PICTURE A MAN—a committed SS man—who invested years of his life working at Auschwitz. Who do you see?

Whatever you envision, I doubt very much that the image corresponds to Oskar Gröning, who I met nearly 10 years ago in Germany. Gröning, whose service at Auschwitz started in 1942, was in his early 80s. He looked like a bank clerk—hardly surprising, since his first job upon leaving school was at a bank. In appearance and manner he was as far removed as you can imagine from the stereotype of the SS ranks. He wasn’t some kind of slavering insane creature. He didn’t look like the devil, but like the man who organized your mortgage, happily retired into the quiet life of a grandparent.

However, it was certainly no accident that Gröning was a member of the Schutzstaffel. He wanted to belong to an elite group. He embraced Nazi ideology. He believed the Nazi propaganda that said the Jews caused Germany’s suffering, even its defeat in World War I.

“We were convinced by our worldview that there was a great conspiracy of Jewishness against us,” Gröning smoothly explained to me. “And that was expressed in Auschwitz in the idea that said, ‘Here the Jews are being exterminated…. What happened in the First World War—that the Jews put us into misery—must be avoided. The Jews are our enemies.’ So we exterminated nothing but enemies.”

When Gröning first arrived at Auschwitz the camp’s brutality shocked him and he applied to transfer, but when he was denied he overcame his revulsion and went on with his assignment in the camp’s economic department, sorting cash stolen from new arrivals.

The fact that he worked at one of the most appalling places ever created did not torment Gröning. In fact, he found the headquarters at Auschwitz a “wonderful” environment. A high jumper, he joined a sports club for SS personnel, which also offered access to a cinema and a theater. Great fellowship marked his days at the camp. “Apart from the fact that there are pigs who fulfill their personal drives—there were such people [among the SS]—the special situation [at Auschwitz] led to friendships which I’m still saying today I like to think of with joy.”

Gröning’s memories astonished me. I wanted to know how he could possibly account for the mindset that had rationalized the camp’s death toll of 1.1 million people, including 200,000 Jewish children. “The children are not the enemy at the moment,” the genial old man said. “The enemy is the blood in them—the [capacity] to grow up to be a Jew who could become dangerous. And because of that the children were also affected.”

After the war, Gröning—who, like the vast majority of Auschwitz SS veterans, escaped prosecution for war crimes—achieved a successful career as a personnel manager for a  glassworks in northern Germany. He said he agreed to sit for an interview because he wanted to combat the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Gröning confessed he’s “ashamed” that he believed all the Nazi propaganda about Jews back in the old days, but added that he does not believe he committed any crime by working at Auschwitz. “I find it terrible what happened,” he said, “and the fact that I had to be there disgusting. But guilty? No.”

Of hundreds of people I have met who participated in the war, Oskar Gröning remains one of the most memorable. An SS man from Auschwitz who looked like a kindly grandfather. Terrifying, isn’t it?


Originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

On July 15, 2015, A German court sentenced Oskar Gröning to four years in prison for his role in the murder of 300,000 Jews. Read the story here.