The Auschwitz Files Why the Last SS Guards Will Go Unpunished

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By Klaus Wiegrefe

In February, German prosecutors conducted a wave of raids targeting former SS concentration camp guards. It was hoped the proceedings could help make up for decades of inaction. Instead, they will likely mark the latest chapter in the German judiciary’s shameful approach to the Holocaust.

It was a carefully coordinated campaign. Criminal investigators from the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg all struck at the same time, at 9 a.m. on Feb. 19 of this year. The investigators, driving civilian vehicles, drove up to residences in 12 locations and presented the suspects with search warrants. The officials had previously determined whether their targets had firearm or explosives licenses.

The suspects, of course, were not expected to put up any resistance. The youngest was 88 and the oldest almost 100. Nevertheless, three of the accused — in Wiernsheim, Gerlingen and Freiburg — were temporarily taken into custody.

The next day, prosecutors in each locality issued a press release titled: “Searches conducted of presumed former SS members at the Auschwitz concentration camp.”

The sentence contained three key phrases: “search,” “SS members” and “Auschwitz.” The impact was immense. From the Los Angeles Times to Le Figaro and El País, media organizations worldwide reported on what the German newspaper Die Welt called the “biggest concerted campaign against presumed Nazi criminals in decades.”

Almost 70 years after its liberation, Auschwitz continues to trigger strong emotions, more so even than the other sites that played a key role in the Nazis’ machinery of death. Among the six million victims of the Holocaust, at least 1.1 million Jews were killed in the largest extermination camp of the Third Reich, along with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and Sinti and Roma. The victims came from almost all European countries, and most were sent to the gas chambers immediately after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The SS ground up the bones of the corpses and sold the meal to a fertilizer company in the vicinity. The ashes of the incinerated bodies were used in road construction, the hair of the women was spun into yarn and processed into felt, and gold tooth fillings were removed and melted, formed into bars and turned over to the Reichsbank, Germany’s central bank during the Nazi era.

Low on the Chain of Command

The police raid on Feb. 19 was part of a bigger operation in 11 German states, initially directed against 30 former members of the SS who had worked at this human extermination factory. The cumbersomely named Central Office of State Judiciary Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, in the southwestern city of Ludwigsburg, had identified the cases.

The list included 24 men and six women, all low-ranking former SS privates and lance corporals. They had worked in Auschwitz as bookkeepers, medics, teletypewriters and — the majority — as guards. Many of them were serving at the concentration camp when a transport that included 15-year-old Anne Frank, perhaps the most famous Holocaust victim, arrived in 1944.

The fact that the accused were low on the chain of command in no way diminishes the importance of the new proceedings. As part of the Nazi machinery of murder, they were all suspected of complicity in many thousands of cases.

The concerted operation that began in Ludwigsburg did not miss its mark. The public noted with respect that the German judiciary had tried, once again, to amend what is probably the most shameful record in its history.

The judiciary’s pursuit of those involved in the Holocaust stood in sharp contrast to the scope of the crime. According to historian Andreas Eichmüller, of the 6,500 members of the SS who served in Auschwitz and survived the war, only 29 were convicted in West Germany and reunified Germany, while about 20 were convicted in East Germany.

The failure of the German judiciary has long been viewed as part of the “second guilt” for which writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano reproached the Germans in 1987. It stems, he wrote, from the fact that Germans repressed the Hitler years for too long and denied their own guilt.

More than half a year has now passed since the February police raids. And it has become clear that the assumption was erroneous that German prosecutors could at least partially atone for Auschwitz with a last attempt to bring some of the perpetrators to justice. The new cases are being abandoned almost weekly and the reasons are varied. A few of the former SS members have died in the meantime and many are too frail to stand trial. In one case, the suspect had already been punished by a Polish court in the postwar years.

A History of Failure

The former SS members arrested in Baden-Württemberg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have since returned home. So were the actions of the public prosecutor’s office “completely excessive,” as Peter-Michael Diestel says critically? Diestel, who served as the last East German interior minister and now works as a criminal defense attorney, represents Hubert Z., a former SS Unterscharführer, or sergeant.

Prosecutors are only seriously pursuing charges in eight cases today, suggesting that an especially ignoble chapter in German postwar history is coming to a fitting end. Some suspect that the prosecutors were merely trying to collect PR points by booking a few gray-hairs with a Nazi past.

