done here, I would like to be transferred." The officer replies: "What you saw the other day certainly was out of the ordinary. But you signed a letter of commitment. Everyone serves where he is assigned."
Sorting the money of the dead
Gröning returns to the order of terror. He is promoted from troop leader to deputy company leader. He guards the ramp when he is assigned there, and he counts the money when the wooden boxes arrive. He calls it "money without owners." He sorts Polish Zlotys, Greek Drachma, French Francs, Dutch Guilders, Italian Lira -- the plundering of a global community.
In the evening, when he has completed his duties, Gröning takes his dinner to the barracks, plays cards and games with his comrades and with his commanding officer. Sometimes his comrades are drunk by the time they are ready for bed and they use their pistols to shoot out the light. Gröning gets together with his exercise group on weekends, and they play games not far from the ramp and the gas chamber. They have a lot of fun together.
The IG Farben factory at Auschwitz. The company used slave laborers to manufacture the poison used to gas Jews.
He returns to his barrack with another man. The other man says: I know a shortcut. Along the way, the other man tells Gröning what happens when corpses are burned on grates. They bodies straighten and the men's penises become erect, he says.
The shortcut takes the two men past a pyre where corpses are just being cremated. Gröning moves closer to see what happens when human beings burn.
He submits another transfer request, and then another. In September 1944, he is discharged to a field unit and fights against the Allies during the Ardennes offensive.
Evening has begun to cast shadows in Oskar Gröning's garden. He has told the story of his life in Auschwitz, soberly, as if narrating a documentary. He gets up to fetch more mineral water. "Go ahead, ask me questions."
A horrible but necessary thing
What did you think when you found out that Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz?
"That it was a tool of waging war. A war with advanced methods."
But you weren't in the war. You were in a factory where systematic murder was being committed.
"If you are convinced that the destruction of Judaism is necessary, then it no longer matters how the killing takes place. As early as 1939, Hitler said in speech that if the Jews were to force a new war on the Germans, it would mean the end of Judaism in Europe."
But there is a difference between cheering for Hitler as part of an anonymous crowd and working in a killing machine.
"Yes, there is a difference. But, unfortunately, it just happens to be the case that they took me, Oskar Gröning, to this camp where the things that everyone was cheering about were actually happening. And then, at some point you are there and the only thing left is the feeling: I am part of this necessary thing. A horrible thing -- but necessary."
What did you feel when the Jews were taken to the gas chamber?
"Nothing, I have to say. Because the horrific wasn't obvious. When you know that killing is going on, you also know that people are dying. The horrors only dawned on me when I heard the screams."
Would it be correct to say that you became accustomed to Auschwitz?
Gröning believed Hitler when he said that the Jews had to die.
It's 8:30 p.m. The front door opens, and his wife walks in. She asks whether she should make cheese sandwiches. She suggests that she could set out the sandwiches and go the neighbor's for a while.
When Gröning returned from a British POW camp in 1948, he said to her: "Girl, do both of us a favor: Don't ask." She still doesn't ask.
Gröning offers to continue the interview at a hotel. He wants to move forward. He wants to settle scores.
The next morning he says that he slept soundly. He took a sleeping pill. His wife has already left the house. There is a bottle of mineral water on the coffee table. The photo album is gone, replaced by documents, documents that could exonerate him. Something like Oskar Gröning's certificates of achievement.
A tiny element in the structure
One document bears the reference number VP-55b/9.44/Zö/IG. It is a letter from SS headquarters in Berlin confirming his transfer. "The aforementioned has volunteered to serve at the front," the document states.
The second document is a letter from the Duisburg district court. The letter states that Gröning is being summoned to testify as a witness against a member of the SS accused of having murdered inmates at Auschwitz.
Oskar Gröning has underlined six words in this letter with blue ink.
"Summoned to testify as a witness." Not as a defendant. He is innocent, at least under the law.
When Gröning returned from the P.O.W. camp, he lived with his father's in-laws. One day they were sitting at the table, eating dinner, when the father's mother-in-law said: "How do I know that I'm not sitting here with a murderer? Or with a potential murderer?"
He slammed his hand onto the table and said: "I am sitting here because I am not guilty. I was not a perpetrator, and in this respect I am an honorable human being."
Oskar Gröning the human being, a tiny element in the Auschwitz hierarchical structure. That was how he felt, and that is how he feels today. But few would agree with him.
On the previous evening, when Gröning was already asleep, a British documentary about the liberation of the concentration camps was broadcast on TV. The film did not distinguish between those who committed murder and those who counted the money of the murdered. It showed men in SS uniforms and mountains of corpses. Monsters and their victims.
"I don't watch that sort of thing. It doesn't bring me any further. I know what corpses look like," says Gröning. His voice is cool and absent. A tear gathers in his left eye.
The images tell a different story. They say he is guilty. The pictures Gröning presents are softer, less radical, not as clear. They say he is innocent.
Gröning must continue his life when he returns from the P.O.W. camp in 1948. He wishes to remain undisturbed.
Since then, he has never watched anything, listened to anything or read anything that would take him back to the camp. He doesn't know about the Auschwitz trial that began in 1963, a trial that introduced the young German democracy to the details of the extermination machine for the first time. "I don't know anything about that," he says.
Gröning still hasn't resolved the question as to his own guilt.
"It didn't matter to us," says Gröning.
