An SS Officer Remembers The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz

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 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?

"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.


"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.

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.

Counting the money of the dead.

Gröning wants to know what this means. Someone says: "Jews have arrived, and they are now being admitted to the camp. If they're lucky, that is."

"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.

One night he wakes up to the sound of whistles. Jews have broken out. He runs through the dark until he reaches a farm, where he sees corpses littering the ground. He watches as naked people are herded into the farmhouse and sees a senior officer shut the door, pull a gas mask over his head, open a can and pour the contents into a hatch. Then he hears screams. The screams turn into a thundering noise, the thundering becomes humming, and then it is quiet.

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?

"I settled in over time. Or perhaps better put: I became a part of internal emigration. Part of living in Auschwitz was perfectly normal. There was a vegetable shop where you could also buy soup bones. It was like a small city. I had my unit, and gas chambers were irrelevant in that unit. There was one side of life in Auschwitz, and there was another, and the two were more or less separate."

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.

In 1968, when the children, adults by then, were taking their fathers' generation to court, his sons were 26 and 19. They went to university and rarely came home. They knew that their father had been in Auschwitz, but they never spoke with him about it. They had no questions.

"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.

Why not?

"Perhaps because she is afraid."

Of what?

"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."

Discussing guilt

And morally?

"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

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