Either way, the episode seems as though it will do nothing to improve the history of failure that has characterized the German judiciary’s approach to Auschwitz. Many explanations for that failure have been offered over the years.

Can the failings be found primarily in the era of Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of West Germany, as Christoph Safferling claims? Safferling, a law professor, is a member of a committee of historians who have been commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Justice to examine its treatment of the Nazi era. Safferling says it was later no longer possible to correct the failings of lawmakers and judges in the initial postwar years.

Or did the German judiciary lack an overall strategy, as his Cologne colleague Cornelius Nestler puts it?

Did it have something to do with the many Nazis who continued their careers in the judicial service after the war had ended? But in that case, why wasn’t there a wave of new trials after this generation had gone into retirement in the 1980s? The last summary trial of an Auschwitz-related case ended more than 20 years ago.

Lack of Interest

Perhaps German criminal law is fundamentally unsuited to “render judgment on systematic, bureaucratically organized, state-sponsored mass murder,” as US historian Devin O. Pendas writes. Or perhaps the answer can be found at Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse 20 in Frankfurt, the location of the public prosecutor’s office that conducted — and, in most cases, suspended — the majority of Auschwitz-related prosecutions.

In reporting this piece, SPIEGEL examined numerous archived documents from judicial inquiries. The magazine spoke with historians and legal scholars along with prosecutors and judges involved in Auschwitz cases. We also interviewed defense attorneys of former SS members and spoke to one Auschwitz survivor.

The punishment of crimes committed at Auschwitz did not fail because a few politicians or judges tried to thwart such efforts. It failed because too few people were interested in decisively convicting and punishing the perpetrators. Many Germans were indifferent to the mass murder at Auschwitz after 1945 — and thereafter.

Even before the war ended, the Allies suspected that it would be difficult to punish the misdeeds of the Nazis, because of the large number of perpetrators and the difficult legal terrain. Did the Allies have the right to prosecute what Hitler had done to Jewish and other Germans? That right was questionable under international law, as then British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden conceded during a cabinet meeting in 1942, saying that unfortunately such acts could not be viewed as crimes.

To avoid the entanglements of legal procedures, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed having the top Nazis executed by firing squad without trial. He later signed the famous Moscow Declaration of 1943, under which the victorious powers reserved the right to prosecute the “major criminals.” Otherwise, those responsible for “atrocities, massacres and executions” were to be tried in the countries in which the crimes had been committed.

During the war, the part of the Silesia region where Auschwitz is located belonged to the Third Reich. The region was returned to Poland after 1945. As a result, the Western power extradited the members of the SS they managed to capture in military raids or in POW camps to the government in Warsaw.

 

A Considerable Lack of Empathy

The most famous case was that of the longstanding, brutal camp commandant Rudolf Höss, who was found hiding on a farm near Flensburg in northern Germany. A team of British investigators is said to have threatened his wife Hedwig with turning over her eldest son to the Soviets. She promptly betrayed her husband. Höss was sentenced to death in Warsaw and hanged in front of the house where he had lived as commandant.

Polish judges held about 700 SS members from Auschwitz accountable and, according to historian Aleksandr Lasik, did not allow themselves to be “guided by revenge.” Some of the sentences were astonishingly mild. On the other hand, courts in Krakow, Katowice and Wadowice sentenced some of the accused to several years in prison just by virtue of their having been members of an SS unit at a camp.

Initially, German courts were only allowed to punish those crimes that Germans had committed against other Germans. But this too proved to be difficult, as Edith Raim of the Institute of Contemporary History discovered. In bombed-out postwar Germany, there was a shortage of courtrooms, coal for heating, telephones and typewriters. In some cities, court proceedings had to be discontinued at nightfall due to a lack of light bulbs. For a time, a paper shortage in Hamburg meant that rulings could not be issued in writing.

Many roads and railway lines had been destroyed and the country was divided into occupation zones. Those traveling between zones needed permission from the Allies. When a prosecutor from southern Germany wanted to question a witness in the northern city of Hamburg, it took six weeks just to send correspondence by mail.

Yet no one can claim that the prosecution of Nazi crimes failed because of a shortage of light bulbs. Unlike other Nazi crimes, the Holocaust encountered little public interest from the start. When the Americans conducted an opinion poll in their occupation zone in October 1945, 20 percent of respondents stated that they agreed “with Hitler on the treatment of the Jews.” Another 19 percent found his policies toward the Jews excessive, but fundamentally correct.

