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Auschwitz guard's conviction leaves survivors unconsoled

His trial could be the last of its kind in Germany.

By
Ed Adamczyk and Allen Cone
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem pays tribute to those lost at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps during World War II. A former Auschwitz guard, Reinhold Hanning, 94, was convicted Friday of in Germany of accesory to the muder of 170,000 people. File Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem pays tribute to those lost at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps during World War II. A former Auschwitz guard, Reinhold Hanning, 94, was convicted Friday of in Germany of accesory to the muder of 170,000 people. File Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

DETMOLD , Germany, June 17 (UPI) -- A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the deaths of 170,000 at the Nazi death camp but it didn't offer much to console the survivors.

Irene Weiss, who now lives in Virginia, traveled to the small city of Detmold, Germany, this year to testify as one of about 12 witnesses in the case against Reinhold Hanning, 94.

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Weiss, who is Jewish, was 13 when she entered the concentration camp with her family during Hanning's tenure.

Weiss heard news of the conviction on the radio. She said she's glad the court "did the right thing" in the verdict, but wished the trial offered better understanding of why it happened.

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"I would like to know more about his emotional state. How does one suppress that? I don't suppose it's comparable to survivors' experience because we cannot suppress it. We can never ever suppress it," she said in an interview with Time on Friday. "If he were open to such questions, or if he offered some of these things, it would be so helpful to all of us to understand how a person can be convinced to do such a job day after day."

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The trial began in February for Hanning, a former guard in the Nazi paramilitary organization SS between 1942 and 1944. He admitted he was aware of the killings at the camp in occupied southern Poland but did nothing to stop it. His lawyers said Hanning personally killed or mistreated no one.

More than 1.1 million people were exterminated at the camp during World War II.

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"It really seemed like he talked about his experience there as an observer," Weiss, 85, said. "We heard about it. We—who came in there totally not knowing what awaited us—we heard about it. He didn't hear about it. He was a part of it."

While Hanning maintained his denial of any role in the concentration camp deaths, he apologized in court and said he "wished he had never been there."

He had said in April, "People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned."

Hanging said he felt remorse for being silent about the atrocities.

"I have been silent all my life," he said. "I am ashamed that I let this injustice happen and have done nothing to prevent it."

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Four people in the courtroom during the verdict were survivors.

"What matters is that he is convicted by a German court for what he did," said William Glied, a survivor who heard the verdict.

German prosecutors were not required to provide evidence that defendants were directly involved in the killings. In the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a judge concluded his activities as a camp worker in Poland amounted to complicity.

Weiss said Hanning could have offered understanding on Germans' mentality of the atrocities.

"These things can happen again. We know that," Weiss said. "It's on the edge of possibilities in every country, and we see that a lot of hate has emerged in many European countries and elsewhere, so this lesson of history has to be learned."

She said it's important educate younger generations.

"As far as closure for me, the pain never goes away. In fact, it has become a part of me. This is who I am, the person whose family was torn apart," Weiss said. "How does one close that chapter? To the day I die, that goes with me."

Fewer than 50 former SS personnel who served at Auschwitz -- of the 6,500 who survived the war -- have been tried, and only five active cases remain; most cases were closed because of a lack of evidence or the death or inability of the defendant to stand trial. Hanning was tried under a new German legal strategy that, as a guard, he served to keep the camp operating, and thus was an accessory to murder.

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A similar case was made in 2015 against former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening, who was convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

For Hanning, prosecutors sought six years in prison. He faced a maximum sentence of 15 years.

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