NEUBRANDENBURG, Germany: The trial of former Auschwitz medic Hubert Zafke for aiding in 3,681 murders appeared close to collapse Monday (Feb 29) after the 95-year-old failed 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".
The defendant was therefore "not in a state" to be taken to the court or to testify, the judge said. Zafke served as a medical orderly at the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland from August 15 to September 14, 1944, a period when teenage diarist Anne Frank was interned there.
Prosecutors charge that Zafke "knew of and willingly supported the industrially organised mass killing people in an insidious and cruel manner".
Of his time as a medical orderly - a job 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 clue Auschwitz was an extermination camp.
Zafke's defence lawyer, Peter-Michael Diestel, hit out at the decision to take the former SS officer to trial in the first place.
"My client is dying and will soon face his highest judge," Diestel told AFP.
"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, who was also the last interior minister of East Germany during its democratic transition before reunification.
"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."
SLAVE CAMPS, GAS CHAMBERS
Zafke's ability to stand trial had long been in contention. A first court had ruled against a trial, finding that he was suffering from dementia, before an appeals court overturned the decision.
It found that, although he suffered "cognitive impairments" and diminished physical capacity, he could be granted regular breaks and close 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 - but he is considered unlikely to serve any time given his advanced age.
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.
One of the trains brought the family of Anne Frank, whose diary about her Jewish family's life in hiding in Amsterdam has moved millions and remains a worldwide bestseller.
Anne Frank survived Auschwitz but died in Bergen-Belsen, shortly before its 1945 liberation by the British army.
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.
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.