|Born||1921 (age 92–93)
|Known for||SS guard at Auschwitz concentration camp, denunciation of Holocaust denial|
Gröning was born in Lower Saxony. After his mother died when he was four, he received a strict upbringing from his father, a skilled textile worker. During his childhood, he joined various nationalist youth groups, including the Hitler Youth when the Nazis came to power in 1933, convinced that Nazism was advantageous to Germany. After school, Gröning got a job as a trainee bank clerk, but inspired by Germany's military victories in France and Poland, subsequently joined the Waffen-SS. His role in salary administration suited his aspirations, but in 1942 the SS ordered that desk jobs should be reserved for injured veterans, and that fit members in administrative roles were to be subjected to more challenging duties.
This resulted in the culmination of Gröning's SS career: his deployment at Auschwitz. His responsibilities included counting and sorting the money stolen from exterminated prisoners, and guarding other prisoner belongings in the camp before they were plundered. While at the camp, he witnessed the entire killing process. After being transferred from Auschwitz to an active unit in 1944, Gröning was captured by the British on 10 June 1945 when his unit surrendered. After being temporarily held in a former concentration camp he was transferred to England in 1946, working as a forced labourer. He returned to Germany to lead a relatively normal life, preferring not to discuss his association with Auschwitz. However, he decided to make it public after learning about Holocaust denial, and has since openly criticised those who deny the events that he witnessed, and the ideology he once subscribed to.
Gröning was born in Lower Saxony as the son of a strict conservative and skilled textile worker. His mother died when he was four. His father, a proud nationalist, joined the Stahlhelm after Germany's defeat in World War I, and his anger at how Germany had been treated following the Treaty of Versailles increased as his textile business went bankrupt in 1929 due to insufficient capital.
Gröning was fascinated by military uniforms, and one of his earliest memories is of looking at photos of his grandfather, who served in an elite regiment of the Duchy of Brunswick, on his horse and playing his trumpet.
Gröning states that his childhood was one of "discipline, obedience" and "authority". He joined the Scharnhorst, the Stahlhelm's youth organization as a small boy in the 1930s, and later the Hitler Youth when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Influenced by his family's values, he felt that Nazism was advantageous to Germany and believed that the Nazis "were the people who wanted the best for Germany and who did something about it." He participated in the burning of books written by Jews and other authors that the Nazis considered degenerate in the belief that he was helping Germany free itself from an alien culture, and considered that National Socialism was having a positive effect on the economy, pointing to lower unemployment.
Gröning left school with high marks and began a traineeship as a bank clerk when he was 17, but war was declared shortly after he started employment and eight of the twenty clerks were immediately conscripted into the army. This allowed the remaining trainees to further their banking careers in a relatively short amount of time, however despite these opportunities, Gröning and his colleagues were inspired by Germany's quick victories in France and Poland and wanted to contribute.
Gröning wanted to join an elite army unit and set his sights on joining the Waffen-SS. Without his father's knowledge, he did so at a hotel where the SS were recruiting. Gröning says his father was disappointed to learn this when he came home after having joined.
Gröning describes himself as a "desk person" and was content with his role in SS salary administration, which granted him both the administrative and military aspects he wanted from a career.
Gröning worked as a bookkeeper for a year until 1942, when the SS ordered that desk jobs would be reserved for injured veterans, and that fit members in administrative roles were to be subjected to more challenging duties. Gröning and about 22 of his colleagues travelled to Berlin where they reported to one of the SS economic offices. They were then given a lecture by several high-ranking officers who reminded them of the oath of loyalty they took, which they could prove by doing a difficult task. The task was top secret – Gröning and his comrades had to sign a declaration that they would not disclose it to family or friends, or people not in their unit. Once this had concluded, they were split into smaller groups and taken to various Berlin stations where they boarded a train in the direction of Katowice with orders to report to the commandant of Auschwitz, a place which Gröning had not heard of before.
After arriving at the main camp, they were allocated provisional bunks in the SS barracks and were warmly greeted by fellow SS men who got them something to eat. Gröning was surprised at the myriad of food items available in addition to basic SS rations, and his group were curious to know what sort of place Auschwitz was. However, they were told that they should find out for themselves because Auschwitz was a special kind of concentration camp, immediately after which, someone opened the door and shouted "Transport!", causing three or four people to leave the room.
