Germany tries last Nazi accused of mass murder 79-year-old man may be final suspect

December 20, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

STUTTGART, Germany -- Week after week, in a very bright, white courtroom, dim memories spill out, and the trial of the last Nazi charged with the mass murders of the Holocaust grinds on.

No others remain who are known.

It has taken a lifetime to bring this man, Josef Schwammberger, to trial. And when the judge renders his verdict, the German nation's long courtroom confrontation with its past may be done.

But endings aren't always precise. Josef Schwammberger is now an old man in a brown sweater. At 79, he is described by his doctor as partially senile, with a weakened heart, a deteriorating spine, a head that hurts and ears grown deaf. His accusers are aged or dead. And this trial, like some others before it, has become a contest between the infirm, in the reconstruction of the unimaginable, in a culture that does not wish to hear.

The aged accusers who can, take the stand to speak for themselves. The three judges take turns reading the sworn statements of the dead.

"It must be the first time in a modern trial that someone is being charged with events that took place a half-century ago," said Dieter Koenig, the attorney appointed by the state to represent Mr. Schwammberger. "Some of the testimony is convincing. A lot of it is confused."

Week after week, in quavering tones or calm ones, the testimony mounts about the murders of almost 3,500 Jews, people plundered for the gold in their teeth, holy men and ordinary people shot, babies bashed and burned. It all happened when the SS liquidated the ghettos in three towns near Krakow, Poland, in 1942 and 1943. Sergeant Schwammberger was in charge.

He admits that, but he denies killing anyone, or sending Jews to the concentration camps to be murdered. "That was all done by the Gestapo," he said in a shaking voice one day, in one of the few complete sentences he has uttered at this trial. "I didn't have anything to do with it."

One of the towns was Przemysl. There, a survivor named Siegfried Kellerman testified, Sergeant Schwammberger had his men build a bonfire, and then ordered the residents to surrender their jewelry and gold. "Schwammberger and two or three others then shot the people and tossed their bodies directly on the fire," Mr. Kellerman said matter-of-factly, with a look at the bald head and averted gaze of former Sergeant Schwammberger. "The children weren't even shot. They were grabbed by the leg and smashed against a wall, and then their bodies were thrown in the fire."

On an average, a few German wire service reporters hear this, and a few public high school classes, the ones that are university bound, whose teachers bring them in. But in the nearly six months since its beginning, when it was reported as a historic event and a great instruction for the unified nation, the trial has played only episodically in the newspapers. And the public has stayed away.

Mr. Schwammberger does not always seem to be all there himself. While his wife remains in Argentina, where for decades they had lived a routine life, the defendant stays in the hospital wing of the state prison here. Twice a week, usually, for three hours -- all his doctor says he can tolerate -- he comes to court and sits expressionless, looking up from under bushy black brows at the ceiling, as tortured memories spill from the stand.

Some of those memories have been stored in archives for years. They were taken as statements from survivors of the Holocaust by investigators in Israel in the 1960s, in case those survivors should die before their torturers could be brought to trial. One day, after the judges had read for hours from those transcripts, Judge Herbert Luippold asked the defendant if he had any questions or comments to make.

"I can't understand you. I can't hear you," Mr. Schwammberger answered.

"It sounds like you can hear me," Judge Luippold said.

Mr. Koenig, the defense attorney, spoke up. "He meant he didn't understand anything that went on for the past three hours," he said.

"Oh," Judge Luippold replied, and shrugged his shoulders as he left the courtroom.

If memories are not always heard, they also are not always in accord.

On Sept. 20, 1942, the holy day of Yom Kippur, eight witnesses all agreed, a man known as Rabbi Fraenkel was singled out and shot to death.

Four of the witnesses said they saw Mr. Schwammberger pull the trigger. Another four either changed their stories or said they didn't see. And four others who now are dead all claimed in written testimony taken in the 1960s that a young officer shot the rabbi and that Mr. Schwammberger just stood and watched.

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