The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Subject: Guardian: The Nazi's testimony
Date: Sun, 09 Jan 2005 21:43:09 -0500
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The Nazi's testimony

Oskar Gröning was at his local philately club when a fellow stamp collector
cast doubts on the Holocaust. Gröning knew he was wrong - because 50 years
earlier he had served at Auschwitz. Laurence Rees on what happened when the
ex-SS soldier decided to finally confront his past

Monday January 10, 2005
The Guardian

After the war, Oskar Gröning took up a hobby. He worked as a manager in a
glass factory near Hamburg, but in his own time he became a keen stamp
collector. It was at a meeting of his local philately club, in the late
1980s, that Gröning found himself chatting to a man about politics.

"Isn't it terrible," said the man, "that the government says it's illegal to
say anything against the killing of millions of Jews in Auschwitz?" He went
on to explain to Gröning how it was "inconceivable" for so many bodies to
have been burned.

Gröning said nothing to contradict these statements. But the attempt to deny
the reality of Auschwitz, the site of the largest mass murder in history,
upset him and made him angry. He obtained one of the Holocaust deniers'
pamphlets that his fellow stamp collector had recommended, wrote an ironic
commentary on it, and posted it to the man from the philately club.

Suddenly, he started to get phone calls from strangers who disputed his
view. It turned out that his denunciation of the Holocaust deniers' case had
been printed in a neo-Nazi magazine. The calls and letters he received "were
all from people who tried to prove that Auschwitz was a huge mistake, a big
hallucination, because it hadn't happened".

But Gröning knew very well it had happened - for he was posted to Auschwitz
in September 1942, as a 22-year-old member of the SS. Almost immediately he
witnessed the arrival of Jews at the camp. "I was standing at the ramp," he
says, "and my task was to be part of the group supervising the luggage from
an incoming transport." He watched while SS doctors first separated men from
women and children, and then selected who was fit to work and who would be
gassed immediately. "Sick people were lifted on to lorries. Red Cross
lorries - they [the SS] always tried to create the impression that people
had nothing to fear." Gröning estimates that 80-90% of those on the first
transport he witnessed were selected to be murdered at once.

Later, he witnessed the burning of bodies: "This comrade said, 'Come with
me, I'll show you.' I was so shocked that I stood at a distance. The fire
was flickering up and the kapo [a prisoner in charge of work details] there
told me afterwards details of the burning. And it was terribly disgusting -
horrendous. He made fun of the fact that when the bodies started burning
they obviously developed gases from the lungs and these bodies seemed to
jump up, and the sex parts of the men suddenly became erect in a way that he
found laughable."

Gröning was upset by the sights he had seen and went to his boss, an SS
lieutenant, and put in a request for a transfer to a front-line unit. "He
listened to me and said: 'My dear Gröning, what do you want to do against
it? We're all in the same boat. We've given an obligation to accept this -
not to even think about it.'"

With the words of his superior ringing in his ears, and his transfer request
turned down, Gröning returned to work. He had sworn an oath of loyalty; he
believed the Jews were Germany's enemy; and he knew that he could manipulate
his life at the camp to avoid encountering the worst of the horror. So he
stayed.

Gröning then discovered there were "positive" aspects of working at
Auschwitz: "I have to say that many who worked there weren't dull, they were
intelligent." When he eventually left the camp, he went with some regrets.
"I'd left a circle of friends who I'd got familiar with, I'd got fond of,
and that was very difficult. Apart from the fact that there are pigs who
fulfil their personal drives - there are such people - the special situation
at Auschwitz led to friendships which, I still say today, I think back on
with joy."

To meet Gröning today, and listen to his attempt to explain his time at
Auschwitz, is a strange experience. In appearance, he is indistinguishable
from countless other elderly, prosperous Germans. He wears good clothes,
eats solid German food and espouses conventional right-of-centre political
views. Now in his 80s, he talks almost as if there was another Oskar Gröning
who worked at Auschwitz 60 years ago - he can be surprisingly critical of
his younger self. The essential, almost frightening, point about him is that
he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet.
He is no insane SS monster, but a former bank clerk who happened, because of
his own choices and historical circumstance, to find himself working in one
of the most infamous places in history.

Gröning joined the Hitler Youth when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He
took part in the burning of books written by Jews and "degenerates". He
believed he was helping rid Germany of alien cultures. At 17, he began a
traineeship as a bank clerk. Just months later war was declared. Gröning
wanted to join an "elite" unit of the German army so went to a hotel where
the Waffen SS was recruiting and joined up.