The next day, Gröning and the other arrivals reported to the central SS administrative building, where they were asked about their background before the war. One of the officers said Gröning's bank clerk skills would be useful, and took him to barracks where the prisoners' money was kept. Gröning said he was told that when prisoners were registered into the camp, their money was stored here and it was returned to them when they left.
However, it became clear that Auschwitz was not merely a normal internment camp with above average SS rations, but one that served an additional function. Gröning was informed that money taken from Jews was actually not returned to them. When he enquired further, his colleagues confirmed that the Jews were being exterminated, and this did indeed relate to the transport that arrived the previous night.
Gröning's responsibilities included sorting and counting the multitude of currencies taken from arriving deportees and sending it to Berlin, and attending the selection process – not to decide who was to be killed but to guard the belongings of arrivals until they were sorted. He said he was astonished to learn of the extermination process, but later accepted his part in it, stating that his work became "routine" after several months.
However, his bureaucratic job did not shield him completely from physical acts of the extermination process: as early as his first day, Gröning saw children hidden on the train, and those unable to walk that remained among the rubbish and debris after the selection process had been completed, being shot. Gröning also heard:
...a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.
After witnessing this, Gröning went to his boss and told him that he wasn't able to work at Auschwitz any more, stating that if the extermination of the Jews is necessary, "then at least it should be done within a certain framework". The superior officer denied Gröning's request.
One night towards the end of 1942, Gröning and his comrades in their barracks in the SS camp on the outskirts of Birkenau were awoken by an alarm. They were told that a number of Jews who were being taken to the gas chambers had escaped and hidden in the woods, and so were ordered to take pistols and search the woods. When his group arrived at the extermination area of the camp they saw a farmhouse, in front of which were SS men and the bodies of seven or eight prisoners who had been caught and shot. The SS men told Gröning and his comrades that they could go home but they decided not to, choosing instead to hang around in the shadows of the woods.
They then watched as an SS man put on a gas mask and emptied a tin of Zyklon B into a hatch in the cottage wall. Gröning said the humming noise from inside "turned to screaming" for a minute, then to silence. A comrade later showed him the bodies being burnt in a pit, where a Kapo there told him details of the burning, such as how gases developed in the body, seemed to make the burning corpses move.
The relative tranquility that Gröning's job gave him was once again broken, and he once again complained to his boss. His boss, an SS-Untersturmführer, listened to him, but reminded him of the pledge that he and his comrades made to accept it, and so he returned to work, mindful of the fact that he could manipulate his life at Auschwitz so as to avoid witnessing the camp's most unpalatable aspects.
Gröning's application to transfer to a unit on the front-line was successful, and in 1944 he joined an SS unit fighting in the Ardennes. He was wounded and sent to a field hospital before rejoining his unit, which eventually surrendered to the British on 10 June 1945.
He realised that declaring "involvement in the concentration camp of Auschwitz would have a negative response", and so tried not to draw attention to it, putting on the form given to him by the British that he worked for the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt instead. He did this because "the victor's always right", and that things happened at Auschwitz which "did not always comply with human rights".
Gröning and the rest of his SS colleagues were imprisoned in an old Nazi concentration camp. He was later sent to Britain as a forced labourer in 1946 where he had a "very comfortable life". He ate good food and earned money, and travelled through the Midlands and Scotland giving concerts for four months, singing German hymns and traditional English folk songs to grateful British audiences.
Return to Germany
Gröning was released and returned to Germany in 1947 or 1948. Upon being reunited with his wife, he said: "Girl, do both of us a favour: don't ask." He was unable to regain his job at the bank due to having been a member of the SS, so he got a job at a glass factory, working his way up to a management position. He became head of personnel, and was made an honorary judge of industrial tribunal cases.
Upon return to Germany, Gröning lived with his father's in-laws. At the dinner table, they once made "a silly remark about Auschwitz", implying that he was a "potential or real murderer", which Gröning said he exploded at, banging his fist on the table, saying: "This word and this connection are never, ever, to be mentioned again in my presence, otherwise I'll move out!" Gröning said that this request was respected.
