Johann R. is almost 95. He is said to have helped to murder hundreds of prisoners in the Stutthof concentration camp. But the relatives of the victims are not concerned with a heavy sentence.
The defendant is pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair. When he sees the many cameras pointed at him, he briefly raises his left hand and waves. In his place he sets the pale green fishing hat off and straightens the collar of his fine white shirt. The thinning white hair, which is slightly disheveled, makes him look even more frail. His eyes are awake though. Never has such an old defendant appeared in front of a youth chamber. Johann R. celebrates his 95th birthday in two weeks.
But because the defendant was not yet 21 years old at the time of the crime, the youth chamber of the district court Münster is responsible for the old man. Johann R. has been on trial since Tuesday because he was a security guard in Stutthof near Gdansk, more than seven decades ago. This is the beginning of a major Nazi trial in Germany. Maybe the last one.
While Johann R. is caught up with his past at the end of his life, other people have long been waiting for this day. 17 co-plaintiffs are present in the process, each of them still mourning for a family member who was murdered in Stutthof – at the time when Johann R. was a security guard there. The public prosecutor Dortmund accuses the former SS man aiding the murder of several hundred people . That he was a guard in Stutthof, Johann R. admitted in a survey. He denies being involved in the killing of prisoners. However, according to the prosecution, each guard had to be aware after a short time that prisoners were killed there – and how.
However, the 17 co-plaintiffs living in the US, Canada, Israel and Germany are too old and infirm to participate in the trial. The journey would be too difficult for them. And so on the first day of the trial, those in the courtroom who have not experienced the horror in Stutthof or have lost a close relative there are missing. In the last two major Nazi trials in Germany, Oskar Gröning’s “Auschwitz Accountant” trial in Lüneburg in 2015 and Detmold’s trial of former Auschwitz security guard Reinhold Hanning one year later, the co-plaintiffs played an important role played. It was they who gave the murdered a voice and a face .
However, adjutant lawyer Cornelius Nestler reads a statement from his 89-year-old client Judy Meisel on Tuesday morning in the courtroom, which now lives in the United States. As soon as he starts, he is interrupted by the defense. The defendant has difficulty understanding what has been said. Finally he gets headphones. Slowly and clearly, Nestler now presents Judy Meisel’s story.
Already as a twelve-year-old she had experienced forced labor, hunger, “daily humiliation and arbitrary terror” in a ghetto in Kaunas, Lithuania. “And yet – I was not prepared for what came after,” the Holocaust survivors say. “After that came Stutthof and I experienced the unimaginable – hell, set up and executed by the SS.” There were no sanitary facilities, almost no food and only one garment for each inmate. “Death became a daily companion in my life.” When the prisoners got up in the morning, there was already “a pile of bodies piled up in front of the barracks.” Those who were still alive but too weak to work were sent to the gas chamber.
That would almost have been Judy Meisel’s fate. “The last time I saw my mother, we were standing in front of the gas chamber without any clothes, along with a group of other women.” But her mother urged her to run back to the barracks when suddenly an opportunity presented itself. Judy Meisel’s mother was murdered in the gas chamber.
“Stutthof, that was the organized mass murder by the SS, made possible with the help of the guards.” The defendant, along with the other SS men, made sure that “nobody could escape from hell”.
Maybe he did not decide to become a security guard in Stutthof himself. “But he has to take responsibility for what he did when he was in Stutthof. Responsibility for helping with this unimaginable crime against humanity, for helping to murder my beloved mother, whom I’ve missed so much my entire life. “While Nestler reads the statement, Johann R. sits motionless and with lowered eyes in his place.
Judy Meisel and the other co-plaintiffs are not concerned with the highest possible punishment for the accused. “For me, this criminal procedure means justice, and it brings late justice for my murdered mother.” The 89-year-old does not understand why the judiciary took so long to bring Johann R. to justice.
This is also evidence of the negligence of the German judiciary in dealing with Nazi crimes. For decades the responsible investigators did not even look for the guards from the concentration camps. Only those SS men were tried in Germany, who could be proven a specific murder.
For seventy years, Johann R. remained completely undisturbed by the judiciary . He led a normal life in Germany, studied, earned a doctorate and later worked as a civil servant in North Rhine-Westphalia. He married and became the father of three children. Today he lives in a small village in Westmünsterland, near Borken.