After a couple of years of clerical work for the SS, he was posted to
Auschwitz. On arrival, Gröning was quizzed by senior officers about his
background before the war. "We had to say what we'd been doing, what kind of
job, what level of education," he recalls. "I said that I was a bank clerk
and that I wanted to work in administration and one of the officers said,
'Oh, I can use someone like that.'"

As Gröning began his task of counting the prisoners' money, he was told that
valuables taken from Jews would not be returned. When he asked why, his
colleagues replied: "Well, don't you know? That's the way it is here. Jewish
transports arrive, and as far as they're not able to work, they're got rid
of." Until that moment, Gröning had thought Auschwitz functioned as a
"normal" concentration camp.

"It was a shock that you cannot take in at the first moment," he says. But
once he had been at Auschwitz for several months, the work, he says, had
become "routine". "The propaganda had for us such an effect that you assumed
that to exterminate them was basically something that happened in war. And,
to that extent, a feeling of sympathy or empathy didn't come up."

Gröning's job was to sort the various currencies taken from the new arrivals
and send it to Berlin. In his office, he was insulated from the brutality.
The only reminder that different nationalities were coming to the camp was
the variety of currencies that crossed Gröning's desk - and the array of
alcohol taken from the new arrivals. "When there was a lot of ouzo," he
says, "it could only come from Greece - otherwise there was no reason for us
to distinguish where they came from. We drank a lot of vodka. We didn't get
drunk every day - but it did happen. We'd go to bed drunk, and if someone
was too lazy to turn off the light they'd shoot at it - nobody said
anything."

In 1944, Gröning's application for a transfer to the front line was finally
granted and he joined an SS unit in the Ardennes. He was wounded in fighting
before he and his comrades eventually gave themselves up to the British in
June 1945. They were handed a questionnaire and Gröning realised that
"involvement in the concentration camp of Auschwitz would have a negative
response", so he put down that he had worked for the SS economic and
administration office in Berlin.

"The victor's always right, and we knew that the things that happened there
[in Auschwitz] did not always comply with human rights," he observes,
seemingly oblivious to how such understatement might seem grotesque.

Along with his SS comrades, Gröning was imprisoned in a former Nazi
concentration camp: "It was not very pleasant - that was revenge against the
guilty." But life improved when he was shipped to England in 1946 where, as
a forced labourer, he had "a very comfortable life". He went back to Germany
in 1948.

Shortly after his return, he was sitting at the dinner table with his
parents-in-law and "they made a silly remark about Auschwitz", implying that
he was a "potential or real murderer". "I exploded!" says Gröning. "I banged
my fist on the table and said, 'This word and this connection are never,
ever, to be mentioned again in my presence, otherwise I'll move out!' I was
quite loud, and this was respected and it was never mentioned again."

Thus did the Gröning family settle down to its postwar future, enjoying the
fruits of the German "economic miracle". Gröning rose through the management
at the glass factory, becoming head of personnel. Before retirement, he was
appointed an honorary judge of industrial tribunal cases. Even today, he
believes that the experience he gained in the SS and Hitler Youth helped his
career. "From the age of 12 onwards I learnt about discipline," he says.

When his past was eventually uncovered (he never made any attempt to change
his name or hide), the German prosecutors did not press charges against him.
This was, in fact, typical. Gröning's experience illustrates how it is
possible to have been a member of the SS, worked at Auschwitz, witnessed the
extermination process, contributed to the Final Solution, and still not be
thought "guilty" by the postwar West German state. Of the 6,500 members of
the SS who worked at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 and are thought to have
survived the war, only about 750 were prosecuted, the vast majority by the
Poles.

Throughout his life, Gröning believes he did what he thought was right; it's
just that what was "right" then, he says, turns out not to be "right" today.
It was not until his philatelic encounter with the Holocaust deniers that he
decided to speak openly about his time at the death camp. Once he had
retired and knew he would not be prosecuted by the German authorities, he
decided he had nothing to lose by confronting his past. Decades after his
time at Auschwitz, Gröning finally broke rank.

"I would like you to believe me," he says. "I saw the gas chambers. I saw
the crematorium. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections
took place. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened,
because I was there."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/secondworldwar/story/0,14058,1386675,00.html


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