Eighty years ago this weekend, a young SS recruit started working as a guard at Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp close to Berlin conceived by Nazi leaders as a potent symbol of their power.
His name was Josef. He was born in Lithuania, one of eight children in a farming family who had only attended school in the winter months. And he had answered the call for German-speaking peoples across Europe to join the fascist cause.
On Thursday, I watched as a frail white-haired 100-year-old, who has hearing problems and walks with the aid of a mobility frame, sat in a converted prison sports hall to face charges that he helped to kill 3,518 people in the Nazi hellhole.
I observed the opening of a trial in Itzehoe, a town north of Hamburg, in which Irmgard Furchner, former secretary to the commandant at Stutthof concentration camp, was accused of complicity in 11,412 killings
Josef S – his full name is protected under German law – insists he is innocent, has never been to Sachsenhausen and did not speak ‘a word of German’ until 1947.
I watched as he complained of sleeping and eating badly from his trauma.
Then Heike Trautmann, a senior police officer, showed the court in Brandenburg records of Josef’s service before detailing how there were 38,110 fatalities during his 40 months at the camp.
‘They were gassed, shot or died as a result of malnutrition and poor hygiene,’ she said. She and a court official stretched out a list on which camp staff detailed daily killings of allied prisoners, political foes and ‘antisocials’ such as Jews, Roma and homosexuals. It was 45ft long.
It felt eerie to see hideously familiar black-and-white images on court screens of barbed wire, strutting guards and tormented captives in a Nazi camp – then to look at the old man in a striped pullover listening through headphones to claims that he was a crucial cog in the Third Reich’s machinery of slaughter.
She started work at 18 at the Baltic coast camp near Gdansk, Poland. She is now 96 – yet the case is being heard under juvenile court rules due to her age at the time
Josef’s case is among a spate of German prosecutions against elderly people suddenly accused of involvement in some of the most appalling crimes against humanity.
They raise profound questions about justice – principally, should such old people, comparatively minor participants, be in court so long after mass murder?
They also highlight concerns with Germany’s historic approach to citizens engaged in Nazi atrocities and come when there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitism in the country, lies being spread online and the far-Right Alternative For Germany party winning ten per cent of votes last month.
There have been four similar high-profile trials in the past five years, with 15 more cases under investigation – including another Sachsenhausen guard.
‘Those being prosecuted today had the bad luck to live a long life,’ admitted Efraim Zuroff, who leads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s efforts to hunt down Nazi war criminals. ‘But they were participators and deserve to be put on trial.
‘These people often look frail or ill – but they were young and fit when they first put on the uniform and took part in horror.’
Two days earlier, I observed the opening of a trial in Itzehoe, a town north of Hamburg, in which Irmgard Furchner, former secretary to the commandant at Stutthof concentration camp, was accused of complicity in 11,412 killings.
She started work at 18 at the Baltic coast camp near Gdansk, Poland. She is now 96 – yet the case is being heard under juvenile court rules due to her age at the time.
She was pushed into the court in a wheelchair. Her face was hidden by a silk scarf, sunglasses and medical mask while press photographers were permitted to take pictures.
Then, the first woman to stand trial on charges tied to the Third Reich for decades primped her white hair, pushed back her spectacles and peered around the room as the prosecution set out its case.
The trial follows a five-year investigation by police working with historians. About 65,000 died at Stutthof, with many more dispatched to extermination camps such as Auschwitz.
Prosecution evidence includes deportation orders signed with the first two letters of her maiden name and death warrants she typed. Furchner, who spent two years at Stutthof, has said she will not testify. She fiddled occasionally with an electronic tag on her wrist – fitted after she tried to avoid the proceedings by fleeing her nursing home into Hamburg last month.
‘I want to spare myself these embarrassments and don’t want to make myself the laughing stock of humanity,’ she told the judge in a letter, warning that she would not appear due to her ‘advanced age and physical impediments’.
Perhaps some might feel a shred of sympathy for this old woman – raised as a child under the Nazi regime and then joining their side in a secretarial role as a teenager.
But not Asia Shindelman. She was 15 – three years younger than Furchner – when she was taken to Stutthof in a crammed cattle truck with her family from Lithuania. Her grandmother, led to the gas chamber, was one of those murdered.
‘The concentration camp was hell,’ she told me. ‘They shot all the children, but my mother lied that I was older. They looked at me and said OK, let her live to die of slave labour, of starvation, of epidemics, of cold.’
She recalled the cruelty of those in charge: stripping them of possessions, forcing them to kneel without food or drink all day, throwing people on electric fences and feeding human beings ‘like meat’ to dogs. ‘I had to watch this, of course,’ she said.
The trial follows a five-year investigation by police working with historians. About 65,000 died at Stutthof, with many more dispatched to extermination camps such as Auschwitz
Shindelman, forced to build military fortifications in freezing weather and endure a ‘death march’ into Germany after Russian troops advanced, says it was ‘a miracle’ that she was among the four per cent of Lithuanian Jews to survive the Holocaust.
She weighed less than six stone when rescued in 1945, spending five months in hospital with severe typhus and legs so damaged that doctors feared amputation.
She is now due to be a witness in the case against Furchner.
