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Ex-SS guard, 94, 'ashamed' but tells German court he's innocent

Johann Rehbogen, a 94-year-old former SS enlisted man, who is accused of 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, sits in a wheelchair when arri
Guido Kirchner/pool photo via AP

A former Nazi concentration camp guard Tuesday voiced his shame at having been part of the SS but told a German court he was unaware of the systematic killings there.

Johann Rehbogen, 94, stands accused of complicity in mass murder at the Stutthof camp near what was then Danzig, now Gdansk, in Poland.

In a statement read out by his lawyer, Rehbogen said: "I'm of course ashamed to have been part of the SS. But I still don't know today if I would have had the courage to do otherwise."

He said he was forced into joining the Schutzstaffel troops, as "there would have been reprisals against my family if I hadn't gone".

"When I saw the detainees I knew that the SS was wrong, but I didn't have a choice," said Rehbogen, who served as a watchman from June 1942 to September 1944 at Stutthof.

He denied knowledge of the gruesome crimes at the camp.

Guido Kirchner (dpa/AFP)

"I knew nothing of the systematic killings, I knew nothing of the gas chambers as well as the crematoria," he told the court.

"I was ashamed of the conditions that the detainees were in, and felt sympathy for them, even if that's probably not the right word as I was not suffering like they were."

He said he "would have liked to leave" but added that "I did not trust myself to speak with anyone and had no-one I could trust".

"I will only say that I am not a Nazi, I never have been one, and never will be."

- 'They knew a lot more' -

But lead prosecutor Andreas Brendel said that there were "ways out" of serving at the camp for guards like Rehbogen.

"We believe that the guards knew a lot more than what has been recounted today," he said.

Rehbogen was aged 18 to 20 at the time and is therefore being tried under juvenile law.

He is charged with being an accessory to the murders of several hundred camp prisoners.

These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed in June 1944 and "probably several hundred" Jews killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis' so-called "Final Solution".

Guido Kirchner (dpa/AFP)

If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Given his age and the possibility of an appeal he is considered unlikely to serve any time behind bars.

Rehbogen, from the western district of Borken, North Rhine-Westphalia state, is a retired landscape architect and divorced father of three, according to German media.

At the trial opening last week, he shed tears when he heard written testimony from Holocaust survivors.

- 'An apology would be good' -

Christoph Ruecken, a lawyer representing an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who now lives in the United States, said: "It would be an important sign for us if (Rehbogen) stood there to confirm the reality."

"An apology would be good."

Although the trial is late in coming, Ruecken said that it "eases the suffering of my client". 

"A punishment would be symbolic for such an old man but that's important in times like now when nationalism and anti-Semitism are returning. It's important to show that the rule of law says you will face the court if you do these things."

Stutthof was set up in 1939 and ended up holding 110,000 detainees, 65,000 of whom perished, according to the Museum Stutthof.

Mateusz Ochocki (KFP/AFP/Archives)

Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving SS personnel, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

He was sentenced on the grounds that he served as a cog in the Nazi killing machine at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland, rather than for killings or atrocities linked to him personally.

German courts subsequently convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for complicity in mass murder.

Both men were convicted at age 94 but died before they could be imprisoned.

At his trial in 2015, Groening apologised and sought forgiveness. He also admitted "moral guilt" although he denied any legal culpability.

Hanning told his victims he was sorry and said he had been "silent all my life" about the atrocities because he felt deep shame.

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