Last Thursday, a court in Hamburg, Germany, convicted Bruno Dey, a 93-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, in what will likely be one of the country’s last Holocaust trials.
As Melissa Eddy reports for the New York Times, Dey worked at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland between August 1944 and April 1945. Found guilty of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder—a figure based on the number of people who died at Stutthof during his tenure—Dey received a two-year suspended sentence.
Over nine months of court proceedings, more than 40 co-plaintiffs from France, Israel, Poland and the United States testified against the former SS guard, according to CNN’s Nadine Schmidt. Witnesses detailed the many atrocities committed at Stutthof, which was established in 1939 as the first wartime concentration camp outside of Germany.
Stutthof, located east of Gdańsk in northern Poland, housed upward of 100,000 prisoners during its six years in operation. In total, more than 60,000 people—around half of whom were Jews—died of disease, starvation, exhaustion and execution. Court documents indicate that victims were gassed with Zyklon B, shot in the back of the head and denied medical care.
Per a press release, prosecutors argued that Dey, a tower guard tasked with ensuring inmates didn’t escape or revolt, “knowingly supported the insidious and cruel killing of prisoners” as a “small wheel in the machinery of murder.”
During the trial, judge Anne Meier-Göring refuted Dey’s claim that he’d had no choice in the matter.
“That is not true. You didn’t look for a way out,” she said, as quoted by Ben Knight of Deutsche Welle.
According to Agence France-Presse, Meier-Göring also stated, “You still see yourself as a mere observer, when in fact you were an accomplice to this manmade hell.”
Dey’s trial, which began last October, followed a precedent set by a 2011 case in which former concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk was found guilty of 27,900 counts of accessory to murder. This verdict, as well as the 2016 trial of former SS guard Reinhold Hanning, “established that individuals who played supporting roles in Nazi crimes could be convicted on the argument of association,” writes the Times. (Germany has no statute of limitations on murder.)
Because of his age at the time of the killings, Dey was tried in a juvenile court. As Reuters’ Madeline Chambers reports, sessions were limited to several hours per day in recognition of the defendant’s poor health. Due to travel restrictions and risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, none of the co-plaintiffs witnessed the verdict firsthand.
Ben Cohen, whose grandmother Judy Meisel was imprisoned in Stutthof, tells CNN that the decision is an act of “symbolic justice” for victims. Meisel and her sister survived the war and fled to Denmark, but their mother, Mina Beker, died in the camp.
“On behalf of my grandmother and our family this verdict sends a powerful message that a guard in any camp cannot deny responsibility for what happened,” Cohen adds.
Other plaintiffs expressed dissatisfaction with the trial’s result. Speaking to Deutsche Welle, Christoph Rückel, an attorney who represented several survivors, says the decision to suspend the sentence “sends a signal of laxity that I think is not appropriate for a crime like this. The court said itself that if he’d been in court in 1982 he would have been punished more severely.”
One of Rückel’s clients, 92-year-old Henri Zajdenwerger, testified in February about the atrocities he’d witnessed at the concentration camp, including beatings, executions, and people dying of hunger and exhaustion.
“It was extremely important to him,” Rückel tells Deutsche Welle. “He was very nervous the night before, didn’t sleep well, but after he had made his statement, he said he had this good feeling because he’d finally been able to say something about these murderous deeds in a German court.”
As the trial drew to a close, Dey acknowledged “the full scope of the horrors and suffering” experienced at Stutthof. He shared an apology to survivors of the camp, relatives and “all the people who have gone through this hell of insanity,” but stopped short of assuming responsibility for his actions, instead arguing that he’d been forced into serving as a guard.
“I’m speechless. I don’t want his apology, I don’t need it,” says Marek Dunin-Wasowicz, a 93-year-old survivor of Stutthof, to AFP.
Dey’s case might be one of the last in which Germany convicts a former Nazi for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Per CNN, German prosecutors are currently investigating 14 other cases like Dey’s and recently charged a 95-year-old man who also worked at Stutthof with war crimes.