AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 19/2005

An SS Officer Remembers: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz

By Matthias Geyer

For two years, SS officer Oskar Gröning served in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He counted the money of dead Jews and stood guard as incoming freight trains unloaded their wretched human cargo. He says he didn't commit any crimes. For the past sixty years, Gröning has been searching for another word for guilt.

The tracks into the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation in January.
AP

The tracks into the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation in January.

The birds are singing outside; a warm, spring wind is gently drifting into the living room from the garden. An old man -- tall and powerful-looking with white hair and blue eyes -- sits in an armchair next to a fireplace. Three carved angels displayed on the mantel.

The man rests his right leg on a stool. He is very calm and speaks quietly -- and tells the story of the man he once was.

"A new shipment had arrived. I had been assigned to ramp duty, and it was my job to guard the luggage. The Jews had already been taken away. The ground in front of me was littered with junk, left-over belongings. Suddenly I heard a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent."

The man looks out of the living room window, almost entirely motionless. His thumb swings back and forth over the edge of the chair like a metronome. Outside, the sun shines on neat rows of brick houses surrounded by carefully tended, weed-free gardens. Oskar Gröning lives in a well-ordered world.

He unbuttons and rolls up his left sleeve. "Here," he says, "look at this."

There is a tiny blue dot above his elbows, the remainder of a tattoo. "It was poorly executed," he says. It was supposed to be a zero, representing blood type O. Everyone in Auschwitz was tattooed, prisoners and guards alike. Jews were tattooed with their inmate number and SS guards with their blood type. Oskar Gröning was a member of the SS in Auschwitz for two years.

His dreams often end in screams. The screams turn into thunder, the thunder into humming and the humming into silence. They are the sounds of death from the gas chambers.

An organized world amid terror

Gröning, though, didn't kill anyone. He didn't pour Zyklon B into the shafts or burn the piles of dead. He watched. He stood there, shocked at first, then indifferent. It became a routine.

He lived in an organized world and its order ensured that the terror of the concentration camps could be compartmentalized, kept apart from the foundations of civilization. The terror was subject to clear command structures and tightly regulated service schedules, assignments of duties and positions, making one man a torturer and another a bookkeeper.

Gröning was a bookkeeper, and a conscientious one. He counted the Jews' money, sorted it and locked it into a safe. He was a bookkeeper of terror.

There is a photo album on the coffee table -- Gröning's life in pictures. Two-thirds of the photos are in black-and-white, the last third in color. But the pictures are unrevealing. Gröning just wants to talk, for hours, days, "it doesn't matter how long," he says, "talking helps."

Oskar Gröning, born in 1921, is one of the few members of the SS still alive today. His history, a German history, is a story of seduction and fanaticism, of perpetrators and their accomplices, of living with guilt, and of the search for other concepts of guilt. It is the story of a man's attempt to overcome a past so dark that it can never end.

He opens the album, the thin sheets of vellum between the pages rustle, and he leafs through family photos of his father, grandmother, grandfather, Aunt Marie, pictures of baby carriages and bike rides, until he reaches the images of men in uniform. His father was a member of "Stahlhelm" (Steel Helmet), a paramilitary group of German nationalists who fought against the Treaty of Versailles, against demands for World War I war reparations, and later against the Weimar republic between the two wars and against democracy.

"Father performed in nationalist plays in assembly halls behind local bars," says Gröning. In one play, a German was shot by Frenchmen because he resisted France' post-war occupation of Germany's industrial Ruhr region. "Discipline, obedience, authority -- that was how we were raised," says Gröning. His mother died when he was four.

The Jews were the "pig merchants"

He continues leafing through the album, clearly searching for something. "Here," he taps a photo with his finger, "look at the way we used to march."

The picture, taken in 1933, shows a group of children wearing military uniform, marching behind a flag. A flag displaying a swastika hangs from a house. Young Oskar, marching in the first row, is twelve years old and a member of the youth wing of "Stahlhelm."

Was did the uniform mean to you?

"It fascinated me. Even today, when I hear military music," his voices trembles and breaks. "Forgive me, but it's such an experience for me, so uplifting, even today."

Next to his father's house was an iron goods shop owned by a Jew named Selig. He had a daughter, Anne, and the two children used to play marbles on the street. One day men from the SA were standing in front of the shop, holding up a sign that read: "Germans, do not buy from Jews." After that, Gröning and Anne began playing in the courtyard, instead of the street.

What were you thinking when the men from the SA held up the sign?

Gröning says he knows nothing about the Auschwitz trials that took place in 1964.
DPA

Gröning says he knows nothing about the Auschwitz trials that took place in 1964.

"Nothing, nothing at all," says Gröning. His voice is quiet and firm once again.

A door opens and his wife places a tray of cake on the table. The tray is covered with plastic wrap. "For later," she says. Then she leaves the house. She prefers not to listen.

He waits until his wife has closed the front door behind her. Then he says: "You see, for us the Jews were the pig merchants, the lawyers who always had a shady reputation when it came to money. People used to say: The Jews are taking the Christians for a ride. It's just their way."

Did Anne Selig's father take advantage of people?

"I didn't think so at the time."

Oskar Gröning removes his leg from the footstool, sits up straight and begins to sing, quietly at first, then louder. "And when Jewish blood begins to drip from our knives, things will be good again."

"My honor is loyalty"

The distinctions between the man of today and the man of the past blur for a moment, but then he returns to the present and says: "Back then we didn't even think about what we were singing."

He continues leafing through the album. He has written "1941, with Aunt Anna" in blue ink beneath a photo with jagged edges. It depicts the young Gröning, tall, blonde and wearing a uniform with the letters SS stitched into the collar. He sits on the arm of a chair and smiles, obviously very proud of his uniform.

He had seen images of the SS in weekly news reports. He thought they were smart, the smartest unit of all. He volunteered in 1940.

Why?

"It was spontaneous enthusiasm, a sense of not wanting to be the last one in the game, when the whole thing was practically over."

For two years, Gröning worked in a paymaster's office. In October 1942, he received new orders. A senior officer told him that he had been assigned to a special task, one that was of great importance for the German people, for Germany's ultimate victory. He was told that he should think of his oath, of the words inscribed on his sash. "My honor is loyalty." And, finally, he was told that he could never reveal the nature of his new assignment to anyone, for as long as he lived.

Mountains of prisoner belongings are still on display at the museum in Auschwitz.
AP

Mountains of prisoner belongings are still on display at the museum in Auschwitz.

A clock in the living room chimes. It's six o'clock, and Oskar Gröning has been talking for the past five hours. He has eaten cake and continued talking. At this point in his story, the young Gröning has arrived in Auschwitz. Perhaps the elderly Gröning would like to take a break?

"No, no, it doesn't bother me at all," he says. He fetches a bottle of mineral water from the kitchen. His wife hasn't returned yet.

Gröning is 21 when he arrives in Auschwitz on an October day. He gets there on a train from Kattowice, and is taken to his quarters in the administrative barracks. Others, who have been there longer, begin laying out their dinner on the table: sardines and ham, vodka and rum.

The SS is comfortable in this camp. But there must be something special about it, Gröning thinks. They drink a lot. Then, the door opens and someone announces that a new transport has arrived. Three men jump up, tie on their sashes and take their pistols along.

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