From his post as a teenage SS private in a watchtower in Nazi Germany’s Stutthof concentration camp, Bruno Dey could hear the screams of Jews dying in the gas chamber.
Dey later told investigators that the carting of their lifeless bodies to the camp’s crematorium was a daily sight.
More than seven decades later, Dey on Thursday went on trial on 5,230 counts of accessory to murder in the Hamburg State Court. Pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair, accompanied by one of his daughters, the 93-year-old wore a wide-brimmed hat and held a red folder in front of his face to shield it from cameras.
After they had gone, he dropped the cover to reveal a full head of neatly combed white hair and a mustache. He answered basic questions from presiding judge Anne Meier-Goering, such as his date and place of birth.
As prosecutor Lars Mahnke then detailed how Jews were gassed, shot and starved to death as part of the “systematic killing” in the camp where he stood guard 75 years ago, he showed little expression, but appeared to be listening attentively.
While there is no evidence of Dey’s direct involvement in a killing in Stutthof, prosecutors argue that as a camp guard from August 1944 to April 1945, he aided in all the killings that took place during that period as a “small wheel in the machinery of murder.”
“The accused was no ardent worshiper of Nazi ideology, but there is also no doubt that he never actively challenged the persecutions of the Nazi regime,” prosecutors argue in the indictment.
Dey, a baker by training, does not deny being a guard at Stutthof. He gave wide-ranging statements to investigators about his service, saying that he was deemed unfit for combat in the regular army in 1944 at age 17, so was drafted into an SS guard detachment and sent to Stutthof, not far from his hometown near Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk.
In deference to his age, trial sessions are being limited to two hours a day and are scheduled to be held only twice a week.
Because Dey was 17 when he started serving at Stutthof, he is being tried in juvenile court and faces a possible six months to 10 years in prison if convicted. In Germany there are no consecutive sentences.
Dey’s attorney, Stefan Waterkamp, questioned why his client was being prosecuted now, saying that before a recent change in German legal reasoning, “nobody was interested in the simple guards.”
“Where does responsibility end?” he asked the court in his opening statement. “That is the question this trial must answer.”
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem who attended the opening of the trial, rejected Waterkamp’s suggestion that Dey should not be prosecuted because higher-ranking Nazis were never brought to trial.
“Just because more senior criminals got away with a crime, doesn’t mean that the more minor criminals are not guilty,” Zuroff said.
Stutthof was established by Nazi Germany in 1939 east of Danzig and was initially used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the city.
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.
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