‘Hidden Opportunism’

Although experts estimate that several tens of thousands of Auschwitz victims came from Germany, less than half a dozen SS members from Auschwitz had been put on trial by the time the Federal Republic was established in 1949. When the Allies handed over the prosecution of all Nazi crimes to the West German courts, little changed at first.

In the first few cases, there was evidence of a considerable lack of empathy, even when there were convictions. The Nuremberg-Fürth Regional Court, for instance, described the inmates at an Auschwitz satellite camp as “poorly educable Polish Jews” who had lacked “concentration camp experience.”

Two years later, the Wiesbaden Regional Court acquitted Gerhard Peters. He was the managing director of Degesch, the company that had supplied Zyklon B to the SS — the chemical frequently used in the gas chambers. Peters’ contact at the SS had testified that he had used the chemical for disinfection purposes only. The court concluded that Peters had been “unsuccessfully complicit.”

It is possible that prosecutors and judges with a Nazi past were reluctant to prosecute Nazi crimes. They constituted 80 percent of all prosecutors and judges in the states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. The numbers were similarly high at the Federal Supreme Court.

On the other hand, historian Ulrich Herbert has written of the “hidden opportunism” of former Nazis who lacked the confidence to openly oppose the system. In any event, not a single case has come to light of a prosecutor or judge who actively sought to thwart the punishment of crimes committed at Auschwitz.

It was much easier to do nothing. “Peace was made with the perpetrators on the backs of the victims,” writes Hamburg law professor Ingo Müller in the new edition of his famous reckoning with his own profession (“Horrible Jurists”).

Ten Minutes Per Murdered Jew

And when a case was occasionally brought to trial, even jurists with no former ties to the Nazis exhibited great creativity. An especially popular strategy was to classify perpetrators as accessories, which significantly reduced sentences. One after another, high-ranking members of the SS who had served in the extermination camps were let off with minor punishments. Frustrated investigators came up with the cynical calculation that perpetrators received 10 minutes of jail time for each murdered Jew.

In 1960, Johann Kremer, a former SS concentration camp doctor, walked out of the Münster Regional Court a free man, even though he had ordered the killing of sick and exhausted inmates. Kremer, who needed organs for his medical research, noted in his diary on Oct. 10, 1942: “Extracted and fixed fresh live material from liver, spleen and pancreas.”

But the court ruled that because the former SS Obersturmführer had lacked a “personal interest in the crime,” he was merely an accessory and not a perpetrator. When Kremer received a 10-year prison sentence instead of a life sentence, it was probably not a coincidence that this was precisely the amount of time he had already served in Poland.

The so-called accessory construct was based on the wishful thinking that only Hitler and his entourage had been responsible for the Holocaust. All others, the legendary Hessian chief prosecutor Fritz Bauer said derisively, viewed themselves as “raped, terrorized followers or depersonalized and dehumanized creatures compelled to do things that were completely alien to their nature.”

In the era of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, there was still a prevailing view of the Germans as Hitler’s victims. Even established opponents of the Nazis, like former Chancellor Adenauer, believed that it was necessary to accommodate the desire to draw a line under the past, even if it meant violating the principles of law. One of the most astonishing documents to have come to light in recent years is the protocol of a conversation between Adenauer and an Israeli diplomat in 1963. Israel was pushing for the resumption of diplomatic relations and Adenauer hinted that he could accommodate this desire — if Israel, in return, accepted that West Germany cease its prosecution of Nazi war criminals, which he called “intolerable for Germany’s standing in the world.”

The big Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in the early 1960s would probably not have materialized if Chief Prosecutor Fritz Bauer had not devoted himself to the issue. A Social Democrat from the southern Swabia region, Bauer was an outsider in many ways: a former concentration camp inmate, immigrant, Jew and homosexual. In addition to justice for the victims, he wanted the “determination and, if possible, widespread acknowledgement of the truth.” Bauer planned to put an end to the collective silence with a major Auschwitz trial.

Fortunate Circumstances

A series of fortunate circumstances played into Bauer’s hands. A journalist with the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper gave him documents that he had received from an Auschwitz survivor. They were letters in which the camp administration appealed to an SS and police court in Wroclaw in 1942 to abandon a judicial inquiry against 37 named SS members who had shot inmates. Such judicial inquiries were part of the pseudo-legal façade of the extermination camp.

