Irene Fogel Weiss of Fairfax, Virginia, was a young girl when a train took her from a ghetto in Hungary to the Auschwitz concentration camp. As she stepped onto the platform, where she underwent a selection process that determined who would live and who would die, the Nazis snapped a photo, recording the moment for posterity.
That photograph, found among Auschwitz archival documents, played a crucial role in obtaining convictions against former SS guards Oskar Groening and Reinhold Hanning.
In the past two years, Weiss, now 87, traveled to Germany twice to testify against both men, who helped carry out Adolph Hitler’s goal of exterminating the Jewish people. Both men were found guilty of being an accessory to more than 100,000 deaths at Auschwitz.
But since their verdicts were handed down, neither former SS guard has gone to prison.
The judge, who sentenced Hanning to five years, labeled him a “willing and efficient henchman.” He died last summer, while his appeal was still pending
Groening admitted in court to collecting luggage and valuables from prisoners at Auschwitz, but said he only shared moral guilt and did not kill anyone. Since his July 2015 conviction of being an accessory to 300,000 murders, Groening, now 96 years old, has been living at home on appeal.
On Jan. 17, the death camp guard’s bid for clemency due to his age and health was rejected by German prosecutors, and he is expected to begin serving his four-year sentence shortly.
Yet, despite all the delays, Weiss is content.
“You may be surprised. It doesn’t matter to me whether he serves the four years or not. The whole trial was not about putting him in jail. It was to bring this topic out to the German population and let them follow [what actually happened],” she said.
“Numbers [of deaths] like that were very shocking to the younger generation,” she added.
The German press closely covered both trials and subsequent appeals. Letting the younger generation of Germans know that their grandparents “had a great part in the killing of all these people,” is satisfaction enough for Weiss. It would have been nice to hear the guards express remorse, she admitted, but that never happened. “Both of them, they held back. They didn’t tell the survivors anything, how they felt, if they were sorry,” or even why they did it, she said.
The trials gave Weiss and her fellow survivors “none of the satisfaction we were looking for,” but knowing she contributed to "opening up the topic to a generation who really knew very little” helped, she said.
A volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Weiss wants the world to remember.
Weiss doesn’t remember Groening, but she does recall being told by about a dozen guards to leave all her possessions on the train platform. During her testimony against Groening, Weiss said she felt like she was 13 again. “I bring to the testimony all of my family. They are all there. It’s terribly emotional. I have to tell them how my mother died, how my father died.”
Weiss spent eight months in Auschwitz and then struggled through a death march to another camp, Neustadt-Glewe, where she spent five months.
By the war’s end, she lost both parents, an older brother, and three younger siblings. Only she and her sister, Serena, survived. She thinks about them every day, but now others will remember them as well.
“It’s on the record,” she said.
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.