In 1942, Johann Rehbogen was a teenage SS guard stationed at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. In court on Tuesday, the 94-year-old denied knowing the extent of the atrocities committed there.
Rehbogen is being tried on charges of aiding and abetting in the murder of hundreds of prisoners, including with the use of poison gas Zyklon B.
In a statement read by his lawyer, Rehbogen acknowledged that he was aware of the mass cremation of corpses, but maintained that he did not know about the mass killings or the operations of the camp’s gas chamber, according to German state broadcaster ARD.
Rehbogen, who appeared in court in a wheelchair, wept as his attorney read the 18-page concluding statement.
“I am not a Nazi. I have never been one. Even in the little time I have left, I will never be one,” the statement said, according to ARD.
The statement did not offer an apology to the victims or survivors, ARD reported.
“The fact that we now see the main defendant wanting to comment in this process is a rare exception,” said Jens Rommel, head of Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes. “The good thing about this process is that both sides have the ability to speak again. The victims as well as the accused are speaking, and that offers a chance at dialogue and communication.”
There are 17 co-plaintiffs in the case, including survivors and their relatives from Israel and the United States, some of whom are expected to testify in court.
Because he was under 21 years of age at the time of the alleged crimes, Rehbogen is standing trial before a juvenile court, though he could still be sentenced as an adult. If found guilty, he could serve up to 15 years in prison – but, given his advanced age and deteriorating health, it seems unlikely that he will serve time behind bars.
Rehbogen is accused of being an accessory to hundreds of murders committed between June 1942 and September 1944, according to court documents.
The victims included at least 100 Polish prisoners killed with the use of poison gas Zyklon B, 77 Soviet war prisoners killed in the summer of 1944, more than 140 mainly Jewish women and children killed by “an injection of petrol and phenol into their hearts,” and several hundred Jewish prisoners executed because they were deemed “unfit for work.”
The court also stated that an unknown number of prisoners in Stutthof died from exposure, freezing to death in the winter. At least 100,000 were detained at the Stutthof camp, and more than 65,000 are believed to have died there.
Rehbogen is one of the last to stand trial in Germany for Nazi war crimes. Such trials have become increasingly rare as many suspects have died or become too old and infirm to stand trial.
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators, and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,” Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement at the start of the trial.
In 2015, a German court convicted Oskar Groening as an accessory to mass murder and sentenced him to four years in prison. He was called “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz” for his role in keeping accounts of the belongings of Holocaust victims at the concentration camp.
Like Rehbogen, Groening also made a statement in court admitting “moral responsibility,” but maintained that he did not directly participate in the killings. Despite the sentence, Groening never spent time in prison. He died in March of his year in the midst of his appeal.
Such statements of “moral responsibility” in court are extremely rare, said Rommel, the Nazi crimes investigator. “Until a few years ago, we did not see any defendants in court who showed remorse.”