Thomas Walther is talking about Auschwitz, and numbers, and how the statistics of the Holocaust exceed imagination. What does it mean, for example, to deport 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in the span of 57 days in the spring and early summer of 1944? What does it mean to murder them at a rate of 3.5 Jews per minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that by the end of the 57th day 300,000 of them are dead? What does it mean to have your parents, spouse, children and relatives systematically killed in a German Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland, only to have them counted by history as a lump sum?
“I can speak about 300,000 dead people who are murdered, but nobody can imagine what that means — such figures of death — while the Holocaust, this word, it is a part of families,” Mr. Walther says.
“It is inside of human beings. It is something in the tears, if you wake up in the night and think about your father who was killed. That is the Holocaust. And in the second generation, in the children of survivors, those who suffer the nightmares and memories of their parents — that is the Holocaust.”
Mr. Walther, with his red running shoes, grey shoulder length hair and rumpled-looking dark blazer, could easily pass for a university lecturer. But his interest in the Holocaust isn’t academic. The 71-year-old retired German judge is a Nazi hunter, and he has been in Toronto and Montreal for the past two weeks interviewing Hungarian-Canadian Auschwitz survivors as co-plaintiffs for what could be the last Nazi war crimes trial in Germany.
AP PhotoChildren at Auschwitz just after its liberation in January 1945. “I can speak about 300,000 dead people who are murdered, but nobody can imagine what that means — such figures of death,” Nazi hunter Thomas Walther said.
“Co-plaintiffs represent their murdered parents and siblings, and I represent the co-plaintiffs in court,” Mr. Walther says.
“And to be sure that I find the right words for them, the right feeling in a German courtroom, this is the reason I am here in Canada, interviewing them.”
The accused is Oskar Groening, the so-called “bookkeeper” of Auschwitz, a former SS sergeant who sorted and counted monies stolen from the murdered Jews, occasionally couriering it to his Nazi overlords in Berlin. He also stood guard on the train platform in Auschwitz, as cattle cars delivered their doomed Jewish cargo. Doing so in the belief that, as he told DER SPIEGEL magazine in 2005, the destruction of the Jews was a “necessary thing.”
What makes Mr. Groening, now 93 — and a widower with a comfortable home and robust company pension thanks to his postwar career managing a German glass factory — an intriguing defendant, is that he has repented, in a sense. He admits he was at Auschwitz, and has spoken openly about it. Taking his story public several years ago, as he explained to a German reporter, to combat the lies of the Holocaust deniers with the truth of someone who was there.
YouTubeFormer SS sergeant Oskar Groening counted money taken from dead Jews. He also stood guard on the Auschwitz train platform.
And in his version of the truth, he is not guilty of any crime. Not in a legal sense, since he was merely a bookkeeper, a brainwashed Nazi zealot involved in executing the murderous master plan of Adolf Hitler, but not an actual executioner himself.
“Guilt really has to do with actions,” Mr. Groening told DER SPIEGEL. “Because I believe that I was not an active perpetrator, I don’t believe that I am guilty…
“I would describe my role as a small cog in the gears.”
Mr. Walther has heard this defence before, and views it is a fairytale, a convenient narrative where the otherwise decent German gets caught up in a killing mess, not of their making, and dutifully follows orders — without blinking an eye — as many did during the Nazi era.
“Groening will not deny anything,” Mr. Walther says. “He will only seek to diminish.”
Judy Lysy is a Holocaust survivor in Toronto. She recently met Mr. Walther at a dinner honouring him at a local synagogue. She is not among the co-plaintiffs in the Groening case since the charges against him, for German legal reasons, only cover the 57-day killing frenzy associated with the Jewish Hungarian deportees. (Mr. Walther would not disclose the identities of the co-plaintiffs to me, explaining that, even today, there are those unhappy with Groening’s prosecution.)
Ms. Lysy, a Slovakian Jew, was raised in pro-Nazi, Hungarian-occupied territory. She arrived in Auschwitz in April 1944. It was a sunny day. She was 16.
“There were these German officers, very neat and clean,” the 86-year-old says.
‘Oskar Groening didn’t kill with his hands. But he was part of that killing machinery’
“They asked for a translator, and because I spoke Hungarian, German and Slovak, I put my hand up. And I stood beside this officer telling the people that those able and capable to walk, would walk [to our barracks], and the old people and children — he would send by truck.
“We would all be together, at the end. I translated all this to Hungarian ladies, including my aunt, with her two little children, and my Grandma. The officer told the mothers not to fuss, if they wanted to stay with their children. And he put them all together, on the side that went straight to the gas.
“We did not know where those people had gone for the first 10 days. And this was my arrival to Auschwitz. Oskar Groening didn’t kill with his hands. But he was part of that killing machinery.”
Being a small cog, a guard in a watchtower, an accountant in Auschwitz, was a well-tread road to legal — social, moral and economic — absolution for SS men after the war. Of the 6,500 SS members who worked in Auschwitz, only 49 were ever convicted of a crime.
AP PhotoAuschwitz, where former SS sergeant Oskar Groening kept track of money stolen from murdered Jews and stood guard on the train platform as cattle cars delivered their doomed Jewish cargo.
“The German police, prosecutors, the local judges, they weren’t interested in going after what were perceived as the small fry war criminals, and this attitude persisted well into the 1970s and beyond,” says Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Many of those judges and lawyers had Nazi pasts, while the German people — including the 20% of respondents to an American survey conducted in the American-occupied zone in 1945, who said they agreed with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews — weren’t willing, or even interested in confronting their complicity in the Holocaust. Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi cronies were the real bad guys, not them.
And the little Nazi fish, such as Oskar Groening, got married, had kids and came to be viewed as valuable employees. He applied managerial skills honed in Auschwitz to a civilian job at a glass factory. Most Nazi war criminals didn’t disappear into the jungles of South America. They moved in next door.
And then along came Thomas Walther.
“My youngest child went to university in 2006,” he says. “I was 63 and I thought, if I can do something really important, something that has to be done — then I would like to do it.”
His father, Rudolf, hid two Jewish families during the Kristallnacht riots of 1938, later helping them escape Germany. He taught his son to do the right thing, instead of just talking about it. And in the years since 2006, the retired judge has awakened the German judiciary to the little fish, successfully arguing that Auschwitz and the other camps were macabre assembly lines. Every SS man, like every worker at an auto plant, had a job to do. If they didn’t do their job — the assembly line stopped.
“My colleagues in the past, these German prosecutors and judges, did things in the wrong way,” Mr. Walther says. “You have to learn, and you learn it in the second term of law studies: what is aiding and abetting a crime.”
It means being a bookkeeper in Auschwitz, being immersed in the terror, and party to its making by keeping stolen money flowing to Berlin, while keeping Jews moving in an orderly fashion toward the gas chamber.
Mr. Walther, in his red sneakers, understands that he is in a losing race against time. The Holocaust survivors are dying off. And so are the killers. It is late in the game. Justice must be done.
“Where does this end?” the Nazi hunter says. “It ends when it is truly over.”
The trial begins in February.