The names of the marksman provided Bauer with leverage. He obtained a judgment from the Federal Supreme Court to transfer the “criminal matter against the former members of the commandant’s office of the Auschwitz concentration camp” to the Frankfurt Regional Court. This placed the case in the hands of the prosecuting authority under Bauer’s supervision.

Then Bauer assigned the investigations to a few prosecutors with no former Nazi ties. The young men proceeded to demonstrate how easy it was to advance the Auschwitz cause — as long as there was the will to do so. They asked Jewish organizations for help, used newspapers to find witnesses and reviewed documents in Auschwitz. Within a few months, the prosecutors had identified roughly 600 SS members, as Bauer biographer Ronen Steinke notes.

Then a systematic search was conducted, partly through the media. This led to the exposure of Richard Baer, the last Auschwitz commandant, who had assumed a false name and was working at the Bismarck family estate in the Sachsenwald forest near Hamburg.

Bauer instructed the prosecutors to put a “cross-section of the camp” on trial. He didn’t want to pass judgment on the perpetrators in individual trials, in which prosecutors would try the “murders of A by X, B by Y or C by Z,” as he put it. Such an atomized approach to conducting the cases would have obfuscated why the Holocaust was so horribly efficient: because the Nazi human extermination factory was based on the division of labor.

The Reich Security Head Office, the headquarters of SS terror in Berlin, would announce the arrival of a train carrying Jews by sending a radio message or telex. The commandant’s office then notified the relevant departments. The shift schedule determined who was on duty at the train platform. The SS members then went to the platform, which was on a sidetrack at the Auschwitz freight yard, on foot, by bicycle or by motorcycle.

 

A Disappointing Verdict

At the platform, the unsuspecting inmates were divided into two groups. Those in one group were sent to the camp as forced laborers. The others boarded trucks that took them to the gas chambers, or they were marched there on foot. The SS sought to create the impression that the gas chambers were shower rooms. So-called disinfectors dumped Zyklon B into shafts located on the exterior of the gas chambers. SS doctors waited nearby to provide assistance in case the murderers inadvertently poisoned themselves.

It was Bauer who exposed this structure.

The most important German Nazi trial in postwar history began in the Frankfurt Römer building on Dec. 20, 1963: “Criminal Proceedings Against Mulka and Others.” The main trial was a milestone in the examination of history. A total of 20,000 visitors followed the trial, the legal opinions became bestsellers, and the media reported daily on the testimony of more than 350 witnesses. In doing so they brought an awareness of the Holocaust into people’s living rooms.

Viewers burst into tears when former inmates, like Hungarian Jewish doctor Lajos Schlinger, told their stories. Upon arriving at the platform, the unsuspecting Schlinger recognized Dr. Victor Capesius, the director of the camp pharmacy, among the SS members. Before the war, Capesius had visited Schlinger several times as a representative of the Bayer pharmaceutical firm. Overjoyed to see the SS officer, Schlinger approached him and asked where they were and what was to happen next, as his wife was very ill. Capesius reassured him and said that everything would be fine, and that Mrs. Schlinger and their 17-year-old daughter should line up with the severely ill inmates. With the words “you should go over there,” Schlinger sent his loved ones to their deaths.

Today Bauer is celebrated for having made the trial happen, against significant resistance. It could also be argued that the example Bauer set proves that the will and determination — and steadfastness — of a single person were sufficient.

Even decades after Hitler’s demise, investigators and prosecutors alike were harassed by landlords, received death threats and faced graffiti in their hallways. Bauer was given a 6.35 mm pistol, and his driver also served as a bodyguard.

Heinz Düx, 90, the former investigative judge in the Auschwitz trial, is one of the few people who can describe the mood in the judiciary at the time. A short man with a goatee, Düx remains an avowed leftist to this day. Time and again, he wrote “secret memos” when colleagues tried to thwart the investigations, with feigned excuses like the one that it was all too much work for the regional court.

‘Outrageously Lenient’

For instance, there were two regional court judges who proposed breaking up the planned major trial into individual proceedings and handing off a portion of the cases to other public prosecutor’s offices. The proposal would have destroyed Bauer’s concept of a mammoth proceeding. Then there was the senior government official who for weeks delayed an inquiry Düx had made to the Soviet Embassy by insisting that East Germany had to be referred to in the letter as the Soviet occupation zone. Finally, there were the presiding judge on the regional court and a state secretary who refused to approve Düx’s request to make an official trip to Auschwitz.

