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.
The indictment states Bruno Dey could hear the screams of Jews dying in the gas chamber of Nazi Germany's death camp from his post in a guard tower, and watched daily as their bodies were carted to the crematorium to be turned into ash.
Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence by the Hamburg state court, news agency dpa reported.
Prosecutors were seeking a three-year prison sentence, partially in a nod to Dey's stated contrition and his cooperation with authorities. Defense attorney Stefan Waterkamp has argued for an acquittal, saying that Dey found himself working at Stutthof only by happenstance and that he would have been in danger himself if he had tried to get out of guard duty.
He was convicted of 5,232 counts of accessory to murder, equal to the number of people believed to have been killed at Stutthof during his service there in 1944 and 1945, and one count of accessory to attempted murder.
Because he was only 17, and later 18, at the time of his alleged crimes, Dey's case was heard in juvenile court. Prosecutors had called for a three-year sentence and the defense for an acquittal.
"How could you get used to the horror?" presiding judge Anne Meier-Goering asked as she announced the verdict.
The trial opened in October, and in deference to 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 to the court earlier this week, the wheelchair-bound German retiree, now 93, 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 said.
Representatives of some 40 Stutthof survivors and their relatives who joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, which is allowed under German law, have urged the court to convict Dey but not pushed for a punishment beyond the prosecution's recommendation.
The Dey case extends the argument to apply to a concentration camp guard, rather than a death camp guard. Prosecutors say it should still apply in his case since tens of thousands died at Stutthof even though the camp did not exist for the sole purpose of extermination, unlike the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Sobibor.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's office in Jerusalem, noted that none of the people convicted of Nazi crimes in recent years spent time behind bars due to their advanced ages, but he said that was no reason to stop the pursuit.
"The larger question is whether conventional justice can do justice to a tragedy in the scope of the Holocaust," Zuroff said in a telephone interview. "The answer is not black and white. The justice that's achieved in certain respects is only symbolic justice, but symbolic justice has its purpose and has its value."
Prosecutors have argued that as Stutthof guard from August 1944 to April 1945, Dey aided in all the killings that took place there during that period as a "small wheel in the machinery of murder."
"The accused was no ardent worshiper of Nazi ideology," Dey's indictment stated. "But there is also no doubt that he never actively challenged the persecutions of the Nazi regime."
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 not far from his hometown 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.