Former Auschwitz medic Hubert Zafke’s trial for aiding in 3,681 murders is on hold, at least for now, after the 95-year-old was unable to attend the German court over health problems. Chief judge Klaus Kabisch suspended the hearings shortly after they opened, saying a doctor had on Sunday found that Zafke had “suicidal thoughts and was suffering from stress reaction and hypertension”.
Zafke served as a medical orderly at the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland from August 15 to September 14, 1944 and prosecutors charge that Zafke knew of and supported the mass killing people in a cruel manner and of his time as a medical orderly (a job description that for some officers entailed giving lethal injections to inmates). Zafke has claimed to have only performed first aid and treated prisoners, and had no ideas beyond that about Auschwitz as an extermination camp.
Zafke’s defence lawyer Peter-Michael Diestel has already been against the trial from the beginning citing the age of his client and the fact that his dying client “will soon face his highest judge”.
“I find it extremely embarrassing that German justice … has only done a slipshod job on the Holocaust, and that we’re now trying to cover this up with this sort of trial,” argued the lawyer, adding that “We are imposing this on the wrong people after those who were responsible were sent home in the 1960s or 70s with overly lenient sentences, had their cases dismissed or were simply acquitted,” he said.
“This proceeding is humanely worrying and questionable from a historical and political point of view.”
Zafke’s ability to stand trial had long been in questions as a first court had ruled against a trial, finding that he was suffering from dementia, before an appeals court overturned the decision believing he would be ok with regular breaks and medical supervision.
The prosecution had also sought, but failed, to have the judges recused, arguing they were biased towards declaring Zafke unfit to stand trial.
Prosecutors Monday filed a motion for a second medical opinion. That decision will be heard on the next set court date, March 14. If Zafke faces trial, he risks between three and 15 years in prison.
More about Zafke
Zafke, a farmer’s son who joined the Nazi party’s elite police force the Waffen-SS at age 19, initially fought on the eastern front before he was sent to the death camp.
During his time as a medical orderly, 14 trains arrived, delivering prisoners from across Europe to its slave labour camps and gas chambers.
Zafke had also served as an SS 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.
- Legal precedent -
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 Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces.
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