Closing argument of Attorney at Law Thomas Walther – July 7th, 2015

Your Honor!

The prosecution has given an appropriate account of what was established as the facts of the trial.

I will merely add a few remarks to the prosecution’s elaboration.

The main focus of my final statement today will be something different. I will speak about the significance of this proceeding for the co-plaintiffs we are representing – the significance of a proceeding that is taking place 71 years after their next of kin were murdered.

71 years ago, in the early morning of 1 July 1944, 18-year-old Eva Pusztai – who is 89 years of age today and a co-plaintiff in this proceeding –, then a naïve girl of sheltered upbringing in Debrecen, was thrust into hell at the ramp of Gröning’s place of employment, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On 16 May the “Hungarian Action” had begun in Birkenau.

The court and all participants to the proceeding have a first-hand impression of what we can accomplish here in this proceeding between 16 May 2015 and today – and in the coming days until 11 July 2015. Within exactly the same time span 71 years ago, 427,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz, of whom 300,000 were murdered immediately upon their arrival.

Among these murder victims were the families of our clients.

Being horrified does not help here. Neither does commiseration.

Together with my colleague Cornelius Nestler I represent 51 co-plaintiffs. With many of them I had long conversations and interviews in the year preceding this trial. Many were unable to travel to Lüneburg due to their age. It is for this reason that I am entitled to say the following in the first-person voice of my clients, and in their words:

We who are survivors of Auschwitz have the right to lament, and for our murdered families, we bear the duty to lament.

We lament suffering and loss, we lament our lonesomeness, we lament the most cruel of killing, we lament the million-fold absence of a kaddish at the deathbeds of our murdered families whose voices were silenced in Auschwitz. We lament time, which does not heal any wounds but instead burns them into our souls ever more deeply. We lament the cries within ourselves that we are suppressing even today to be able to pass for “normal people”.

And, day by day, we feel and suffer the recollection of our tears cried and uncried.

Now that decades have passed, we have become experienced in witnessing death, as we are seeing our own generations of survivors cross the threshold into death more and more often. It was only very late in our lives that we had to learn to sit shiwa as a rite of bidding our dead farewell – as the generations preceding us were scattered into all winds, rivers and swamps with the ashes of Auschwitz, entirely lacking the presence of our mourning. Our parents were not able to teach us a Jewish funeral rite.

And once WE are no more, WHO will remember?

Will the world preserve the ability to remember, or will collective forgetting prevail one day?

All our laments live in us. This Auschwitz death is part of our lives.

Only through our lawyers did we learn that in our ever-present lament we can also speak to this German court in the criminal proceeding against Oskar Gröning and that we will be heard with our pain and our laments.

We were thus granted the opportunity to bear witness as co-plaintiffs.

In the many conversations with our lawyers we found out and understood that you, Mr. Gröning, on the one hand were no different from the masses of all the SS men in Auschwitz who perfectly organized and undertook death for us Jews; but that on the other hand you let glimpse a sort of transformation in the decades following the war. We heard about your interviews with BBC and the SPIEGEL, and we registered that you have tried engage critically with your participation in the Holocaust. We know that your family was involved.

We, the survivors and children of victims, we thought that you could be much “better” than all the accused in the earlier Nazi trials. We hoped that you, Mr. Gröning, would comprehend our laments in a way that only one of the perpetrators can. It is you alone who encounters us this closely in our families’ hour of death. Speaking with our lawyers, we had raised hopes that in the best case a type of dialogue might unfold between us and you.

As the co-plaintiffs’ legal counsel, I, Thomas Walther, am telling you, Mr. Gröning:

The hopes of the co-plaintiffs were nourished by the knowledge that you made public the fact of your presence in Auschwitz as a result of your own decision, without at the time being accused in a criminal proceeding. You spoke publicly about your tasks on the ramp of Birkenau, where you came so close to the co-plaintiffs and their families 71 years ago. You openly addressed how you came to be a compliant and obedient Nazi and SS man. Without any pressure on the part of the justice system – which, until 2 years ago, remained inactive –, you publicly voiced your present-day disapproval and condemnation of what happened in Auschwitz. And at 94 years of age you are facing up to this proceeding in the role of the accused – and are thereby facing up to your responsibility as it will finally be established by this court.

