What’s in a Face?

Oskar GröningAn old man, listening, trying to comprehend, possibly a little deaf, not too bright. But harmless.

It is 93-year-old Oskar Gröning, in a courtroom in Lüneburg, Germany, on trial for complicity in the murder of thousands when he was an S.S. guard in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. The trial started on April 20. The prosecutors assert that, irrespective of his actual participation in any killings, he was a willing cog in the machinery of mass murder. The trial is regarded as part of a final effort by German officials to bring to account those who actively supported the Nazi campaign of genocide against Jews and other minority groups.

Gröning had the responsibility for sorting and counting the multitude of currencies taken from arriving deportees, sending it to Berlin, and guarding the belongings of arrivals, to prevent “plundering.” He denies having participated in any physical act of violence.

He admitted moral guilt for his complicity and asked God and the Jews to forgive him.

The media refer to Gröning as “the Auschwitz accountant.”

So what does his face reveal? Certainly not brutality. But I think it is the face of a dense man, of a man who has trouble grasping the implications of the role he was playing. It is the face of a man who is not only hard of hearing, but a man who is deaf all round.

Der Spiegel, in covering the trial, reports that it was almost unendurable to hear him describe the arrival of the cattle-trains from Hungary. “Surely it is not hard to imagine,” he said, “what it is like when 45 or 50 railway cars arrive at the same time, with 80 persons in each one of them.” He emphasized that it was of the greatest importance to prevent any “incidents.” People were to be “taken care of” in a disciplined and orderly manner.

That, he said, was the only way to run a concentration camp.


11 responses to “What’s in a Face?

  1. It’s a challenge (for me) to find the context on which to base an appropriate judgement on and the consequences for the actions of a man in his early twenties when he is now in his 90’s. Are “they” the same person?

  2. Elisabeth Ecker

    Of course he would have had the choice of objecting and being shot. The lesson should be, to be on guard before a dictatorial government gets into power. Once in power it is very difficult to to change.

  3. The case raises the difficult question of the purpose of prosecution and, depending on its outcome, of punishment and, even more so, of what is justice. Most thoughtful people would, I think, agree that, the Eichmann trial was justified and even historically necessary. Does the same justification exist in this instance?

    As to “what’s in a face”, it is written that there was one that launched a thousand ships.

  4. DId you notice that April 20 was Hitler’s birthday?

  5. Where is Albert Pierrepoint when we need him?

  6. In Canada the job was done by a man whose pseudonom was Arthur Ellis.

  7. What I would be interested to know is what he said, if anything, about his time at the camp in the decades before he was arrested for complicity. With the media that has preceded this trial about the specific “routines” in the camps, not sure I would condemn him for saying it is not hard to imagine. He admits the facts, as I understand the coverage of the trial, doesn’t say he can’t remember, and accepts moral guilt. Let him try to refute legal guilt. Courts will decide that. But believe his testimony and trial is a modern day deniers worst nightmare.

  8. A footnote to my earlier comment. Some thoughtful reflections from Erna Paris today in the Globe and Mail:

    “Oskar Groening is neither insensitive nor dishonest. Years ago he refuted the Holocaust-deniers. He has expressed shock at the atrocities he witnessed in the Auschwitz camp. He has requested forgiveness for his “moral complicity.” Perhaps he has compared his untroubled postwar life to the murders of millions in his former workplace. Perhaps he would welcome the justice of a conviction. In that he would resemble the few elderly men and women who survived the Auschwitz hell and have travelled to the Lunenburg courtroom; or the adult children who have come in the name of traumatized parents who did not live long enough to see – to hope for – a small measure of justice in the closing days of their lives.”

  9. Thoughtful indeed but it still leaves unanswered the age-old question: what is “justice”?