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Former Auschwitz Guard Dies Before Beginning Prison Sentence

Former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning apologized during his trial for failing to take action against the injustice he witnessed.

A former SS guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp has died at the age of 95 before beginning his prison sentence for being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people.

Reinhold Hanning's attorney confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

Last June, as we reported, a German court sentenced Hanning to five years in prison for his role in the deaths of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. He had not yet reported to prison because his conviction was under appeal.

Hanning maintained that while he did work as a guard at the concentration camp, he was not assigned to the section where prisoners were gassed to death, reports NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

But prosecutor Andreas Brendel argued that anybody who worked at Auschwitz knew exactly what was going on.

"The cries and shouts of victims being gassed could be heard outside the gas chamber and everyone who heard them knew that the victims were fighting for their lives," Brendel said, according to The Guardian.

Prosecutors determined the number of murders in which Hanning was complicit by examining transport logs of Hungarian Jewish victims at Auschwitz. They concluded that 170,000 overlapped with his time there.

During Hanning's trial in the city of Detmold, in northwestern Germany, several Auschwitz survivors took the stand to recount their experiences.

"I am nearly 95 years old and still I often have nightmares about this," Leon Schwarzbaum told the courtroom," according to the Guardian.

Schwarzbaum's time at Auschwitz — where he says 35 of his family members perished — overlapped with Hanning's. Looking the former guard in the eye, Schwarzbaum implored him from the witness stand, "Mr. Hanning, we are virtually the same age and soon we will face our final judge. I would like to ask you to tell the historical truth here, just as I am. Tell the truth about what you and your colleagues did."

While Hanning remained silent during the weeks of testimony, he read a statement at the end of his trial, saying, "I am ashamed that I witnessed injustice and allowed it to continue without taking any actions against it," The New York Times reports. "I am sincerely sorry."

Hanning came from a small town called Lage in North Rhine-Westphalia, the same German state where his trial took place. He joined the Hitler Youth in 1935 at the age of 13, then volunteered for the Waffen SS at 18, the AP reports. After suffering head and leg injuries from grenade splinters in 1941, he was deemed unfit for front-line duty and assigned to Auschwitz. He worked there from January 1942 to June 1944.

Approximately 1 million people died at Auschwitz, the most at any concentration camp. Millions of people died in the Holocaust, including up to 6 million Jews.

Hanning's sentence was likely one of the last that will be handed out in Germany for atrocities committed during World War II, according to the BBC. It says two dozen prosecutions are still underway against accused camp guards and war criminals, but most of the accused are older than 90.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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