BERLIN — A German court convicted a 93-year-old man on Thursday for helping the Nazis murder thousands of people while he served as a concentration camp guard more than 75 years ago, in what might be one of the last verdicts to be handed down to a living participant in the Holocaust.
The Hamburg state court found Bruno Dey guilty of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder — one for each person believed to have been killed in the Stutthof concentration camp, east of Gdansk in Poland, during the time he served as a guard there, from August 1944 to April 1945.
Mr. Dey, who was tried in juvenile court because he was only 17 years old at the time, was given a two-year suspended sentence, reflecting the prosecutors’ acknowledgment of his contrition and willingness to cooperate with authorities.
But survivors and those representing them criticized the sentence as too lenient. “It is unsatisfactory and much too late,” said Christoph Heubner of the International Auschwitz Committee, who followed the trial. “What is so upsetting for survivors is that this defendant failed to use the many postwar years of his life to reflect on what he saw and heard.”
The trial against Mr. Dey was the latest in a push by prosecutors in the special office for handling Nazi-era crimes to bring aging suspects to justice before it is too late. And it came at a moment when the country is struggling to deal with a resurgence in right-wing extremism.
Mr. Dey appeared at the Hamburg state court, seated in a wheelchair and wearing a blue surgical mask because of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a closing statement, Mr. Dey said he felt it was important to express his thoughts and feelings about the trial, which he initially had complained interrupted the final years of his life.
“The witness testimony and the expert assessments made me realize the full scope of the horrors and suffering,” he told the court. “Today I would like to apologize for those who went through the hell of this insanity. Something like this must never happen again.”
The German authorities have intensified their efforts in recent years to hold to account men and women, most of them now over 90, who played smaller roles in helping the Nazis round up and murder Europe’s Jews in their network of concentration and death camps.
Throughout the Cold War, these people were overlooked by a justice system that demanded evidence of direct involvement of a Nazi-era crime in order to bring charges against a perpetrator.
As the survivors grew older a reunited Germany began emphasizing the importance of remembrance and atonement, giving a prominent place to a Holocaust memorial in the heart of its new capital and establishing funds worth millions to compensate long overlooked victims of Nazi crimes.
Over the past decades, the courts, too, have shifted their perspective, following landmark rulings in 2011 and 2015 that established that individuals who played supporting roles in Nazi crimes could be convicted on the argument of association.
Last week, another former guard from Stutthof, age 95, was charged with similar crimes.
Because Mr. Dey was only 17 when he began his guard duties, he was tried as a juvenile. Prosecutors had sought a three-year prison sentence.
Far-right activity continues to plague Germany. Earlier this week, a different German court opened a trial against a 28-year-old German suspected of plotting to blast his way into a synagogue filled with Jews observing Yom Kippur an attack that failed but left two people dead and injured several others.
The attack was the most severe of thousands of crimes committed against Jews in Germany in 2019 — the worst year since the country started tracking them in 2001.
Prosecutors said the defendant in that trial, Stephan Balliet, had been motivated by a belief that “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”