BERLIN (AP) ” As a 17-year-old SS private, Bruno Dey could hear the screams of Jews dying in the gas chamber of Nazi Germany’s Stutthof concentration camp from his post in a guard tower, and watched daily as their bodies were carted to the crematorium to be turned into ash.
A Hamburg state court is set to decide Thursday whether Dey’s role as a camp guard more than 75 years ago is enough to convict him of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder, equal to the number of people believed to have been killed in Stutthof during his service there.
In a closing statement to the court earlier this week, the wheelchair-bound German retiree, now 93, apologized for his role in the Nazis’ machinery of destruction, saying ‘it must never be repeated.’
‘Today, I want to apologize to all of the people who went through this hellish insanity,’ Dey said.
Because he was only 17, and later 18, at the time of his alleged crimes, Dey’s case is being heard in juvenile court. He faces a possible sentence of six months to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
The trial opened in October, and in deference to Dey’s age, court sessions were limited to two, two-hour sessions a week. Additional precautions also were taken to keep the case going through the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors are seeking a three-year prison sentence, partially in a nod to Dey’s stated contrition and his cooperation with authorities. Defense attorney Stefan Waterkamp has argued for an acquittal, saying that Dey found himself working at Stutthof only by happenstance and that he would have been in danger himself if he had tried to get out of guard duty.
‘How could an 18-year-old step out of line in a situation like this?’ Waterkamp asked while giving his closing argument.
Representatives of some 40 Stutthof survivors and their relatives who joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, which is allowed under German law, have urged the court to convict Dey but not pushed for a punishment beyond the prosecution’s recommendation.
For at least two decades, every trial of a former Nazi has been dubbed ‘likely Germany’s last.’ But just last week, another ex-guard at Stutthof guard was charged at age 95, and the special prosecutors’ office that investigates Nazi-era crimes has more than a dozen ongoing investigations.
That’s due in part to a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murders of nearly 28,000 Jews based on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. He died at age 91 while the case was on appeal.
Before Demjanjuk’s case, German courts had required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard’s participation in a specific killing, a legal standard that was often next to impossible to meet given the circumstances of the crimes committed at Nazi death camps.
However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk’s trial in Munich that guarding a camp where the only purpose was murder was enough for an accessory conviction.
Demjanjuk steadfastly denied the allegations against him and died before his appeal could be heard. A federal court subsequently upheld the 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening, solidifying the precedent.
The Dey case extends the argument to apply to a concentration camp guard, rather than a death camp guard. Prosecutors say it should still apply in his case since tens of thousands died at Stutthof even though the camp did not exist for the sole purpose of extermination, unlike the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Sobibor.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, noted that none of the people convicted of Nazi crimes in recent years spent time behind bars due to their advanced ages, but he said that was no reason to stop the pursuit.
‘The larger question is whether conventional justice can do justice to a tragedy in the scope of the Holocaust,’ Zuroff said in a telephone interview. ‘The answer is not black and white. The justice that’s achieved in certain respects is only symbolic justice, but symbolic justice has its purpose and has its value.’
Prosecutors have argued that as Stutthof guard from August 1944 to April 1945, Dey aided in all the killings that took place there during that period as a ‘small wheel in the machinery of murder.’
‘The accused was no ardent worshiper of Nazi ideology,’ Dey’s indictment stated. ‘But there is also no doubt that he never actively challenged the persecutions of the Nazi regime.’
Dey gave wide-ranging statements to investigators about his service, saying that he was deemed unfit for combat in the regular Germany army in 1944 so was drafted into an SS guard detachment and sent to the camp not far from his hometown near Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk.
Initially a collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from Danzig, Stutthof from about 1940 was used as a so-called ‘work education camp’ where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens, were sent to serve sentences and often died.
Others incarcerated there included political prisoners, accused criminals, people suspected of homosexual activity and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, when Dey was posted there, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos in the Baltics and from Auschwitz filled the camp along with thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
More than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothing until they died of exposure, or were put to death in a gas chamber.
Dey told the court that as a trained baker’s apprentice, he attempted to get sent to an army kitchen or bakery when he learned he’d been assigned to Stutthof.
As a guard there, he said he frequently was directed to watch over prisoner labor crews working outside the camp.
Dey acknowledged hearing screams from the camp’s gas chambers and watching as corpses were taken to be burned, but he said he never fired his weapon and once allowed a group to smuggle meat from a dead horse they’d discovered back into the camp.
‘The images of misery and horror have haunted me my entire life,’ he testified.