BERLIN (AP) — A German court on Thursday convicted a 93-year-old former SS private of being an accessory to murder at the Stutthof concentration camp, where he served as a guard in the final months of World War II. He was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Bruno Dey was convicted of 5,232 counts of accessory to murder by the Hamburg state court, news agency dpa reported. That is equal to the number of people believed to have been killed at Stutthof during his service there in 1944 and 1945. He also was convicted as an accessory to attempted murder.
“How could you get used to the horror?” presiding judge Anne Meier-Goering asked as she announced the verdict. She said that the fact Dey was taking orders didn't free him from guilt.
Because he was 17 and 18 at the time of his alleged crimes, Dey’s case was heard in juvenile court. Prosecutors had called for a three-year sentence, while the defense sought acquittal.
The judge said that, while Dey should have tried to avoid service at Stutthof, the sentence was appropriate to his guilt.
“You were not yet grown up then, still so young in a time when a lack of conscience had seized a whole people as never before,” Meier-Goering said.
The trial opened in October. Because of Dey’s age, court sessions were limited to two, two-hour sessions a week. Additional precautions also were taken to keep the case going through the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a closing statement earlier this week, the wheelchair-bound German retiree apologized for his role in the Nazis’ machinery of destruction, saying “it must never be repeated.”
“Today, I want to apologize to all of the people who went through this hellish insanity,” Dey told the court.
For at least two decades, every trial of a former Nazi has been dubbed “likely Germany’s last.” But just last week, another ex-guard at Stutthof was charged at age 95. A special prosecutors’ office that investigates Nazi-era crimes has more than a dozen ongoing investigations.
That’s due in part to a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk, who steadfastly denied the allegations, died before his appeal could be heard.
German courts previously required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard’s participation in a specific killing, often near-impossible.
However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk’s trial in Munich that guarding a camp whose only purpose was murder was enough for an accessory conviction.
A federal court subsequently upheld the 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening, solidifying the precedent.
The Dey case extends the argument to apply to a guard at a concentration camp that did not exist for the sole purpose of extermination.
Prosecutors argued that as a Stutthof guard from August 1944 to April 1945, Dey — though “no ardent worshipper of Nazi ideology” — aided all the killings that took place there during that period as a “small wheel in the machinery of murder.”
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, criticized the suspended sentence as “tainting the process” of trying to bring justice for Holocaust survivors, saying Dey waited until he was facing jail time before apologizing for his actions.
“We’re very pleased he’s convicted but upset about the sentence, which in a certain sense is an insult to the survivors,” Zuroff said in a telephone interview. “There has to be some element of punishment.”
Dey gave wide-ranging statements to investigators about his service, saying that he was deemed unfit for combat in the regular Germany army in 1944 so was drafted into an SS guard detachment and sent to the camp near Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk.
Initially a collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from Danzig, Stutthof from about 1940 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 political prisoners, accused criminals, people suspected of homosexual activity and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, when Dey was posted there, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos in the Baltics and from Auschwitz filled the camp along with thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
More than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothing until they died of exposure, or were put to death in a gas chamber.
Dey told the court that as a trained baker’s apprentice, he attempted to get sent to an army kitchen or bakery when he learned he’d been assigned to Stutthof.
As a guard there, he said he frequently was directed to watch over prisoner labor crews working outside the camp.
Dey acknowledged hearing screams from the camp’s gas chambers and watching as corpses were taken to be burned, but he said he never fired his weapon and once allowed a group to smuggle meat from a dead horse they’d discovered back into the camp.
“The images of misery and horror have haunted me my entire life,” he testified.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.