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An elderly man accused of being a Nazi concentration camp guard who oversaw the slaughter of prisoners at the height of World War II is maintaining his innocence in German court this month.
The man, identified only as Josef S., is standing trial for his role in the extermination of thousands of concentration camp inmates, which occurred at Sachsenhausen camp between 1942 and 1945, according to the Associated Press. The man’s identity has been withheld due to German privacy laws.
The 100-year-old is charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder, stemming from his time as a SS guard at the wartime concentration camp outside Berlin more than seven decades ago.
More than 200,000 prisoners, which included Jewish detainees, as well other racial and sexual minorities, and political opponents, were held captive at Sachsenhausen in the 1930s and 1940s. Tens of thousands were executed by gassing, hanging, and firing squads. Countless others died because of famine, medical experiments, forced labor, and disease, according to the German government.
“The defendant supported this knowingly and willingly — at least by conscientiously carrying out guard duty, which was perfectly integrated into the killing regime," public prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the court, the BBC reported.
The children of murdered resistance fighters also described in court how their fathers were killed at Sachsenhausen, according to the outlet.
"Murder isn't destiny; it's not a crime that can be legally erased by time," Johan Hendrik Heijer told the court.
Heijer's father was one of 71 Dutch resistance figures executed at Sachsenhausen. He was reportedly 6 years old the last time he saw his father alive.
The trial, which includes a total of 17 co-plaintiffs, was also attended by some of the World War II-era camp's survivors.
“This is the last trial for my friends, acquaintances and my loved ones, who were murdered, in which the last guilty person can still be sentenced — hopefully,” Leon Schwarzbaum, 100, told German media, according to the BBC.
The Sachsenhausen survivor also endured the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
During trial proceedings, the defendant's attorney, Stefan Waterkamp, declined to comment on the brutal accusations. The mute response, however, appeared to further enflame tensions between the man's client and family members of victims present in court.
"For the survivors this is yet another rejection, just like it was in the camp," Christoph Heubner of the International Auschwitz Committee said. "You were vermin.
Despite the advanced age of Josef S., who arrived to the German court in a wheelchair, he had previously been deemed mentally fit for the Holocaust trial.
“I found him surprisingly robust and present," Heubner added. "He would have the strength to make an apology and he would also have the strength to remember. Obviously, however, he does not want to muster the strength to remember, and for the survivors of the camps and for the relatives of the murdered who have come here to hear some truth spoken, this means once again a rejection, a disparagement and a confrontation with the continued silence of the SS.”
Last week, in a separate case, a 96-year-old secretary for a Nazi concentration camp commander allegedly skipped out on her own trial in northern Germany. The Hamburg woman, however, was captured hours later, the Associated Press reported.
More than 90 Germans — many of them in their nineties and up — have been found guilty of Holocaust crimes in recent years since courts there expanded legal definitions used to convict such atrocities. The series of prosecutions have triggered intense debate in Germany, where the Holocaust remains as politically-charged an issue as ever, on how to humanely try war criminals whose decaying physical and mental conditions present a complicated ethical dilemma.
“It took a long time, which has not made things any easier, because now we are dealing with such elderly defendants,” Klement, the German attorney tasked with prosecuting Josef S., told the New York Times earlier this year. “But murder and accessory to murder have no statute of limitation."
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