From his post as a young SS private in a watchtower in Nazi Germany’s Stutthof concentration camp, Bruno Dey could hear the screams of Jews dying in the gas chamber. And, Dey later told investigators, the carting of their lifeless bodies to the camp’s crematorium was a daily sight.
More than seven decades later, Dey is going on trial Thursday on 5,230 counts of accessory to murder in Hamburg state court. Prosecutors argue that by standing guard at the camp from August 1944 to April 1945, the 93-year-old helped Stutthof function and was thus “a small wheel in the machinery of murder.”
“The accused was no ardent worshipper of Nazi ideology,” prosecutors say in the indictment, reviewed by The Associated Press. “But there is also no doubt that he never actively challenged the persecutions of the Nazi regime.”
Dey, a baker by training, told prosecutors he was deemed unfit for the front at age 17 in 1944 because of a heart problem, so instead was sent as a guard to Stutthof, and suggested that with or without him the killing would have taken place.
If he hadn’t been there, “they would have just found someone else,” he said.
Dey’s attorney, Stefan Waterkamp, said his client stood by his statements to police and prosecutors. But he noted that the indictment doesn’t link him to any specific killing, and that it will be up to the court to decide whether standing guard in a watchtower alone is enough to convict him.
“Many people were killed in many ways at Stutthof,” Waterkamp said. “Some were directly killed, some were killed by starvation, some were killed by typhus — the question is who is immediately responsible?”
In recent years, prosecutors have successfully convicted former death camp guards using the argument that by helping camps like Auschwitz and Sobibor function, they were accessories to the murders there even without evidence of involvement in a specific killing.
The 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening on such reasoning was upheld by a German federal court, solidifying the precedent.
In Dey’s case, the reasoning is being applied to a concentration camp rather than a death camp. Still, prosecutors have expressed confidence it still pertains, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof even though — unlike at the death camps — the site’s sole purpose wasn’t murder.
Stutthof was established by Nazi Germany in 1939 east of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk, and was initially used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the city.
From about 1940, it was used as a so-called “work education camp” where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens, were sent to serve sentences and often died. Others incarcerated there included criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From mid-1944, when Dey was posted there, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
In the end, more than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, or put to death in a gas chamber.
Asked if he knew who was being killed, Dey told prosecutors his SS comrades talked of the “extermination of the Jews” and said he had “done people wrong” by serving there.
“I did not know why they were there,” Dey told prosecutors. “I knew well that they were Jews who had committed no crime, that they were only there because they were Jews. And they have the same right to live and to work like any other person. But it was just that Hitler or his party were against that, who had something against the Jews.”
Because of his relative openness to talk, Dey was expected to be called to testify last year at the trial of another Stutthof guard, Johann Rehbogen. But those proceedings collapsed after the defendant was hospitalized for heart and kidney issues and he never took the stand.
Dey has been deemed fit to stand trial by experts, but sessions will be limited to two hours a day, and are scheduled to be held only twice a week. A medical team will be on hand to check on him during the trial, and breaks will be taken every 45 minutes.
Dey is accused of serving as a guard from August 1944 to April 1945, when he was 17 and 18. Because of his age at the time of the alleged crimes, he will be tried in juvenile court and faces a possible six months to 10 years in prison if convicted. In Germany there are no consecutive sentences.
Waterkamp said it is difficult for his client to talk about his Stutthof past, but that he is expected to answer questions from the court and might make a statement as well.