A 94-year-old former enlisted SS man has gone on trial in Germany, charged with being an accessory to murder for crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Nazis’ Stutthof concentration camp.
Johann Rehbogen is accused of working as a guard at the camp east of Danzig, which is nowadays the Polish city of Gdansk, from June 1942 to about the beginning of September 1944.
There is no evidence linking him to a specific crime, but more than 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof and prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to at least hundreds of those deaths.
Stutthof prisoners were killed in a gas chamber, with deadly injections of petrol or phenol directly to their hearts or shot, starved and even forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, prosecutor Andreas Brendel said.
The former SS Sturmmann does not deny serving in the camp during the war but has told investigators he was not aware of the killings and did not participate in them, Mr Brendel said.
Rehbogen’s attorney, Andreas Tinkl, has said his client will make a statement in the trial at the Munster state court, which is scheduled to last until January, but it was not immediately clear when he would speak.
Rehbogen lives in the western municipality of Borken near the Dutch border.
In deference to his age and health, the trial is being restricted to a maximum of two hours a day, with no more than two non-consecutive days a week.
At the same time, because he was under 21 at the time of his alleged crimes, he is being tried in juvenile court.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which helped locate some 20 Stutthof survivors for the case to serve as possible witnesses, emphasised that such trials are important, even more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War.
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,” said the centre’s head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff.
Many survivors, along with relatives of victims, are also joining the trial as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law.
Even though the number of suspects is dwindling, the special federal prosecutor’s office in Ludwigsburg that investigates Nazi war crimes still has multiple cases ongoing.
In addition to looking at camps like Stutthof, Buchenwald, Ravensbruck, Mauthausen and Flossenburg, it is also investigating former members of the mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen.
Stutthof was established in 1939 and underwent several iterations, initially being used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the nearby city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea coast.
From about 1940 onward, it was used as a so-called “work education camp” where forced labourers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens who had run afoul of their Nazi oppressors, were sent to serve sentences and often died.
Others incarcerated there included criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, which was overflowing, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.