BERLIN — Oskar Gröning, an unassuming onetime corporal in Hitler’s Waffen SS who became known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz, one of the very last Germans to face war-crime charges arising from the Holocaust, has died. He was 96.
Oskar Gröning, a former SS officer known as “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” at a court in Lüneburg, Germany, in 2015. He was accused as an accomplice in the murder of some 300,000 Hungarian Jews. Credit Tobias Schwarz/Associated Press
Hans Holtermann, a lawyer for Mr. Gröning, told the German public broadcaster NDR on Monday that his client died late last week, giving no further details. Mr. Holtermann also sent a letter to the public prosecutor’s office in Hannover, said a spokesman, Thomas Klinge. Mr. Gröning was convicted nearby in Lüneburg in 2015.
In a case that turned on the tangled interplay of moral responsibility, criminal guilt and the consequences of complicity, Mr. Gröning, who never rose above the rank of corporal, insisted that he had played no more than a back-office role in the management of funds confiscated from Jews at Auschwitz.
“The essential, almost frightening, point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet,” said Laurence Rees, an author and BBC journalist who interviewed him at length in 2005.
Yet when he finally came to trial in Germany, Mr. Gröning was accused as an accomplice in the murder of some 300,000 Hungarian Jews who had been transported to Auschwitz in 1944. By the time he was sentenced to a four-year jail term — which his lawyers appealed — he was 94.
For many years, Germany prosecuted only those suspects whose wartime actions could be proved to be directly linked to specific atrocities, a principle that emerged from a series of trials in Frankfurt in the 1960s.
So sure was Mr. Gröning of his own position that he went public in 2005 with long interviews retelling the minutiae of his experiences as what he termed a tiny cog in the gears of the Final Solution.
In 2011, though, German attitudes were transformed when John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, was jailed in Munich for his involvement in the killing of 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Mr. Demjanjuk, who died in 2012 before an appeal could be heard, “knew he was part of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder,” Judge Ralph Alt said at the time. The verdict opened the way for prosecutors to charge the handful of surviving death-camp personnel with complicity in the liquidation on the grounds of their membership in a criminal organization.
Mr. Gröning had volunteered for the Waffen SS in 1941 after training in civilian life as a bank teller, credentials that the SS determined qualified him to tally the cash and personal valuables seized from Jews transported to Nazi-occupied Poland. “I’d never heard of Auschwitz before,” he said in 2005.
During his time at the camp, from 1942 to 1944, his ledgers recorded Polish zlotys and Greek drachmas, French francs, Dutch guilders, Czech korunas, Italian lire — a range of currencies that reflected the reach of the campaign to eradicate Europe’s Jews.
His remarks to interviewers, like his testimony a decade later at his trial near his home in Lüneburg, in northern Germany, offered macabre insights into the privileged life he and his comrades had enjoyed in their quarters at Auschwitz, even as freight trains arrived to disgorge Jews destined for extermination.
Mr. Gröning as a young man in the Waffen SS. He maintained that he had only a back-office role in the operation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Credit Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, via Associated Press
There were tinned sardines, and bacon, vodka and rum, he recalled in an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel in 2005 — items denied to most German civilians, and, of course, to the SS’s victims.
“We arrived in Auschwitz,” he recalled at his trial, “and there were all these things that we had not seen for a long time.”
One currency confiscated from Jewish victims was the American dollar; it was used for clandestine transactions among camp personnel. At one point, by his own account, Mr. Gröning stole $30 from the sequestered funds to buy a handgun from a corrupt guard.
In interviews and in his courtroom testimony, Mr. Gröning acknowledged being present on two occasions when Jews were killed; in one instance, he said, a camp guard smashed an abandoned baby’s head against the metal side of a truck. On the second occasion, he said, Jews who had escaped and taken refuge in a farmhouse were killed with the Zyklon B gas used for the broader extermination.
“That was the only time I saw a complete gassing,” he said. “I did not take part.”
Twice, he maintained, he asked to be transferred from Auschwitz to combat duties. He equally acknowledged that his attitude toward those whose money he counted had been shaped by his upbringing.