For this, you deserve respect.

And yet, I as well as the co-plaintiffs remain greatly disappointed.

The disappointment begins with an inability on the part of the accused Oskar Gröning – an inability he shares with all of Auschwitz’s perpetrators and helpers: He is unable to use the word MURDER for the crimes of Auschwitz – the word MURDER in all of its unambiguousness that rules out any doubt. Instead, he hides behind the SS’ structures of command. It was the catastrophic consequence of this unconditional devotion to “the command” that has led to a relinquishment of all and any personal responsibility.

This is more than evident in the additional statement that Gröning had presented by his lawyers. He speaks explicitly of the “convenience of obedience, which did not allow for contradictions”, and he says that he did not have anything to do with the murders immediately.

Is the man Gröning not responsible for his own, personal obedience, in any case?

And he has his lawyers present further: He merely contributed to “the camp of Auschwitz operating effectively”. What a phrase!

He does not make a connection between himself and the murdering.

But it is exactly these instances of operating effectively in the mutual participation of all the cogs in the wheel, in the machinery of murder, that turns these “participants” into those who make mass murder possible – as prototypes, by way of their “functional aiding and abetting murder”.

From the beginning, Gröning transferred his individual GUILT to the area of MORALITY. And along with my co-plaintiffs, I recognize that for Gröning the responsibility for murdering their families is tied to the question of morality, thereby limiting his individual guilt. The result of this is humiliation – the humiliation borne from presenting life as relative. A Jewish human life is not subject to a determination of the right to live by way of moral reasoning.

Such an act of limiting individual guilt regarding the deaths of Jews harbors immense dangers in the present, in our world. Modern justifications for practiced anti-Semitism are mostly of moral nature. The moral values or norms of particular groups are interlaced with indignation, resentment or envy, and they meet in modern anti-Judaism.

In this sense, I wish to emphasize the deep concern on the part of the Jewish co-plaintiffs. For generations, they have all reacted with alarm when guilt regarding the deaths of Jews is to be weighed using the scales of morality.

Behind the complex societal and political deformation that was a trailblazer for the barbaric slaughter of innocent human beings, the individual SELF of Oskar Gröning was able to hide undetected from the start. Now that these deformations are removed, it is unbearable for the co-plaintiffs to denominate participation in murder in Auschwitz as an “immoral act”, in the worst case.

On the two days of this trial on which Mr. Gröning chose to speak and in all his interviews of a decade ago, one event is described again and again using similar words. Anyone who has, generally and comprehensively, devoted attention to the murder of the Jews in Eastern Europe after 1941 will agree: It was common practice to grab the small bodies of babies or infants by the feet and smash them to death against a wall, a tree, or a truck’s bumper bar.

Mr. Gröning, then, repeatedly describes the murder of this one baby whose little head was smashed in this manner when he was doing service on the ramp for the first time.

In a peculiar way, Gröning describes his own indignation about what he saw, but turns it into his own, morally motivated desire to leave Auschwitz. At the same time, he declares against the backdrop of his attitudes of the time that he generally agreed with the extermination of the Jews – including the children – as “enemies of the people”.

The repeated flexibility of “morality” in the life of the accused is apparent. A baby’s mere shooting would not have given cause for a desire for relocation. Only the battering did.

Around the end of last year, at an international school in Toronto, I spoke about Auschwitz with students who were but 11 or 12. Their parents are from all over the world. I was surprised. These children had already read Anne Frank’s diary in class, and they had had a number of lessons on the Holocaust. When all of the children’s questions had been answered, a girl raised her hand once more and hesitatingly asked me a question:

“Do you know” – she asked – “what they did to the children?”

The child was evidently thinking of herself.

Almost all our clients have spoken about their siblings’ murder. About the murder of children like Gilike, Eva Pusztai’s sister, or Evike, half sister to Judith and Elaine Kalman, or of Gershon and Reuven, the brothers of Irene Weiss.

What does the murder of our clients’ defenseless siblings, of these children, signify for those who were sentenced to live?

In one word: Tears. Tears that never run dry. Tears, again and again, even after 71 years. The dead siblings dig themselves into the consciousness of the living. Years and decades freeze. Never again will a leaf fall off a tree in front of these children’s eyes. No sunray will be a harbinger of a new morning.

