Photo Gallery: Trial for 93-Year-Old Auschwitz Guard

Foto: DPA/ Archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Auschwitz Trial Late Case Raises Questions about Justice System

Prosecutors claim 93-year-old former Auschwitz worker Hans Lipschis is complicit in the murder of thousands of people. The charges raise questions about how to interpret guilt in the Holocaust, as well as why the German justice system waited so long to pursue such cases.

Hans Lipschis' indictment doesn't withhold any of the gruesome details. It describes how victims convulsed in agony for several minutes and their screams could be heard from far away. It also says that the SS ran truck motors in a vain attempt to drown out the sound of the wailing victims. Prosecutors note that the bodies of the dead were so intertwined in their death struggles that they had to be hacked apart with axes when the Auschwitz gas chambers were opened.

These events themselves aren't being debated -- historians have little doubt about their veracity -- but, rather, a question of guilt. Decades after the last major wave of trials, a German court will again have to decide who is guilty of committing a crime during the Holocaust  -- and whether Lipschis, a 93-year-old man who lives in the southwestern German town of Aalen, should be convicted for his role in it.

Lipschis first came to Pomerania from Lithuania as a 21-year-old baker's assistant before reportedly taking up duties as an SS guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1941. For nearly two years, he allegedly kept watch over prisoners in the Nazis' largest extermination factory. He also likely served on the camp's notorious ramp, where officials decided on the fate of new arrivals: forced labor or immediate death in the gas chambers.

According to prosecutors, Lipschis was one of some 7,000 henchmen who aided in the murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Today, 68 years after the end of the war, German judicial authorities intend to hold him accountable for his actions. In early May, he was arrested in his apartment. During a search of the premises, officials found letters written to social service agencies in which Lipschis mentioned his activities in Auschwitz. After his arrest, he was admitted to a prison hospital.

Now the Stuttgart public prosecutor's office has charged Lipschis with being an accessory to premeditated murder. Prosecutors have also underscored the insidious and cruel nature of the victims' deaths. During the period in which Lipschis worked as a guard at Auschwitz, 12 prisoner transports from throughout Europe reached the camp. Of the thousands of unsuspecting newcomers, 10,510 people were immediately murdered in the gas chambers after their arrival.

Germany 's New Wave of Nazi Trials

In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper last April, Lipschis said that he only worked as a cook at Auschwitz, and claimed only to have heard about people being killed in the gas chambers, but never to have seen anything. The public prosecutor's office argues this statement is unconvincing. Prosecutors contend Lipschis was aware of the camp procedures -- including why and how people were killed there -- and that he tacitly accepted this. Furthermore, they argue that he was not transfered to the camp's interior administration and assigned to kitchen duty until September 1943.

Lipschis has made no comments on the allegations by the public prosecutor's office. His public defender, Stuttgart lawyer Achim Bächle, who specializes in trials relating to the Nazi era, says: "It is exceedingly difficult and highly unsatisfactory to clear up a case 70 years after the end of the war. Hardly any of the eyewitnesses are still alive." According to Bächle, 21-year-old Lipschis couldn't resist the order to report to Auschwitz "without putting his own life in danger."

This case could soon be followed by a series of trials of alleged Nazi war criminals. Just a few weeks ago, Kurt Schrimm , head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg that focuses on German war crimes committed during World War II, announced that his office has completed preliminary investigations of 30 former Auschwitz camp guards. Most of these men can expect to be charged with acting as an accessory to murder. The oldest suspect is 97.

Although it's undeniably important to bring the perpetrators of the Nazi reign of terror to justice, this belated legal action raises a number of questions: Why did the German justice system do virtually nothing for decades? And why are former concentration camp guards -- cogs in the Holocaust machine -- now being charged when their commanding officers generally got off scot-free?

The Demjanjuk Precedent

Shortly after Lipschis' arrest, legal experts criticized the special prosecutor's office, saying the agency had waited far too long to conduct comprehensive investigations of former concentration camp guards from Auschwitz. Dutch law professor Frits Rüter, who heads an Amsterdam research project on justice and Nazi crimes, even called Lipschis' arrest "scandalous."  Rüter points out that for decades Germany hardly ever investigated low-ranking concentration camp guards. Their names -- including Lipschis' -- have been known since the 1960s.

