Oskar Groening in court (Julian Stratenschulte/AFP)
“I ask for forgiveness,” he said. “Whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.”
Mr Groening, dressed in a sleeveless beige pullover and an open-necked shirt, arrived in the courtroom with the help of a walking frame, flanked by his two lawyers.
He leaned forward to listen as the prosecutor spent half an hour reading out the charges against him and telling him that through his job at the notorious Nazi death camp he “supported the machinery of death”.
Then the accused launched into a lengthy and rambling account of his wartime experiences.
Mr Groening admitted to being an enthusiastic Nazi and to working as an SS guard at Auschwitz between May and June 1944, when more than 400,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 killed almost immediately in gas chambers.
Eva Kor, one of the co-plaintiffs, told The Telegraph she lost her parents and her two older sisters when the entire family was taken by the Nazis from Hungary and sent to Auschwitz.
“I can’t bring anybody back,” she said just before the trial began. “But I want information on how the system worked. How they decided on selecting who went to the gas chambers, and I want to see files on the medical experiments that were carried out on me and my twin sister by (Josef) Mengele,” said the 81-year-old, who now lives in the US.
The British co-plaintiffs are due to travel to Germany to attend the trial in mid-May, their lawyer, Thomas Walther said.
Susan Pollack was born Zsuzsanna Blau in Felsogod, Hungary in 1930. She was sent to Auschwitz aged 14, and was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She lost 50 members of her extended family.
“The experience is always with me,” she told the Telegraph in an interview in January this year. “Were we human beings, were they human beings? Why did they make us so inhuman and create such devastation? I’ve been able to relegate it to a more manageable place in my psyche but I’ve never lost it. I’ve learnt to live with it.”
She was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen camp where she was later liberated by British troops.
Ivor Perl, 82, now lives in Essex. Mr Perl lost his parents and seven siblings during the Holocaust. Only he and his brother Alec survived.
Ivor Pearl (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust)
Aged 12, he spent a year in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – before he was liberated from Dachau in May 1945.
“I’m afraid the pain never leaves,” he told The Telegraph in January on Holocaust Memorial Day. “A day doesn’t go by where I don’t have some sort of recollection of the camps. When that memory comes back so does the pain.”
Leslie Kleinman, 85, now lives in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. He was born in May 1929 in Romania into an orthodox Jewish family, and had four sisters and three brothers and their father was a Rabbi. The family were taken to Auschwitz in 1944. He survived by telling guards he was 17 — and not his true age 14 — and was sent to work. But his family were sent to the gas chambers.
Mr Groening described in court how he was responsible for inspecting the luggage of arriving prisoners and sending any money found to Berlin to fund the Nazi war effort.
Asked by judge Franz Kompisch who that money belonged to, he replied: “It belonged to the state and was to be handed over by the Jews. They didn’t need it any more.”
Groening in the SS
He said he had no idea before arriving at Auschwitz that it was a death camp. He claimed he was told by an SS officer before going there that he would be “performing a duty that will clearly not be pleasant, but one necessary to achieve final victory.”
Other SS soldiers told him when he arrived that Jews were being selected for work as slave labourers under appalling conditions and that those unfit for labour were being slaughtered.
Mr Groening, who after his stint at the death camp was captured by Allied forces and spent time in a prisoner of war camp in Britain, described in a matter of fact tone some of the murders he witnessed at Auschwitz.
On his first day on the ramp where Jewish prisoners exited the trains, he saw an SS colleague grab a crying baby and slam its head against a truck until it was quiet.
He also told of an incident when he saw naked Jews herded into a farm house near the camp. A soldier then locked them in, donned a gas mask, and poured the contents of a can down a hatch.
“The screams became louder and more desperate but after a short time they became quieter again,” Mr Groening said.
He is one of few former Nazis to have spoken out about the crimes of the Holocaust.
He repeated in court on Tuesday his previous assertions to the media that he wanted to bear witness to refute Holocaust deniers.
The trial in Lueneburg, south of Hamburg, is the first in a series of high-profile prosecutions as Germany scrambles to bring some more of those responsible for the Holocaust to justice.
It is feared it may be the only case to make it court, because of the extreme old age of the accused.
It is the first of its kind to take place since a key ruling in 2011, when former SS guard John Demjanjuk was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp.
The ruling overturned years of German legal precedent that only the senior Nazi leadership could be held responsible for the Holocaust.
Of the 6,500 former SS members who served at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 49 have ever been convicted in German courts.
If found guilty, Mr Gröning faces a maximum possible sentence of 15 years in prison.