After the end of the war, the surviving siblings who are themselves still children recognize with horror a German society that had legalized the mass murder of children according to an official morality. – Only 11% of Jewish children survived the Holocaust. These few were “old people” already when they were “children”, and their most serious of post-traumatic disorders were to accompany them for their whole lives, until today. To put it concretely: To accompany them all the way into this courtroom!

All the children in the world know the fear of being deserted. All the fathers and mothers in the world know the tears and raised arms because the parents are not to part from the children’s side. All of the world’s cultures in the history of humanity have respected this primal yearning. – And in Auschwitz the reverse side of this yearning, of a child’s fear of desertion, was instrumentalized in a diabolic way. Babies, infants, and children remained with their mothers. This was able to prevent panics, and joint transport could be feigned – all the way to waiting together in front of the gas chamber, as we have seen in the photograph of Reuven and Gershon with their mother. From the start, the continued care for the children was certain death for all mothers.

Only a place like Auschwitz, under the attentive eyes of the SS men, could bring to death also the children and babies in an unending stream of those condemned to die – leaving the surviving siblings with absolute emptiness, with an infernal nothing. There were no more children – from one’s own world. Those had been lost forever, within minutes on the ramp.

And our clients? – For decades they remain alone with their questions regarding the responsibility of all those without whom Hitler, Himmler, Göring and Heydrich never could have managed the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe.

Now, anyone who wants to believe that terror recedes with old age, that the souls of those who were children in Auschwitz in 1944 can find peace – anyone who wants to believe this is profoundly mistaken. And it is not only survivors who, in the spectrum of the Holocaust, are tormented by their nightmares even more once they reach old age – because the infirmities of age also play a role, and because the past often returns into the souls in an even more tormenting manner. The perpetrators and participants to the crimes fare quite similarly. Oskar Gröning knows this. – States of acute anxiety, during which Auschwitz enters into the present, are by no means rare. They are described by all the guardians, nurses and other persons who care for these people at old age.

And anyone who believes to have recognized stable personalities in these 14 testifying witnesses – persons so psychologically stable that they do not require any external support –, anyone who believes this is again mistaken. They may be perceived as such in the courtroom, because they have carefully tuned themselves to this day and even this hour, and because their legal counsels previously prepared them very cautiously and yet comprehensively for the entire proceeding. – All of them, over and over again, suffer through their incredibly dark hours in the whole gamut whose backdrop can be described in a phrase by Eichmann. The latter described his life’s work in the well-known Sassen interview: “I transported them to the slaughter.”

Within the year preceding the liberation in May 1945, Jewish children of happy families were transformed into the few survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust. They did not know anything about how to live a normal life. All on their own, without a soul to comfort them, they had to learn to survive survival.

The co-plaintiffs who had the opportunity to testify as witnesses before this court have described all the suffering and the loss. And in a mode of humility that is urgently required I remind myself again and again: Words alone are entirely unfit for filling with life the true experience of the hell of Auschwitz.

The true dimensions of the hell of Auschwitz live but in the hearts and souls of the survivors – of whom, according to the SS’ absolute will to dominate, not a single one was to survive Auschwitz.

Gröning has painted an image of duly “taking care” of the arriving transports with the cattle cars spilling over with Hungarian Jews – this image bears no resemblance to what actually happened to the people in these cars.

What concerns me, here, is not so much that the old man relapsed into the jargon of the time of the crime. While he corrects his first statement in this regard, he remains unable to find an appropriate personal word for that which for years he did not only experience first-hand, but which he fostered.

Only by way of example do I want to come back to the oft-invoked image of the baby battered to death, the image with which Gröning seeks to indicate that he himself is affected, a personal involvement cloaked as a humane emotion. Because – as Gröning has stated – this baby could also have been killed another way, for example by gunshot.

How does this isolated image from the initial days of Gröning’s service in Auschwitz – an image that he himself has painted –, how does it go with his emotionless account of the transports during the ‘Hungarian Action’, when 5 to 6 trains arrived every day, each carrying approximately 3,000 Jews? How does it go with his phrase of “duly taking care of” these transports?

