TORONTO – As a German Nazi SS officer during the Second World War, Oskar Groening worked as an accountant at the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland.
He documented and evaluated the worth of all the valuables of the prisoners as they arrived off the trains.
But he didn’t kill anyone nor sign orders to kill, according to his testimony at a high-profile 2015 trial, in which he was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews.
The new documentary “The Accountant of Auschwitz” explores Groening’s case — looking at the complicity of him and other lower-level SS guards, and the debates surrounding their prosecution.
“The reason why he was on trial is because they could prove that he was on the ramp where the selections took place: this person goes to the gas chamber, this person goes to work,” said Matthew Shoychet, the doc’s Toronto-based director.
“He was right there when the genocide was taking place, so just him being there makes him complicit.”
Debuting Sunday at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, “The Accountant of Auschwitz” comes shortly after Groening’s death last month at age 96. He had yet to start his four-year prison sentence, which he was appealing.
As Shoychet explains, Groening grew up in a nationalist family. After the war, he worked as a bookkeeper while living in his hometown in Germany.
He wasn’t on the radar of prosecutors until 2005, when he did an interview with the BBC and candidly talked about his experiences at Auschwitz.
That led to his trial, in which Holocaust survivors including Bill Glied of Toronto testified.
Glied speaks in the doc, along with other survivors and a variety of academics, lawyers and journalists, among others.
Also in the doc is Benjamin Ferencz, a U.S. prosecutor at the post-war Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders.
Ricki Gurwitz, one of the doc’s producers, said she came up with the idea for the film after doing a segment on Groening’s trial while working as a TV news reporter.
“One of the reasons we wanted to make this film is because the German judicial system, after the war, really did not prosecute Nazis,” said Gurwitz.
“Their record is terrible. Out of the 6,500 SS guards at Auschwitz, only 49 were ever prosecuted…. In 2009 the interpretation of the law changed, so that meant that anyone who was just there could be prosecuted. That led prosecutors to (Groening).”
The filmmakers said Groening wouldn’t do an interview with them for the doc, which does feature footage of him at his trial.
The film also looks at other Nazi war crimes trials, including that of John Demjanjuk.
“One of the questions, the central themes in our film, is Germany trying to make up for the mistakes of its past by prosecuting these lower-level SS guards who are 94, 95, today,” said Gurwitz.
“How complicit are they? They didn’t shoot anyone, they were just there. They helped the system run but they weren’t actually killing anyone. All their contemporaries have died, all their superiors who actually did the killing died.
“They’re the last men who are able to stand trial. Should they be facing prosecution because they’re the last men left standing? Or are they actually complicit because they were a cog in the machine and the machine would not have run without them there?”
In the film, one of the survivors says she initially had sympathy for Groening when she saw how frail he was in court. But that vanished when she saw a look of disdain on his face.
Yet another survivor forgave him and hugged him in court, said Gurwitz.
“It just goes to show that this case is not so cut and dry, it’s not so black and white. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity.”
Note to readers: CORRECTS to remove date reference in para 4