Düx gives accounts of colleagues who privately referred to witnesses from the extermination camp as “professional Auschwitzers.” But he also says that the case was not seriously in jeopardy at any time. Bauer, Düx and a few like-minded individuals — that was all it took to mount a trial of this magnitude.

But Bauer had no influence over the court’s ruling. Only recently, Werner Renz of the Fritz Bauer Institute, an independent German cultural institute that researches the history and impact of the Nazi crimes, addressed the fatal legacy of the verdict. It provided an excuse to those judges and prosecutors who were unwilling to address the crimes of Auschwitz. And the verdict discouraged the handful of others.

The sentences against a few senior camp officials were “outrageously lenient,” Renz says, an outcome from which their subordinates benefited. ‘The Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office, for example, subsequently abandoned a case against 14 truck drivers who had transported Zyklon B and victims to the gas chambers. It argued that the drivers’ culpability was “minor” compared to the guilty verdicts handed down against SS members who had selected inmates at the platform.

Most of all, Bauer failed with a legal strategy that would have changed everything. The chief prosecutor had argued that the genocide of the Jews at Auschwitz did not consist of a large number of individual crimes, but instead should be treated as a single crime. It sounded academic, but it would have had vast consequences. According to Bauer, each member of the SS workforce at the camp would, in principle, have been guilty of “participation in murder, from the guards to those at the very top.”

A Mere Handful

But both the Frankfurt Regional Court and the Federal Supreme Court, on appeal, rejected the construct, a decision that would save the skins of those thousands of SS members who could only be shown to have served in Birkenau. Accordingly, being a cog in the wheel was not enough for a conviction.

From then on, prosecutors and courts alike invoked this Federal Supreme Court ruling on Auschwitz — even though the court, in cases relating to other extermination camps, took a position consistent with Bauer’s approach, as law professor Nestler has discovered.

Instead of a wave of indictments against lower-ranking perpetrators, the big Auschwitz trial was followed by a mere handful of major trials. And, in most cases, demonstrating concrete involvement in a crime proved to be impossible.

The passage of time became the most powerful ally of the SS veterans. A case involving a particularly horrific crime — the murder of about 400 Hungarian children — ended in 1976 with the acquittal of SS camp leader Willi Sawatzki because the key witness for the prosecution was no longer fit to be questioned. The SS men, who had run out of Zyklon B, drove the children to pits and threw them into a fire while they were still alive. When the children tried to escape, the SS men kicked them back into the flames. An eyewitness later reported seeing “little balls of fire that could be seen crawling out of the bonfire.”

Because the Federal Supreme Court routinely referred Auschwitz cases to the Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office, less than a dozen specialized lawyers and judges handled virtually the entire criminal prosecution of crimes committed at the camp. According to a survey by the Institute of Contemporary History, the Frankfurt officials conducted 1,060 cases — and abandoned almost all of them. No one has systematically analyzed the files in the Hessian State Archive in Wiesbaden yet, but it appears that the prosecutors became less and less motivated with each failed prosecution.

How else can the cynicism in memos to which SPIEGEL has gained access be explained? Take, for example, the case of one SS guard that was prosecuted in 1982. The man had stood at the platform a few times to prevent arriving Jews from escaping. But Chief Prosecutor Hans Eberhard Klein ruled that the victims didn’t know what awaited them. Consequently, he argued, they had no intention of fleeing, so that the guard couldn’t have prevented them from doing so.

New Life

It is the logic of judiciary officials searching for an emergency exit.

And then there was the 2005 case involving an employee of the “Prisoners’ Money Administration,” which was responsible for the possessions of the murdered inmates. The plundering of those possessions was not the root of the crime, but was “merely a welcome byproduct for the war economy,” argued Prosecutor Eberhard Galm. He also noted that it was doubtful whether the SS sergeant “was aware of the brutality of death by agonizing suffocation from hydrocyanic acid vapors.”

Case settled, file closed.