I am convinced that with the testimonies of the 14 witnesses we have heard, with the elaborations of expert witness Dr. Hördler on the allegedly so unobstructed “taking care of” the 437,000 Hungarian Jews, it has become very clear what really happened.

Death had long found its way into the cattle cars when their doors were yanked open by the labor squads under the command and supervision of, among others, Unterscharführer Gröning.

This raises one of the many questions that Gröning has thus far avoided answering. What did the dead and the dying from the Hungary transports elicit in the accused himself when they were thrown on the ramp right in front of his feet? Or does he say: “They did not exist”?

Was he already so used to death and annihilation at this time that the only encounter to remain memorable and worth mentioning was this one early encounter with a single infant?

Or – this explanation suggests itself – is the baby nothing more than a metaphor? – A metaphor not so much due to memory, but part of the construct of later justification within his own family and social environment, when he had to present himself to his own sons and others in a way that was to allow for at least a certain amount of respect on their behalf?

These paths towards the self-conceptions of this generation of parents are familiar to anyone who – like me – is old enough to remember these times. In the earliest years, fists were banged on tables – among them Gröning’s – and any family member was banned from using the word MURDER for personal actions in Auschwitz. This time was followed by the great silence of the years of the economic miracle.

Had he refrained from banging his own fist on the table, Gröning would have been able to internalize the presumed immunity from punishment only much later. This was possible only once the interrogation by Frankfurt Chief Prosecutor Klein had remained without consequences in 1978.

Long before, in the 1960s, he and his generation were confronted with the past in their own families, when the Auschwitz Trial and the atmosphere of the era forced questions to the father onto the minds of the university-student sons.

Mr. Gröning, you, too, were faced with this problem.

It was of no advantage to you, then, not to have shown an interest in Frankfurt’s Auschwitz Trial yourself.

In this situation, the battered infant from your initial days of service was a suitable bridge for a return to a residue of moral principles and for consequently describing a number of alleged requests for relocation to the front line. The facts of the trial as established here will show that there were no such requests for relocation.

This circumstance cannot be altered either by the alleged personnel file that, according to Gröning, disappeared in an unresolved manner when in the custody of the Frankfurt prosecution. And yet, these requests for relocation were of eminent importance for his personal exculpation. Only like this was it possible to somewhat save face in the personal social environment of the 1960s.

Not to mention his promotion to Unterscharführer – i.e. Sergeant – that Gröning himself stylized as an SS criterion for exclusion from service on the ramp. We remember the photographs from the Auschwitz album in which historian Dr. Hördler showed us numerous SS men on the ramp sporting the SS Unterführer badge.

Gröning, with his additional statement, responds to this proof by way of expert witness: What he initially presented as an order – “No Unterführer on the ramp” – he now downgrades to a mere personal conclusion. This correction of course is fatally reminiscent of the idea of the “disappeared personnel file”. The latter, too, only surfaced “verbally” when serious doubts of the existence of any requests of relocation were expressed.

The accused felt the breath of death in the stench of thousands of humans burned each day and night during the ‘Hungarian Action’ in Auschwitz, and he knew: While the war lasts – the war that had cost his brother’s life in November 1942 –, this place in the shadow of the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews is the safest place for him, personally.

And yet, from the 1960s until today he has claimed: “I wanted to leave Auschwitz for the front line”, where he would have encountered death not as the stench of burned Jews but as the many-thousand-fold death of German soldiers, and where death would have lain in ambush for him, personally.

I want to explain to you, Mr. Gröning, why this “lie about the requests for relocation” is understood by my clients as an especially evident instance of flight from your personal responsibility.

The smashed little head of a Jewish baby serves as a gateway to your “mock indignation” – in order to demonstrate your compassion-slash-grace and your subjective sensation of cruelty.

A mere year and a half after the isolated indignation concerning the one battered baby, you, Mr. Gröning, then regard the 437,000 Jews from Hungary as nothing more than a “large number” within a short period of time with a “heavier workload”. You regard them as those Jews who, upon arrival, had to be duly “taken care of” and went from the ramp to death, absolutely clueless and without any complication whatsoever.

In this time of the ‘Hungarian Action’ you do not notice a single baby to be thrown onto the ramp, already dead from the cattle car ride, or desiccated to a corpse in the arm of a mother, or meeting the last hours of life whimpering and feeble from hunger and thirst. “Duly” is your decisive term for the ‘Hungarian Action’.

Your additional statement does not contain anything concrete on the ‘Hungarian Action’, either, even though you explicitly name the witnesses’ testimonies on the ‘Hungarian Action’ as the reason for your renewed declaration.

In this courtroom, the victims and the perpetrator have come together.

Evidently, our clients who testified as witnesses have not come alone – and in saying this, I do not mean their children that were by their sides. Our clients were here also in the company of their murdered parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and nieces. In many cases, there were 50 or 60 or more that came here, to Lüneburg, with a single witness in the torturous sensation of the forcible loss of entire families.

But neither were you, Mr. Gröning, here on your own.

You were joined here by all those members of your family who have already perished. According to your own words, you encounter them in your dreams. You have told medical examiner Dr. Friedrich about these dreams. But you are also in the spiritual company of the subsequent generations, of the sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Infants and babies like the one on the ramp will also be among them. At times, in a dream, the ramp scenes of which you cannot rid yourself may interlink with the faces of your own family. Reinterpretation as well as erratic changes of identity are part of the “nature of dreaming”.

The co-plaintiffs know by now that in late 1943 the accused married his older brother Gerhard’s fiancée Irmgard, following Gerhard’s death near Stalingrad on 20 November 1942. It is apparent and comprehensible that the accused now wanted to spare his own life – to be able to encounter his first-born son, delivered in August 1944, as more than a “hero killed in action for Führer and fatherland”. When my clients met the accused on the ramp, his wife Irmgard in Verden was six months pregnant and was not to be widowed, after her previous fiancé had already been killed in action two years earlier. – The question cannot be ignored: Had Oskar Gröning not also had to promise to his older brother Gerhard “to take care of Irmgard – in case he would not return from the battlefield”?

When you willingly remained in Auschwitz, Mr. Gröning, what was at issue for you was your life, were the lives of your wife and your first-born child – was your family! And yet by way of the baby metaphor you are describing your participation in the murder of all the families of the assembled co-plaintiffs as something that was equally “forced onto you”, because the SS allegedly did not let you go to the battlefield. You are embellishing a comprehensible selfish desire to survive with a moral cloak of an alleged state of being personally touched.

The abuse of certain modalities of killing Jews as a protective shield for your alleged state of being touched is one of the cruelties that you, Mr. Gröning, should have renounced in your encounter with the witnesses in this proceeding. It is not enough when you say that “you did not think the suffering of the others through to the end”.

You had a chance to do this in this proceeding, but to date you have not used it!

As far as Mr. Gröning, in his additional statement, calls the post of Auschwitz unsuited to realizing his family planning of “having a child fast”, identifying front line service as the better alternative to this end – as far as this goes, the facts point to the contrary, looking at the eldest son’s date of birth in 1944.

The co-plaintiffs are aware of the real relationship between entirely unconditional devotion to “the command” and its most catastrophic of consequences. It is the relinquishment of all and any personal responsibility.

Mr. Gröning says that this “cannot be comprehended by today’s standards”. If he means mass murder when he says “monstrosities” and only avoids using this word with reference to his own person, then this was equally incomprehensible already by the standards of “then”. It is “incomprehensible” to participate for years in the effectively operating death factory of Auschwitz. By all human standards, it has always been incomprehensible.

“To the outside”, Mr. Gröning thus preserves for himself the image of the SS man who on his inside was “decent”, who never wanted to stay in Auschwitz, who instead and courageously wanted to be part of the real war, on the front line.

Before I conclude, I need to speak about “fear” and its transformations.

The co-plaintiffs’ fears regarding a journey to a trial in Germany were great. Even the most elaborate of information in the preceding conversations was not sufficient to completely eliminate these fears. For many co-plaintiffs who did not make the trip it was therefore not only old age, health issues or frailness that mandated the decision not to travel to Lüneburg. Irene Weiss described her fears by saying that the accused could stir a fear of death in her even today, were he in the uniform of the SS. Comparable fears were so overwhelming in far more than just a few of the co-plaintiffs – so overwhelming that they were able to keep the acute and new nightmares at bay only by their definitive decision not to travel here.