Chief investigator Schrimm justifies his office's current wave of investigations by referring to a "new legal interpretation" that emerged from the 2011 trial and conviction of John Demjanjuk, a former concentration camp guard at the Sobibór extermination camp. A Munich regional court found Demjanjuk guilty of more than 28,000 counts of being an accessory to murder -- although prosecutors could prove no direct involvement. In their verdict, the Munich judges argued that when prisoner transports arrived at Sobibór, every guard performed duties that made them accessories to murder.

This interpretation of the law already existed back in the 1960s, and according to Ludwigsburg public prosecutor Thilo Kurz, who also works in the special prosecutors' office for Nazi war crimes , the legal precedent established during the Demjanjuk trial is "nothing new." In an article published in the German online legal magazine Zeitschrift für Internationale Strafrechtsdogmatik, he argued that it is actually "in line with previous legal decisions on camps built for the sole purpose of extermination." Kurz pointed out that a bookkeeper was sentenced to four years in prison back in 1966 for his role in the administration at Sobibór. The judges ruled that he acted as an accessory to the murder of at least 68,000 people. The German Federal High Court upheld this decision.

In the late 1960s, Kurz wrote, Germany's highest court heard another case from which the conclusion emerged that proof must be provided that each defendant has committed a concrete criminal act -- an approach which characterized German judicial practice for decades. Consequently, thousands of former concentration camp guards were let off the hook. Law professor Rüter puts this down to a systematic lack of interest in pursuing members of the SS. "For 50 years, the West German justice system has knowingly and intentionally not pursued low-ranking concentration camp guards because they were seen as mere underlings," contends Rüter. German judicial authorities didn't change their approach until the Demjanjuk trial in 2011.

What Did Lipschis Do?

So far, no proof has surfaced that Lipschis committed a single criminal act. But the Stuttgart public prosecutor's office feels that it has a solid enough case, based on its allegation that Lipschis served as a camp guard, to move forward. Prosecutors say that he deliberately, unlawfully and culpably contributed to the extermination of the camp's prisoners. Furthermore, they contend that camp staff members could have refused to carry out concrete orders -- and that they were well aware of this. The public prosecutor's office argues they by no means had to fear for their lives.

Since the Auschwitz concentration camp complex is generally classified as a combined labor and extermination camp, legal experts have long argued over whether it should be subject to the same standards as facilities that solely operated as death camps. Now, the Stuttgart prosecutor's office emphasizes in its indictment that the objective at Auschwitz was to exterminate all prisoners. Prosecutors contend that those prisoners who were assigned to work brigades were only given a reprieve from death, and that the Nazis never intended for them to survive.

Lipschis' unit reportedly not only secured the grounds surrounding the notorious ramp, the gas chambers and crematories, but also performed guard duty and served on the ramp itself. After the war, Lipschis was captured by the British and soon released. Then, following a time living in the town of Geesthacht in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the native Lithuanian emigrated with his family to Chicago in 1956. In the US he found a job as a worker at the Harmony guitar factory.

A Long Path to Court

In 1981, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) -- a former agency under the US Justice Department charged with hunting down Nazis in the US -- found out about Lipschis' dubious past. Two years later, US authorities deported him to Germany, citing his activities with the SS. Although the OSI offered to provide its German colleagues with copies of the extensive investigative material it had gathered, the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg showed no interest in pursuing the case.

At the time, the deputy head of the special prosecutor's office even personally traveled to the US -- but he evidently made no copies of documents and his staff back in Ludwigsburg apparently felt that no preliminary investigation was required. As a result, former SS Rottenführer Lipschis was able to live undisturbed in the town of Aalen until last May. His lawyer Bächle says: "Lipschis' whereabouts have been known to the authorities since 1983. It is totally incomprehensible that they are only now taking action."

According to the Stuttgart prosecutor's indictment, the defendant is in good health, despite a double bypass operation, and he was able to manage his household on his own at the time of his arrest.

The local court in nearby Ellwangen now has to decide whether to accept the indictment. Roughly 10 individuals, including former Auschwitz prisoners, have already filed as co-plaintiffs.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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