Ignoring the past
In 1979, the American series "Holocaust" was broadcast on German television. The fictionalized depiction of the fate of a Jewish family was a history lesson for German families, and everyone was talking about it. "Schindler's List" was a fleeting event compared to "Holocaust."
"I've never heard of it," says Gröning.
There is only one with whom Oskar Gröning has discussed the truth in all these years: God. He wants to free himself from something, but he doesn't know what to call it. Guilt? Is he a perpetrator? An accomplice? Or, something he also believes is possible, neither? He asks the same questions as an entire country. But he is asking himself these questions, here in his living room, and he receives no response.
When the war ends, Gröning begins a normal, middle-class life, working as a wage accountant in a small factory. No one knows about what he used to do. He feels safe as long he deals only with money. It's always been this way. He has a dachshund and collects stamps. He belongs to a stamp collectors' club. In 1985, he attends the club's annual meeting, where he discusses stamps and politics with another collector. The other man says: "It's unbelievable that they're already prosecuting people who deny the Holocaust, even though it really didn't happen."
It's a significant moment in the life of Oskar Gröning, an explosion, almost as if someone had stuck a needle into an over-inflated balloon. Gröning says: "I know a little more about that; we should discuss it some time." The fellow collector gives him a book, "The Auschwitz Lie," by old Nazi Thies Christophersen. Gröning returns the book, including a few pages of his own words, his answer to Christophersen.
"I saw everything," he writes. "The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there."
It was a letter to his own conscience.
Half a year later, his remarks were published in a neo-Nazi publication. Gröning can no longer hide. Now he is running forward, and he finally sees a way to save himself. He can use his past as currency. He could become a star witness against those accused of spreading the Auschwitz lie. He sees a task, a mission in his future. And perhaps even mitigating circumstances.
He sits down and writes. From eight in the morning until ten in the evening, he writes for three weeks. He uses a typewriter to write 87 pages, his life as he sees it. In his story, he quotes from books by Sebastian Haffner. But Haffner tried to explain the Hitler phenomenon, not Auschwitz. Gröning has the pages bound and gives them to his sons. He believes that he has finally explained something. That he is exonerated. The father expects to be acquitted.
His eldest son, a lawyer by now, doesn't respond. The younger son, a philologist, writes questions in the margin. The sons express silent judgments.
Searching for answers with the BBC
Gröning sits down and continues to write. He attempts to answer his younger son's questions. He has new copies bound and gives them to friends, announcing his story to the world like someone distributing flyers on the street. Oskar, his friends say, that was some ordeal. No one asks questions. No one wants explanations.
Perhaps explanations are impossible?
"People are afraid of it. That's how I see it," says Oskar Gröning.
He stands up and goes into the next room. In the room are his bed, his desk, his computer, his bookcase and cardboard boxes. In the bookcase are books about Nazism and the Bible. In the cardboard boxes are copies of his notes and videotapes.
There is an invisible barrier between the living room and his bedroom. His wife's cookbooks stand on the living room bookshelf. He picks up the box of videotapes. "Nine hours," he says.
Oskar Gröning sat in front the BBC's cameras for nine hours for the filming of a documentary about Auschwitz. The BBC wanted a former member of the SS, and the former member of the SS wanted forgiveness.
It was an experiment. The former SS member would say something, and the BBC would provide commentary. For example, Gröning would say that Auschwitz was a good deal for the SS people, more pleasant than fighting against the Red Army on the Eastern front. The documentary portrayed Gröning as the person he was, grease in the machine of mass extermination. The BBC also offered no exoneration.
Gröning wants to have the videos made into DVDs so that he can watch them on the computer in his room. He doesn't want to monopolize the living room. He says that his wife doesn't want to see the tapes.
"Perhaps because she is afraid."
"Perhaps she's afraid of the truth."
He returns to the living and sits in his chair again, ready for questions.
Are you guilty?
Oskar Gröning looks at the videotape lying on the table in front of him. He ponders the question for a long time. It's important to him to find the right words. Then he says: "Guilt really has to do with actions, and because I believe that I was not an active perpetrator, I don't believe that I am guilty."
If you weren't a perpetrator, what were you? An accomplice?
"I don't know. I avoid the question; it gets me in trouble. Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a 'small cog in the gears.' If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent."
"From the Christian standpoint, from the standpoint of the Ten Commandments, the commandment that says: Thou shalt not kill, being an accomplice is already a violation. But this raises another question: Did the things I did make me an accomplice to murder?"
You performed a function in a system that existed solely for the purpose of killing.
"Let me put it differently: I feel guilty towards the Jewish people, guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes, even without having been one of the perpetrators myself. I ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people. And I ask God for forgiveness."
When the tape ends, he says: "I haven't reached the answer yet." He has been searching for it for 60 years.
Oskar Gröning has said everything he can say. There are no more questions to be asked. This has to be enough. Now all he wants is to be forgiven. And if forgiveness is impossible, he at least wants to be understood.
He walks into the garden. There is a pile of small black dishes on the lawn. Gröning dumped 300 kg of bird feed on his lawn last winter and hung 150 balls of bird feed in the trees. He loves birds. One was recently nesting in his mailbox. One day it was dead. Someone had shot the bird with an air gun.
"I could have wept," says Oskar Gröning.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz
- Part 2: Counting the money of the dead.
© DER SPIEGEL 19/2005
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH