Ex-SS medic, 95, goes on trial for Auschwitz mass murder

Neubrandenburg (Germany) (AFP) –


Former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95, faces trial Monday for aiding in 3,681 murders in Auschwitz during the period when teenage diarist Anne Frank was interned in the Nazi death camp.

The trial is part of Germany's twilight bid to bring to justice the last surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust, focused on about a dozen people who were cogs in the killing machine.

The case against Zafke centres on his service as an SS medical orderly from August 15 to September 14, 1944 in the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where an estimated 1.1 million people perished.

Prosecutors charge that, by serving there, Zafke "knew of and willingly supported the industrially organised mass killing of people in an insidious and cruel manner".

During the month-long period, 14 trains arrived at Auschwitz, delivering prisoners from across Europe to its slave labour camps and gas chambers.

One of the trains brought the family of Anne Frank, whose diary about her Jewish family's life in hiding in Amsterdam has moved millions and remains a worldwide bestseller.

Anne Frank survived Auschwitz but died in Bergen-Belsen, shortly before its 1945 liberation by the British Army.

Zafke, a farmer's son who joined the Nazi party's elite police force the Waffen-SS at age 19 and initially fought on the eastern front, had also served as an officer at Auschwitz from October 1943 to January 1944.

After World War II, a Polish court in 1948 sentenced him to a four-year jail term from which he was released in 1951.

During his time as a medical orderly -- a job that entailed giving lethal injections to inmates -- Zafke has claimed to have only performed first aid and treated prisoners.

He has told investigators he had no clue Auschwitz was an extermination camp and thought the crematoriums were heating plants.

- Symbolic sentence -

Holocaust survivors and their children from various countries are expected to attend Zafke's trial in Neubrandenburg, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Berlin.

Zafke has since 1951 lived near the town, in what became communist East Germany after World War II.

He raised four sons and worked as a pest controller at a local mill until his retirement.

Zafke will be defended by Peter-Michael Diestel, who served as East Germany's last interior minister and opened a private law practice in the years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

If found guilty, Zafke faces three to 15 years in prison, in what may be a largely symbolic sentence given his advanced age.

Medical experts will first be asked to assess whether Zafke is fit to stand trial when the hearing starts at 0900 GMT.

Prosecutors had requested the judges be recused, fearing the panel was biased towards declaring Zafke unfit to stand trial -- but the court rejected the request.

The court had earlier ruled against a trial, finding that Zafke was suffering from dementia, but an appeals court overturned that decision.

It found that, despite his "cognitive impairments" and diminished physical capacity, the defendant could be granted regular breaks and close medical supervision.

Given Zafke's advanced age, the court has only set an initial two further trial dates, March 14 and 30.

- Mass killings -

For many decades, Germany only tried Nazi officers for atrocities they personally committed and usually required eye-witness testimony for a conviction.

However, a new legal precedent was set in the 2009-2011 trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born guard at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland, who was convicted at age 91 of having aided in the mass killings.

Last July, 94-year-old Oskar Groening, known as the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz," was sentenced to four years in prison for being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the camp.

Around a dozen more cases are pending or under investigation, authorities say.

One million European Jews died between 1940 and 1945 at the Auschwitz camp in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim, before it was liberated by Soviet forces.

More than 100,000 others were also killed there, including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, gays and lesbians, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters.