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BERLIN – A 94-year-old former SS concentration guard on trial on hundreds of counts of accessory to murder painted himself Tuesday as an unwilling participant in the Nazi machinery of death.
Johann Rehbogen is accused of working as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp east of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk, from June 1942 to about early September 1944.
In a statement read by his attorney, the defendant told the Muenster state court he was "not a Nazi."
"I've never been one and I'll never be one in the little time that I still have left to live," he said, the dpa news agency reported.
As an ethnic German from Romania, Rehbogen said he had ended up in the German military but had not volunteered to serve in the SS.
"As a Christian it was hard for me to be part of all of it," he said in the statement. "But I was too scared to protest."
Rehbogen was 18 at the time, and is being tried in a youth court because of his age during the years of his alleged offenses. He faces a maximum 10 years in prison if convicted.
He told the court he was ashamed of his actions, occasionally wiping tears from his eyes as the statement was read, but that he had feared he would be branded an enemy of the Nazi state and persecuted if he protested.
"I cannot say with certainty, with today's perspective, whether I would have had the courage to act differently," he said.
Though there is no evidence linking the former SS Sturmmann — roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army rank of specialist — to a specific crime, the prosecution argues that, as a guard, he was an accessory to the killings at Stutthof while he was there. In all, more than 60,000 people were killed in the camp.
As the trial opened last week, prosecutor Andreas Brendel detailed how prisoners were killed 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.
Rehbogen said he was unaware of a gas chamber in the camp but suggested he did at least know prisoners were being mistreated.
"The prisoners were in a terrible state, I was ashamed," he said in his statement. "Pity would be the wrong word; it's difficult to find the right words. We were not indifferent to the fate of the prisoners. I had great difficulty coming to terms with it."
He didn't apologize to the victims of the camp, but said he didn't expect their sympathy for his own plight.
"If I present things here today that for me at the time were unpleasant or difficult to bear, I know that in comparison to the unspeakable suffering of the camp inmates it was minimal," he said.