Two years ago he still had a visit from German investigators who asked about his time in Stutthof. In 2011, the Munich Regional Court had sentenced John Demjanjuk, a former security guard in the Sobibor extermination camp, for aiding and abetting murder . The court followed the prosecution’s argument that the guards made their killings possible. After this verdict and especially after the guilty verdict against Oskar Groening in 2015, the investigators in the central office for the investigation of National Socialist crimes once again went through the old files. They were specifically looking for men and women who guarded the camps in the service of the SS. In this way, the name Johann R. appeared.
The accused was born in November 1923 in the Romanian town of Sankt Georgen, in a family of Transylvanian Saxons. At 18, he goes to the Waffen-SS. On June 7, 1942, he is sent as a guard to the camp Stutthof. From now on, like the other security guards, he wears a skull on the collar of his uniform in the service of the SS. Johann R. stayed in Stutthof for more than two years. He apparently does his job to the satisfaction of his superiors, because he is promoted. The SS men stand on the watchtowers day and night, forming guard chains around the camp. It is also their job to oversee the detainees forced to do forced labor outside the camp.
Sober and matter-of-fact, Attorney-General Andreas Brendel traces the horror in Lager Stutthof on Tuesday morning in Münster. Quite silent in the hall of the district court, when he explains how the deadly gas Zyklon B acts on the human body, it first suspends cell respiration, so that man suffocates internally, and how those trapped in the gas chamber fall into fear and panic. “The cries and cries of the victims were heard outside the gas chamber, and anyone who heard this was aware that the victims were fighting for their lives.”
The accused sits motionless, his eyes directed downward. As if it was not about him and about what he himself heard in Stutthof, saw and did.
However, because these are exactly the issues that are so important to the trial, the attorneys for the co-plaintiffs ask the court to visit the camp’s memorial. The defense is surprisingly true. Now the judges have to decide whether the parties to the proceedings are going on a trip together – and whether the accused must also come along.
On the first day of the trial, the chief public prosecutor lists for which acts Johann R. bears a responsibility from the point of view of the prosecution: On 21 and 22 June 1944, more than 100 Polish prisoners were murdered in the gas chamber of the Stutthof camp with Zyklon B. At least 77 wounded Soviet prisoners of war died in the same way a little later. From August 1944, several hundred Jews were murdered in the gas chamber and in railroad cars.
Stutthof is one of the lesser known National Socialist concentration camps today. The camp was opened one day after the German invasion of Poland. Already on the first day of the war, the mass arrests of Polish intellectuals began in the Free City of Gdańsk. The National Socialists had the corresponding lists of names in their drawer. Even the camp had been built before the war began. Later, Stutthof became one of the crime scenes of the mass murder of European Jews. In the summer of 1944 deportation trains from Hungary and the Baltic met there. Of the 110,000 prisoners, about 65,000 did not survive.
Before there was a gas chamber in Stutthof, inmates were killed in shots in a side room of the crematorium. Victims were Jews who were no longer “fit for work”. Attorney General Brendel describes in detail how the SS men simulated a medical examination, how the victims in the belief that their height should be determined, put on a wall and raised a bar on the head, then by SS men who waiting in an adjacent room, were shot. Other inmates, especially women and children, gave SS doctors a lethal gasoline or phenol syringe directly into the heart.
The living conditions in the camp alone have caused many prisoners to die, says the prosecutor. The prisoners had to starve and at the same time work hard physically. Her clothes did not protect her from rain or cold. Diseases spread quickly. In inhuman experiments prisoners were doused naked with water and then sent outdoors in freezing temperatures.
While Brendel describes all this, the defendant is still introverted and apathetic. Despite his high age, an appraiser has classified him as having limited ability to negotiate. A maximum of two days a week should not be negotiated for more than two hours, advised the medical expert. At least one day off between the two days of the trial. When presiding judge Rainer Brackhane identifies the identity of the defendant and asks him if he is a pensioner, Johann R. has to ask for the first time. “Please?” Yes, he says he retired at the age of 65, he says. That’s three decades ago.
Together with Johann R. the public prosecutor’s office Dortmund had accused another former SS man , who lives today in Wuppertal. However, there were doubts about the 93-year-old’s ability to negotiate; it was unclear whether he could follow a trial because of his hearing loss. That’s why Johann R. is now alone in court.
In his hometown, nobody seems to know about his Nazi past. The trial has not really started yet, as the defender Andreas Tinkl advocates a judicial order to pixelate photos of the defendant. He argues not only with the protection of privacy, but also with the advanced age of the defendant, who is “not physically too blissful”. The court decides that pictures have to be bleached. The accused did not seek the public himself and live in a small community, which leads to stigmatization.