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Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening jailed by German court over 300,000 deaths

A 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp has been convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

The state court in the northern German city of Lueneburg gave Oskar Groening a four-year sentence.

Groening testified that he guarded prisoners' baggage after they arrived at Auschwitz and collected money stolen from them.

Prosecutors said that amounted to helping the death camp function.

The charges against Groening related to a period between May and July 1944 when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Most were immediately gassed to death.

During his trial opened, Groening acknowledged having helped collect and tally money as part of his job dealing with belongings stolen from people arriving at the camp, earning him the nickname "Accountant of Auschwitz".

In his statement to judges, he did not detail direct participation in any atrocities.

He concluded: "I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide."

Groening does not deny serving as a guard but says he committed no crime.

He told reporters as he arrived at the court in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, that he expected an acquittal.

Groening told the court he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker, and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. He said he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one of the atrocities.

"I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide," Groening told the panel of judges hearing the case as he closed an hour-long statement to the court. Under the German legal system, defendants do not enter formal pleas.

"Through his job, the defendant supported the machinery of death," prosecutor Jens Lehmann said as he read out the indictment.

In his statement, Groening recalled that he and a group of recruits were told by an SS major before going to Auschwitz they would "perform a duty that will clearly not be pleasant, but one necessary to achieve final victory".

He said the major gave no details, but other SS men told Groening at Auschwitz that Jews were being selected for work and those who couldn't work were being killed.

He described the arrival of transports of Jewish prisoners in detail, and recalled an incident in late 1942 when another SS man smashed a baby against a truck, "and his crying stopped". He said he was "shocked" and the following day asked a lieutenant for a transfer, which was not granted.

Groening, who entered the court with a walking frame, appeared lucid as he gave his statement, pausing occasionally to cough or drink water. It is unclear how long the trial will last; court sessions have been scheduled through the end of July.

The trial is the first to test a new line of German legal reasoning that has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

There are 11 open investigations against former Auschwitz guards, and charges have been filed in three of those cases including Groening's. A further eight former Majdanek guards are also under investigation.

About 60 Holocaust survivors or their relatives from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere have joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, as is allowed under German law.

Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor said Groening was a very old man who had had a hard life, "but by his own doing".

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