Views on Holocaust denial
Gröning led a normal middle class life after the war. A keen stamp collector, he was once at his local philately club's annual meeting more than 40 years after the war, when he fell into a conversation about politics with the man next to him. The man told him it was "terrible" that Holocaust denial was illegal in Germany, and went on to tell Gröning how so many bodies could not have been burnt, and that the volume of gas that was supposed to have been used would have killed all living things in the vicinity.
Gröning said nothing in response to these statements, replying only: "I know a little more about that, we should discuss it some time." The man recommended a pamphlet by Holocaust denier Thies Christophersen. Gröning obtained a copy and mailed it to Christophersen, having written his own commentary on it, which included the words:
I saw everything, the gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.
Gröning then began receiving phone calls and letters from strangers who tried to tell him Auschwitz was not actually a place for exterminating human beings in gas chambers.
It became apparent that his comments condemning Holocaust denial had been printed in a neo-Nazi magazine, and that most of the anonymous calls and letters were, "From people who tried to prove that what I had seen with my own eyes, what I had experienced in Auschwitz was a big, big mistake, a big hallucination on my part because it hadn't happened."
As a result of such comments, Gröning decided to speak openly about his experiences, and publicly denounce people who maintain the events he witnessed never happened. He says his message to Holocaust deniers is:
I would like you to believe me. I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened because I was there.
Gröning does not consider himself guilty of any crime, pointing to the fact that he was not directly involved in the killing. He describes his part in the extermination machine as an involuntary "small cog in the gears", which gave him involuntary guilt in turn. Citing his summons to testify against a member of the SS accused of murdering prisoners at Auschwitz, he also says he is innocent in the eyes of the law, pointing to the fact that he spoke as a witness and not as a defendant.
Although Gröning requested to leave Auschwitz after he witnessed the killing, Laurence Rees writes that this was only on the basis of its practical implementation, and that the principle of Jews being exterminated itself was not something that Gröning objected to. Indeed he thought it was justified due to all the Nazi propaganda he had been subjected to, in that Germany's enemies were being destroyed, which to him made the tools of their destruction (such as gas chambers) of no particular significance. Because of this, he says his feelings about seeing people and knowing that they had hours to live before being gassed were "very ambiguous". He explains that children were murdered because, while the children themselves were not the enemy, the danger was the blood within them, in that they could grow up to become dangerous Jews. Rees points to Gröning's ultra-nationalist upbringing as indication of how he was able to justify the extermination of helpless women and children. Gröning says that the horrors in the gas chambers did eventually dawn on him when he heard the screams.
Rees writes that Gröning describes his time at Auschwitz as if he were talking about another Oskar Gröning at Auschwitz—and as a result, the post-war Gröning speaks more candidly about his time there by segregating the Gröning that contributed to the running of a death camp from the modern Gröning that condemns Nazi ideology.
Gröning says that the screams of those in the gas chambers have never left him, and has never returned to Auschwitz because of his shame. He says he feels guilt towards the Jewish people, and for being part of the organisation that committed crimes against them, despite "not having been one of the perpetrators myself". He asks for God's forgiveness and forgiveness from the Jewish people.
- Rees, p. 139
- Geyer, Matthias (May 9, 2005). "An SS Officer Remembers: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 2009-03-09.
- Rees, pp. 139-40
- Rees, p. 140
- Rees, pp. 140-1
- Rees, p. 141
- Rees, p. 142
- Rees, pp. 142-143
- Rees, p. 165
- Rees, p. 143
- Rees, p. 138
- Rees, pp. 166–7
- Rees, p. 167
- Rees, pp. 167-8
- Rees, p. 168
- Rees, p. 287
- Rees, pp. 287-8
- Rees, p. 288
- Rees, p. 298
- Rees, p. 300
- Rees, p. 301
- Hall, Allan (January 27, 2005). "Auschwitz guard's nightmares linger". The Age. Retrieved 2009-04-07.
- Rees, p. 144