He is 94 today, at the centre of what is likely to be one of the last ever Nazi war crimes trials.
But Reinhold Hanning was 20 years old in 1942 when he started serving as a Nazi SS guard at Auschwitz where he is accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people.
Hanning has faced testimony from survivors of the death camp in his court case which got underway on Thursday in the German city of Detmold.
He met Jewish prisoners as they piled off cattle trucks and possibly led some to the gas chambers according to prosecutors who have brought the case with 38 joint plaintiffs from Hungary, Israel, Canada, Britain, the United States and Germany.
Camp inmates still have vivid memories.
Survivor Leon Schwarzbaum is 94, just like Hanning who admits being a guard but denies involvement in the mass killings, part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” for the extermination of Europe’s Jews.
“The crematoria, the chimneys, were spewing fire,” he told a news conference in Detmold on the eve of the trial.
“The smell of burning flesh was so unbelievable. You could hardly bear it because you knew there were human beings burning there.”
Former Auschwitz guard goes on trial for complicity in Nazi genocide https://t.co/Bwu0Ryeb6X— The Independent (@Independent) 10 Février 2016
It is never too late to bring those involved in the Nazi killing machine to justice, says fellow survivor Justin Sonder, deported at 17. He lost 22 members of his family under the Nazi regime.
“I was often asked if there were SS men in Auschwitz who showed compassion. Let me tell you clearly, absolutely not,” he said.
“They would beat you, they would kick you, they would throw your cap away so you had to get it and you were shot.”
Erna de Vries was deported to Auschwitz along with her mother in 1943, at the age of 23. Considered a “Jewish crossbreed” as her father was Protestant, she was saved from the gas chamber and transferred to a labour camp.
“I survived, but to this day I don’t know exactly how my mother was killed,” she told Reuters ahead of the trial.
“The last thing she said to me was: ‘You will survive and explain what happened to us.’
“I am not hateful but it somehow feels like justice to see this man, who was working there when my mother died, on trial.”
Germany’s Nazi war crimes office in Ludwigsburg has found that Hanning served as a guard at Auschwitz until at least June 1944.
Prosecutors maintain that the Nazis’ machinery of murder hinged on people like Hanning guarding the prisoners, and they accuse him of expediting, or at least facilitating, the slaughter.
A precedent for such an approach was set in 2011 when death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder.
Last year, 94-year-old Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, was sentenced to four years in prison for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people in Auschwitz.
Three other former death camp workers in their 90s – two men and one woman – are due to go on trial in the next few months.
Because of their age, their hearings, like Hanning’s, will be restricted to two hours per day, assuming they are fit to face trial.
But Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, responsible for war crime investigations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said from his office in Jerusalem that age should not be an obstacle to prosecution.
“When you think of these cases, don’t think of frail, old, sick men and women,” he said, “but of young people who devoted their energies to a system that implemented the Final Solution and aimed to obliterate the Jewish people.”
More than a million Jews as well as other victims were killed by the Nazis at the Auschwitz camp in occupied, wartime Poland.
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