A latent fear accompanied the co-plaintiffs on their way to Lüneburg. Some had initially not wanted to come here at all. But those who were able to build sufficient trust and who embarked on the journey, have undergone a very strong and intense transformation – all of the co-plaintiffs that came, without an exception. In them, an entirely new image of Germany has evolved. Under the impression of this image, the latent fear has disappeared or at least diminished greatly.

The co-plaintiffs noticed the respect with which they were treated. In court, they witnessed the search for justice – contrasting their fear of old German self-righteousness. Officers in German uniforms – those of the police and the judiciary – were recognized by the co-plaintiffs without any hesitation as those who in this proceeding will protect them from any threat. The German public – with its repeated spontaneous and positive attention in public spaces – and representatives of the media, the mayor of Lüneburg: they have all contributed to this strong transformation of latent fear into trust.

To an extent that was never expected, the court has validated and augmented all the positive impressions that the present witnesses had the chance to experience in the context of the proceeding. What I termed a “redeeming and healing effect” in what was initially not more than an optimistic prognosis has become the reality of this proceeding for the co-plaintiffs.

“I am surprised and I am happy … to be alive”,

a co-plaintiff wrote to us in a concluding description of her experience in Lüneburg.

The dialogue

Those co-plaintiffs who came for the trial session on 1 July – all of them co-plaintiffs who were here for the second time, with the exception of Andrew Sternberg – took the trip also in the hope that the accused would find the right words for his apology: his second statement had been announced beforehand.

They were disappointed. Mr. Gröning does open by declaring that it is his great concern to express himself once again after the testimonies of the survivors and the victims’ next of kin. But then he says very abstractly that the testimonies had made him clearly aware once again that most people had been annihilated. – He knew this beforehand. That is not new. But in this moment he does not say anything that regards the murdered families of the witnesses. And it is only these fates that were new to him.

Instead he says that he “had no idea about the horrendous conditions in the transports” and says verbatim: “That was a great shock to me.”

If you will pardon my saying so: Did Mr. Gröning not see very directly and very immediately all that which we have seen in the photographs of the Auschwitz album! “No idea”? – 3,000 Jews in three days and nights from Hungary to Auschwitz; always 80 to 100 to a cattle car. “No idea”? What kinds of travelers were they, those people who were thrown onto the ramp? – “No idea” about the horrendous conditions of the journey?

Mr. Gröning had the chance to comment on this with greater credibility.

But he has preferred to present his first statement mainly as what I want to call – “old wine in new skins”. By and large, this was a repetition of the old story of requests for relocation and of only three instances of ramp service during the ‘Hungarian Action’. All of this does not become any more convincing by being repeated or annotated.

The additional statement also contains a request to be “excused”. When one of our clients heard this word and could not yet clearly understand the context, a feeling of “positive surprise” arose in her. But then she had to learn: This was but an apology for having relapsed into the Auschwitz SS jargon in his first statement – it was not a personal request for forgiveness of his actions. The disappointment was great.

Other co-plaintiffs, in contrast, would not have accepted an “I apologize for my actions”, either – as long as this apology did not involve an open and transparent description of the actual participation in the crime. Avowals of humility and regret are little more than hollow words when the speaker does not say clearly what he is avowing.

At least, however, Mr. Gröning has made an attempt to react to the witnesses’ testimonies. He has recognized, in any case, that the co-plaintiffs have to suffer from the experiences of Auschwitz to this day.

Mr. Gröning has the privilege of knowledge on the question what really happened. Unlike the survivors, in whose lives the events on the ramp were singular and brief, Mr. Gröning has perennial knowledge of what has occurred. He is still able to speak to this. He continues to have the opportunity and the liberty to describe the unspeakable crimes in concrete terms – if only he steps out of his own dream world of trivialization and of his taciturnity in remembering mass murder. The co-plaintiffs are not giving up hope that the accused will finally liberate his own soul in his “Last Word” and open up about what happened and what he saw on the ramp and in Birkenau during the ‘Hungarian Action’. The accused shares responsibility for the co-plaintiffs’ lifelong suffering. He cannot absolve them from this suffering, no matter what his words. But he can offer them a bit of help in handling this suffering in the context of this criminal proceeding.

For this, it is not yet too late.

Advertisements