Survivor Gives Emotional Testimony in Opening of Trial of Ex-Auschwitz Guard

Bernd Thissen/Pool Photo/AP Photo

A Holocaust survivor took the stand today in Germany to testify against Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Nazi SS sergeant who is charged with at least 170,000 counts of accessory to murder based on accusations that he served as a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

“Mr. Hanning, we are about the same age, and we will both soon be before the highest court,” Leon Schwarzbaum, 94, said in court as his hands trembled, the Associated Press reported. “Speak here about what you and your comrades did!”

Schwarzbaum is one of 40 Auschwitz survivors or relatives of Auschwitz survivors who have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, according to the AP. He will take the stand again when the trial resumes Friday.

Survivors Erna de Vries, 92, and Justin Sonder, 90, also attended the trial.

“This trial should have happened 40, 50 years ago,” Sonder said in a press conference Wednesday. “But now it is not too late to show what once happened.”

Sonder said he can’t forget the images he saw at Auschwitz.

“The chimneys were spewing fire … and the smell of burning human flesh was so unbelievable that one could hardly bear it,” he said Wednesday.

Hanning seemed in good condition for his age, walking into the courtroom without the help of a cane. He appeared to listen intently as the indictment against him was read aloud, the AP reported.

On Nov. 2, a doctor determined that Hanning was fit enough to stand trial for two hours per day, said Dr. Anneli Neumann, a spokeswoman for regional court in Detmold, Germany.

Hanning declined to give an opening statement in court, according to the AP.

The former Nazi guard has said he never participated in mass murder, maintaining that he served in a part of the Auschwitz complex where no gassings took place. But prosecutors argued that all guards helped the concentration camp function and that during the “Hungarian action,” he was among those called upon to help alleviate the tens of thousands of people entering the camps.

Prosecutors have said they have proof Hanning served at Birkenau, where the gas chambers were located at Auschwitz, between January 1942 and June 1944.

“We believe that these auxiliaries were used in particular during the so-called Hungarian action in support of Birkenau,” prosecutor Andreas Brendel told the AP.

If convicted, Hanning could spend up to 15 years in prison.

“For accessory to murder in at least 170,000 cases – and this is what the charges are – there is a minimum sentence of three years according to the criminal code,” Neumann said. “The maximum sentence according to the criminal code is 15 years.”

Hanning is one of four elderly former Nazi guards due to go on trial in the coming months.

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