Two upcoming criminal trials in Germany will likely be the last chance to convict Nazi war criminals. In September, a 96-year-old woman is scheduled to be tried in the German town of Itzehoe. She’s accused of working as a secretary to the SS commander in the Stutthof concentration camp and facilitating the deaths of over 1,000 prisoners.

The following month, a 100-year-old man from Brandenberg will stand trial in the German town of Oranienburg, charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder after working as an SS guard in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Neither defendant has been publicly named, in accordance with German privacy laws.

The trials are the last time that the world will be able to hear first person testimony about what took place in brutal Nazi death camps.

These trials mark the end of an era, the last time that the world will be able to hear first person testimony about what took place in brutal Nazi death camps. Germany has not ruled out holding additional Nazi-era trials, but given the advanced ages of the witnesses and defendants involved, these will be difficult to prosecute.   

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis designated over 44,000 prisons in various forms, including ghettos, concentration camps and death camps. These trials will also allow a new generation to learn about Stutthof and Sachsenhausen, two relatively unknown concentration camps that illustrate the vast web of camps built by the Nazis and illustrate the scope of their barbaric cruelty.

Stutthof

Even before World War II broke out, the Nazis monitored areas in Poland, with an aim to build a political prison for Polish dissidents. An entire Nazi unit, the Wachsturmbann Eimann, was created to scout out sites for future concentration camps. The first Poles were sent to Stutthof, in the woods outside the Polish city of Gdansk (Danzig in German) on September 2, 1939, the day after Germany’s invasion of Poland. By September 15, 6,000 Polish political prisoners were held in the camp: most of them were murdered by SS guards.

Stutthof was nominally a Polish civilian camp initially; in 1941 it became a German labor camp and in 1942 was designated a concentration camp. Originally home to mostly Polish political prisoners, tens of thousands of Jews were moved to Stutthof as the war progressed. Continually expanded, the camp was surrounded by electric fences and eventually encompassed over one hundred sub-camps where Jews and other prisoners worked as slave laborers. They toiled in Nazi-owned enterprises and also in nearby privately-owned factories, farms and brickyards. The brutal conditions of Stutthof and its many satellite prisons were clearly visible to the neighboring community.

One of the most gruesome factories using Stutthof slave laborers was a Danzig factory owned by SS officer Prof. Rudolf Spanner. He experimented with methods of producing soap from human fat, and had hundreds of Jewish prisoners in Stutthof executed so he could produce his “soap,” which he called RJS - short for “Reines Judische Fett” (Pure Jewish Fat). When Soviet soldiers liberated Stutthof, they found rooms full of dead Jews who’d been murdered for this horrific purpose. (After the war, Rudolf Spanner was never arrested and continued his scientific career.)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum characterizes the conditions in Stutthof as “brutal”. Those who were too sick to work were murdered by camp doctors in the infirmary. The Nazis also built a small gas chamber at Stutthof in which they killed injured or ill workers with Zyklon B gas. Typhus epidemics swept the camp, killing thousands. It’s thought that well over 60,000 prisoners died in Stutthof and its satellite work camps.

In 2019, an elderly Israeli man named Abraham Koryski traveled to Germany to give evidence at the trial of a former Stutthof guard. “We were beaten constantly, the whole time, even while working,” he recounted. “Worst of all were the whips.” He described seeing SS guards put on sadistic “shows” of torture. In one case, a son was forced to beat his own father to death. “You didn’t know if the officers were acting on orders,” Koryski described of these instances of horrific cruelty, “or if they did it on their breaks” for amusement.

By January 1945, there were 50,000 prisoners - mostly Jewish - in Stutthof. With Allied forces closing in, Nazi guards (aided by Ukrainian guards who also manned the camp) forced approximately 5,000 prisoners on a death march to the Baltic Sea. Forced into the water at gunpoint, all 5,000 were shot and their bodies left in the water.

Stutthof Prisoner barracks after liberation

The remainder of Stutthof’s wretched slave laborers were forced to march towards Germany in the east in the brutal mid-winter Polish weather. Thousands died. The Nazi guards found themselves surrounded by Soviet troops and returned the remaining prisoners to the prison camp. Later on, thousands more surviving prisoners were again marched to the Baltic Sea and shot. By the time Soviet soldiers liberated Stutthof on May 9, 1945, only about 100 survivors remained in the camp.

Sachsenhausen

Built in 1936, Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp run entirely by the SS and was meant as a model concentration camp; it’s design features were copied throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Within months, Sachsenhausen housed 1,600 prisoners, mainly German political prisoners, but also Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, homosexuals, and common criminals.

Among the prisoners interred in Sachsenhausen was the famous German pastor Martin Niemoller, who was an outspoken critic of Hitler. Neimoller is well known for haunting warnings: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.”

As the Russians closed in at the end of the war, prisoners were sent on death marches

During the widespread Kristallnacht pogroms throughout Germany and Austria in November 1938, 30,000 Jews were arrested, and about 6,000 were imprisoned in Sachsenhausen. The number of Jews at Sachsenhausen fluctuated during the war. For a time, many Jewish prisoners were transferred to concentration camps in Poland in an attempt to make Germany Judenrein, free from Jews.

In 1944, the SS began to transfer thousands of Hungarian and Polish Jews to Sachsenhausen to work as slave laborers. By 1945, over 11,000 Jews were inmates at Sachsenhausen’s. They were housed separately and treated worse than the other inmates.

As many as 200,000 prisoners passed through Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. Prisoners worked in local factories, including a brickworks factory in the nearby town of Oranienburg, which Sachsenhausen inmates were forced to build and which at the time was the largest in the world. “Each day the SS marched up to 2,000 internees over the canal bridge to the Klinkerwerk brickworks before the eyes of the local populace,” the Sachsenhausen memorial site notes. This work detail was particularly feared, as SS guards used the brickworks as a site to carry out murders of inmates with impunity.

Another feared work detail was shoe testing at Sachsenhausen. Guards forced inmates to march around a track for days at a time, laden with heavy bags, in order to test various materials meant for shoe soles. In time, over one hundred smaller satellite camps were set up around Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were forced to work in factories including such well known German corporations as AEG and Siemens.

Soviet prisoners of war in Sachsenhausen. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gedenkstatte und Museum Sachsenhause,

Nazi guards in Sachsenhausen murdered over 13,000 Soviet soldiers - many of whom were Jews - using novel and grotesque methods. Prisoners were immobilized then shot in the neck. The SS experimented with different forms of gas chambers, including portable gas chambers. Tens of thousands of prisoners were murdered through hangings, beatings, and from starvation, overwork and disease.

As the Soviet Army closed in in February, 1945, thousands of Sachsenhausen inmates were shot in the camp. Many were transferred to other camps, and over 30,000 were forced on a death march to hide the crimes of Sachsenhausen from Soviet soldiers. By the time Allies liberated Sachsenhausen on April 22, 1945, only 3,000 inmates remained in the camp. 300 of these died shortly after liberation.

Remembering the Past

A recent poll found that 41% of Americans - and over two thirds of millennials - could not identify what Auschwitz, perhaps the best known Nazi concentration camp, was. In this climate of Holocaust ignorance and denial, the upcoming trials in Germany are a crucial coda to the Holocaust’s tortured history. The upcoming testimony will provide the opportunity to educate ourselves about Sachsenhausen and Stutthof and the thousands of other Nazi camps.

This is one of the world’s last chances to learn about the Holocaust directly from the perpetrators. Let’s not waste it.