At some point the Central Office (ZSt) in Ludwigsburg, where the preliminary work took place that usually triggered the Frankfurt proceedings, began to lose interest. “Auschwitz was no longer of importance to the judiciary,” Kurt Schrimm, the head of the office in Ludwigsburg, concedes. Indeed, the February raids against former SS members would likely never have happened if Ludwigsburg investigator Thomas Walther had not attempted to bring John Demjanjuk, a former SS guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, to trial in 2008.

Walther, new in Ludwigsburg, was fearless and surprised at the intellectual lethargy of many of his colleagues. He was long ridiculed, but to everyone’s surprise the Munich Regional Court returned a guilty verdict against Demjanjuk, who had lived in the United States after the war but had been extradited. The verdict against the native Ukrainian, against whom no concrete, individual crime could be demonstrated, served as a trigger. The lower-ranking members of the SS at Auschwitz were an issue once again.

Suddenly Ludwigsburg lawyers were discovering parallels between Auschwitz and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They focused on Moroccan-born Hamburg student Mounir al-Motassadeq, who had been indicted as an accomplice to terrorist pilot Mohammed Atta on thousands of counts of murder. Motassadeq had concealed Atta’s absence from Hamburg and had helped transfer money to the 9/11 attackers in the United States. But he hadn’t killed anyone, and unlike the SS members at Auschwitz, he was actually thousands of kilometers away from the scene of the crime. Like lower-level SS members, Motassadeq could claim that the murders would have occurred even without his participation. Nevertheless, the Federal Supreme Court found Motassadeq guilty of complicity in 2006.

The Ludwigsburg team also discovered that apart from the Frankfurt Auschwitz verdict, other courts in the 1960s had held ordinary supporting staff from other extermination camps responsible. For instance, an SS bookkeeper from Sobibor was sent to prison for his administrative role.

 

Symbolic Convictions?

The investigators also remembered lists of thousands of SS members from Auschwitz that had been compiled in Fritz Bauer’s day.

The prosecutors conducted a dragnet-type investigation, eliminating anyone born before 1912, because they were presumably no longer alive. Then they presented the remaining files to pension insurance funds and other insurance agencies. In the end, the team had assembled 30 names and addresses, which they forwarded to the relevant public prosecutor’s offices in the places where these people lived in the fall of 2013.

Some of them were vicious characters who had been given lengthy prison terms decades ago by the Allies or in East Germany. But they did not come under scrutiny in Ludwigsburg because of their complicity in specific crimes, but because they were parts of the machinery that engaged in systematic killing.

One of them was Hermine G., who worked as a secretary in the telex section of the commandant’s office, from which reports on the murdered Jews were sent to Berlin. Another was Jakob W., a guard who had served in the camp for two-and-a-half years, primarily in the watchtower. “Of course, if we hadn’t been there Auschwitz wouldn’t have existed,” he admits. But W., who later became an architect and a German civil servant, does not feel guilty in either a criminal or a moral sense.

A Question of Fairness

The advanced age of the accused is irrelevant to the legal assessment of their cases. Of course, many observers consider it absurd to convict 88-year-olds under juvenile law for crimes committed 70 years ago. But what is fair?

Esther Bejarano, the 89-year-old chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, has something to say about that. She was a young woman when she arrived at the death camp, but she survived because of her musical abilities. The SS needed her for the concentration camp’s so-called girls’ orchestra.

Bejarano lives in a small apartment in Hamburg. Despite her advanced age, she is full of energy, although she has never been willing to appear in trials against former SS members — a burden she says she could not endure. Of course, she welcomes the new investigations, she says, albeit with some bitterness. “This is such a farce,” she says. “These people should have been punished right away after 1945.” Bejarano will never forgive the judiciary for its failings, no matter what happens in German courtrooms today.

For Bejarano, it is a question of how the former SS members behave in court. Those who continue to espouse the “horrible ideology” must be “severely punished,” she says, whereas those who show remorse should receive leniency.

There is only one thing this clever, effervescent musician would find intolerable: acquittals. “From a symbolic standpoint, they have to be convicted, no matter what,” she says. “They were there and they participated, even if they were personally not guilty of any misconduct.”

But such a Solomonic solution is not an option. The German legal system has no provisions for symbolic punishments. A person is either guilty or innocent.

Insiders expect that the evidence will only lead to trials in two cases at most. And if the two elderly defendants are indeed convicted, the share of SS members from Auschwitz who received a guilty verdict in Germany will have reached a new high: 0.48 percent.

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