15:07 GMT, 15 November 2018 dailymail.co.uk
A former Nazi concentration camp guard has voiced his shame at having been part of the SS but told a German court he was unaware of the systematic killings there.

A 94-year-old former SS enlisted man went on trial Tuesday in Germany, facing hundreds of counts of accessory to murder for alleged crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Nazis' Stutthof concentration camp.

Speaking in Muenster state court Thursday, Rehbogen said he knew the conditions of the Stutthof camp were 'miserable', and that he had attributed the deaths primarily to 'diseases and epidemics.' 

In the statement read by his attorney, the 94-year-old said he didn't know much about the 'structure inside the camp,' the dpa news agency reported.

He says 'they told me which post to take and I obeyed.' 

Speaking earlier this week, he said he had been forced into joining the Schutzstaffel troops, as 'there would have been reprisals against my family if I hadn't gone'.

'When I saw the detainees I knew that the SS was wrong, but I didn't have a choice,' said Rehbogen, who served as a watchman from June 1942 to September 1944 at Stutthof.

He denied knowledge of the gruesome crimes at the camp.

'I knew nothing of the systematic killings, I knew nothing of the gas chambers as well as the crematoria,' he told the court. 

'I will only say that I am not a Nazi, I never have been one, and never will be.'

If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison - even though, given his age and the possibility of an appeal, he is considered unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

Christoph Ruecken, a lawyer representing an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who now lives in the United States, said: 'It would be an important sign for us if (Rehbogen) stood there to confirm the reality.'

'An apology would be good.'

Although the trial is late in coming, Ruecken said it 'eases the suffering of my client'.

'A punishment would be symbolic for such an old man but that's important in times like now when nationalism and anti-Semitism are returning,' he said.

'It's important to show that the rule of law says you will face the court if you do these things.' 

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helped locate some 20 Stutthof survivors for the case to serve as possible witnesses, emphasized that such trials are important, even more than 70 years after the end of World War II.

'The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,' said the center's head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff.

Many survivors, along with relatives of victims, are also joining the trial as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law.  

Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving SS personnel, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

He was sentenced not for any atrocities he committed, but on the basis that he served as a cog in the Nazi killing machine at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.

German courts subsequently convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for mass murder.

However both men, convicted at age 94, died before they could be imprisoned.

At his trial in 2015, Groening apologised and sought forgiveness. He also admitted 'moral guilt' although he denied any legal culpability.

Like Groening, Hanning told his victims he was sorry.

He admitted to being 'silent all my life' about the atrocities because he felt deep shame, not having spoken about it even to his wife, children or grandchildren.

Another trial against a 96-year-old former medical orderly at the Auschwitz death camp collapsed in 2017 because he suffers from dementia.

Wheelchair-bound Hubert Zafke had faced 3,681 counts of being an accessory to murder at the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but his trial ended in disarray.  

Even though the number of suspects is dwindling, the special federal prosecutor's office in Ludwigsburg that investigates Nazi war crimes still has multiple cases ongoing. 

In addition to looking at camps like Stutthof, Buchenwald, Ravensbrueck, Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg, it is also investigating former members of the mobile killing squads known as the 'Einsatzgruppen.'

The Stutthof case is the first time a prosecution is going to trial using this line of reasoning for a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard. 

But prosecutors have expressed confidence it can be applied, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof even though its sole purpose was not murder.

Stutthof was established in 1939 and underwent several iterations, initially being used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the nearby city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea coast.

From about 1940 onward, it was used as a so-called 'work education camp' where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens who had run afoul of their Nazi oppressors, were sent to serve sentences and often died. Others incarcerated there included criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses.

From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, which was overflowing, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.