BERLIN: A 100-year-old former concentration camp guard became the oldest person yet to be tried for Nazi-era crimes in Germany as he went before the court on Thursday charged with complicity in mass murder.
The suspect, Josef Schuetz, stands accused of "knowingly and willingly" assisting in the murder of 3,518 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945.
Allegations against him include aiding and abetting the "execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942" and the murder of prisoners "using the poisonous gas Zyklon B".
More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice, and have in recent years increasingly focused attention on lower-ranking Nazi staff.
The case comes a week after a 96-year-old German woman, who was a secretary in a Nazi death camp, dramatically fled before the start of her trial, but was caught several hours later.
She, too, has been charged with complicity in murder. Her trial resumes on October 19.
Despite his advanced age, a medical assessment in August found that Schuetz was fit to stand trial, although the Neuruppin court will limit his hearings to a couple of hours a day.
Schuetz arrived with a walking aid for the proceedings, held in a sports hall given the huge interest in the case. The trial is scheduled to last until early January.
"He is not accused of having shot anyone in particular, but of having contributed to these acts through his work as a guard and of having been aware such killings were happening at the camp," a court spokeswoman said.
Thomas Walther, a lawyer representing several camp survivors and victims' relatives in the case, said that even 76 years on from the war, such trials were necessary.
"There's no expiry date on justice," he told AFP.
One of his clients is Antoine Grumbach, 79, who hopes Schuetz will shed light on the methods used to kill people in the camp, but also that the accused "will say 'I was wrong, I am ashamed'".
- 'Symbolic' -
The Nazi SS guard worked at the Sachsenhausen camp which detained more than 200,000 people between 1936 and 1945, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people.
Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labour, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.
Little is known about the accused, beyond the fact that he was released from captivity as a prisoner of war in 1947 and went to work as a locksmith in the Brandenburg region of what was then Communist East Germany, the Bild newspaper reported.
The file against him was transferred by the central unit investigating Nazi crimes to the state of Brandenburg, where he lives, in April 2019, and charges were eventually filed on January 26 this year.
Co-plaintiff Christoffel Heijer, 84, told AFP his father was shot dead in the camp in May 1942.
"My mother received a letter from him on May 3, 1942, before he was shot. When she learnt a few days later that he had died, she cried a lot and went grey almost at once," he said.
The accused's lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, said his client "has stayed silent" so far on the charges against him.
Schuetz remains free during the trial. Even if convicted, he is highly unlikely to be put behind bars given his advanced age.
- Race against time -
Germany has been hunting down former Nazi staff since the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler's killing machine, set a legal precedent.
Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.
Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.
Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder, but died before they could be imprisoned.
Most recently, former SS guard Bruno Dey was found guilty at the age of 93 last year and was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Prosecutors are investigating eight other cases, according to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.