A 94-year-old former SS enlisted man went on trial Tuesday in Germany, facing hundreds of counts of accessory to murder for alleged crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Nazis’ Stutthof concentration camp.
Johann Rehbogen was pushed into the Muenster state court trial in a wheelchair, a wooden cane at his side and briefcase on his lap. He appeared alert and attentive as presiding judge Rainer Brackhane asked him questions, answering in slow, concise sentences.
Rehbogen is accused of working as a guard at the camp east of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk, from June 1942 to about early September 1944.
There is no evidence linking him to a specific crime, but over 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof and prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to at least hundreds of those deaths.
The retired civil servant showed no reaction as prosecutor Andreas Brendel read the accusations against him, detailing the horrific way prisoners at Stutthof were killed. Some were given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, or put to death in the gas chamber.
“Anyone who heard the screams from outside the gas chamber would have known that people were fighting for their lives,” Brendel said.
Rehbogen, a former SS Sturmmann — roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army rank of specialist — does not deny serving in the camp during the war, but has told investigators he was unaware of the killings and did not participate in them.
No pleas are entered in Germany and Andreas Tinkl, one of Rehbogen’s attorneys, would not comment on his client’s defense. He said Rehbogen would address the court at some point during the trial, which is scheduled into January.
Rehbogen lives in Borken, near the Dutch border. In deference to his age and health, the trial is being restricted to a maximum of two hours a day, on no more than two non-consecutive days a week. At the same time, because he was under 21 at the time of his alleged crimes, he is being tried in juvenile court and faces a maximum 10 years in prison if convicted.
Seventeen Stutthof survivors or relatives of victims have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, but Brendel said it was unclear whether any would testify in person due to their ages.
In one of several statements read by their attorneys, survivor Judy Meisel remembered being forced by the Germans into a ghetto at age 12, where she said she endured hunger, daily humiliation and terror.
“But I was not prepared for what came next,” said Meisel, who today lives in Minneapolis. “Next came Stutthof and I experienced the unimaginable, the hell organized and executed by the SS.”
Rehbogen, who was given headphones so he could clearly follow the testimony, showed no reaction as Meisel said the last time she saw her mother, they were both standing among a group of naked women about to be forced into the gas chamber, before she herself was able to break away.
“Stutthof was organized mass murder through the SS, made possible through the help of the guards,” she said.
Ben Cohen, Meisel’s grandson who came from New York to attend the trial, said hearing her statement with one of her former captors in the same room was both important and moving.
“I know her story so well it is emotional every time I hear it, but it takes on more importance than my own emotions now,” he said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helped locate Stutthof survivors for the case, stressed that even more than 70 years after the end of World War II it is not too late to pursue justice.
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,” said the center’s head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff.
Even though the number of suspects is dwindling, the special federal prosecutor’s office that investigates Nazi war crimes still has multiple cases ongoing.
The legal reasoning that being a camp guard is itself enough to be found guilty of accessory to murder, even without specific evidence of a crime, was first used successfully against former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk in 2011.
Demjanjuk was convicted on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard. He denied the accusation and died before his appeal could be heard.
The 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening using the same argument, however, was upheld by Germany’s top criminal court on appeal.
The Stutthof case is the first use of this reasoning for a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard. But prosecutors have expressed confidence it can be applied, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof even though its sole purpose was not murder.
Stutthof was established in 1939 and was initially used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from nearby Danzig.
From about 1940, it 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 criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.