As a child, he told Der Spiegel in 2005, he had played marbles in the street with Anne Selig, the daughter of a Jewish ironmonger whose store was next to his home. When Nazi storm troopers held up a sign outside the shop saying, “Germans, do not buy from Jews,” he said, he was unmoved.
Indeed, so pervasive was the hatred of Jews that he recalled a song with the refrain: “When Jewish blood begins to drip from our knives, things will be good again.”
“Back then,” he said, “we didn’t even think about what we were singing.”
He said that throughout his early life, as a member of ultranationalist movements including the Hitler Youth, he had been raised to believe that Jews were Germany’s enemy within. His concerns about what he saw at Auschwitz related more to the modalities of killing than to its rationale or supposed principles.
“He had sworn an oath of loyalty, he believed the Jews were Germany’s enemy,” Mr. Rees, the BBC journalist, wrote in an article in 2015, “and he knew that he could still manipulate his life at the camp to avoid encountering the worst of the horror.”
On the first day of his trial — in a makeshift courtroom in an assembly hall chosen to accommodate the crush of survivors, lawyers, spectators and journalists — Mr. Gröning addressed the judge, Franz Kompisch, saying: “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit. This moral guilt I acknowledge here before the victims with regret and humility.”
But “as concerns guilt before the law,” he added, “you must decide.”
Mr. Gröning appeared at his trial as a silver-haired old man, a widower who found it difficult to walk unaided. Wartime photographs of him showed a self-confident and smiling young man in thin-rimmed spectacles, sporting the death’s-head emblem of the SS on his cap.
Mr. Gröning during a break in his trial in 2015. “The essential, almost frightening, point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet,” a journalist who interviewed him said. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
“It was perhaps affected by the era, but it was not because you were unfree,” the judge said, adding that he “had freedom to think” and yet “asked to join the SS.”
Oskar Gröning was born on June 10, 1921, at Nienburg, between Hanover and Bremen, in northern Germany. His mother died when he was 4 years old, and he was raised by his father, a stern textile worker who had emerged from World War I with a deep sense of grievance at the terms imposed on defeated Germany. Like others who shared his views, his father joined the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), an ultranationalist veterans’ group.
By Mr. Gröning’s account, his childhood was one of “discipline, obedience and authority.” He participated in the Stahlhelm’s youth movement before joining the Hitler Youth. His formal schooling ended in 1938, when he was 17, and he began training as a bank clerk. A year later, war intervened.
His elder brother, Gerhard, died as a soldier near Stalingrad in 1942, and Mr. Gröning married his brother’s fiancée, Irmgard. Their first son, also called Gerhard, was born in 1944.
Mr. Gröning volunteered for the SS in 1941 during a recruitment drive at a hotel near his home. After his service at Auschwitz he was sent to join German forces in the Ardennes region, where he was wounded. But he returned to his unit before Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
His initial instinct seemed to be to avoid mentioning his past. On a questionnaire handed to prisoners by their British captors, he said nothing about Auschwitz, he told Mr. Rees in 2005, telling them that he had worked for an SS administrative office in Berlin.
In 1946 he was shipped to England as a forced laborer, though he called his life there “very comfortable.”
Back in West Germany in 1947, with a job in a glass factory as his country began its postwar revival, Mr. Gröning told his family that the word Auschwitz and his connection to it “are never, ever to be mentioned again in my presence.”
“I never really found inner peace,” he told a German newspaper in 2013.
In 1977, a prosecutor in Frankfurt opened an inquiry into the activities of Mr. Gröning and 61 other SS members, only to determine, eight years later, that there were insufficient grounds for prosecution.
Mr. Gröning, a stamp collector, recalled later encountering a fellow philatelist, who told him that the Holocaust did not happen, according to accounts in Der Spiegel and elsewhere. He wrote a note to the man saying: “I saw everything — the gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.”
In what some depict as a quest for exoneration, he wrote an 87-page memoir to his sons Gerhard and Wolfgang about his experiences. In 2005, he recorded nine hours of taped interviews for a BBC documentary.
Later that same year, he told Der Spiegel, “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.”
A decade later, a court came to a different conclusion.