‘It’s not possible for someone to say they did not know what was going on all around them,’ she told me.
‘We did not look like people – we looked like skeletons.’
Germany takes justified pride in facing up to its Nazi history with education and memorials.
Yet many perpetrators of mass murder escaped justice – or were given light sentences if prosecuted – as the nation sought to move on from its dark past.
It is thought about 300,000 people were actively engaged in the Holocaust but only 6,700 were found guilty and sentenced – including just 50 of the 6,500 men and women who worked in Auschwitz, most infamous of the death camps.
As one human rights lawyer said, any effort to charge all those involved would have brought government bureaucracy to its knees and snarled up courts for years, given the numbers linked to Nazi abuses.
As I sat in these courts, my ambivalence about such trials melted. I did not feel the pity I expected for an old woman and an even older man. Instead, there was a strong desire for justice as I reflected on how inhumanity is carried out by such ordinary people.
The German journalist sitting next to me felt the same. ‘I was not very sure about these cases going after old people so long after the events – but being here I think it is right,’ said Johannes Kulms, 35, a radio reporter.
‘When you look at her, she is so ordinary. And when you see the top people, they were mainly very ordinary too. So this case reminds us of these things.’
Yet guilt was placed firmly on the shoulders of ‘monsters’ in charge with minimal effort to examine the savage machinery of slaughter, despite mounting historical evidence that many ordinary people knew what was taking place under the Nazis.
Prosecution became harder as decades passed because the only exemption to the German statute of limitations was for murder, which relied on proof of involvement in a specific death, almost impossible to achieve in such collective crimes against humanity.
The big change came in 2011 with the conviction of John Demjanjuk, a former guard at Sobibor. Prosecutors argued successfully that working in such a role at a camp with the sole purpose of extermination was sufficient to convict as an accessory to murder.
Lawrence Douglas, a US law professor and expert on such cases, said there were only 125 survivors from 1.5 million people sent into Sobibor and two other key death camps so the trial proved how their slaughter resulted from involvement in an extermination process rather than personal acts of evil.
‘It was impossible not to be part of the killing,’ he said.
‘Participation in the killing process was almost part of the job description. These people were not brainwashed and there is no denying their ability to recognise the stench of mass murder.’
Yet he has qualms over the latest cases. ‘Josef S was exceptionally young but at least he was a guard. However, I can’t imagine an 18-year-old secretary turning to the commandant and questioning if he really wants to send people to Auschwitz.’
Others disagree about culpability, such as Rachel Century, head of research at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, who spoke to many former officials when investigating the role of female administrators in the Nazi regime for a book.
‘These women knew something bad was happening. Bear in mind that ordinary German people knew what was going on since Jews were disappearing and their properties coming on the market.
‘The secretaries in camps were typing deportation lists, writing reports on camp conditions, seeing death certificates.
‘We cannot judge what led Irmgard Furchner to her situation, but the Nazi regime needed these cogs to function, and if enough women had said no there is a chance the machine might have jammed.’
Century said she found no evidence of any harm against those who quit key jobs despite threats from Adolf Eichmann, a key instigator of the Final Solution, that they would end up in a death camp if they took such action.
Furchner’s lawyer, Wolfgang Molkentin, told me her client had already been questioned four times as a witness in earlier war crime cases so she was surprised now to be charged herself in her dotage. ‘Why did they not prosecute all those years ago?’ he said.
Her defence is that her secretarial role fails to fulfil the legal criteria as an accessory to murder. Yet Molkentin told me he was a supporter of such proceedings. ‘Better late than never,’ he said. ‘But as a defence attorney, I must make a reasonable case. Nothing else would be morally acceptable.’
The right to a fair trial is, of course, one of the pillars of freedom that marks out the difference between democracy and a dictatorship such as the Third Reich.
Last year, Bruno Dey, a 93-year-old former guard at Stutthof, was given a two-year suspended sentence after being found guilty of complicity in the killing of more than 5,000 prisoners.
The judges had concluded by asking what makes human beings commit such atrocities – indifference, lack of conscience, sense of duty or desire to follow orders. ‘We can only learn for the future by finding answers to these questions.’
Molkentin has made it clear that Furchner – who has widely been called the ‘Secretary of Evil’ – has ‘no sympathy’ with far-Right efforts to hail her as a heroic figure and she does not deny the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the presence of a neo-Nazi in the public space at her trial, wearing a tracksuit top in the Nazi colours of red, black and white, underlines why families of the death camp victims believe the significance of such trials goes beyond justice, punishment and even the need for victims to tell their stories in court.
Mehmet Gürcan Daimagüler, representing the families, said: ‘These trials are important, not just for my clients but for our society.
‘We live in times when anti-semitism is rising, when people deny and make jokes about the Holocaust, when we have Nazis in our parliament again. This is a reminder of the foundation of our modern nation, rooted in saying “never again” to the Holocaust.’
And as fellow lawyer Christoph Rückel told me, such cases serve also as a sharp warning to every fanatic or fool thinking of joining a murderous cause that they will never be safe from the reach of justice however long they might live.
We must hope he is right – and that the lessons from these extraordinary cases, just as with the Nazi shadow from history, stretch far beyond the borders of Germany.