Berlin, Germany — Bruno Dey, who became a guard at one of Adolf Hitler's Nazi death camps when he was just 17, has been convicted of being an accessory to more than 5,000 murders and given a suspended prison sentence in Germany. Given his health condition now at the age of 93, he was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Between August 1944 and April 1945, Dey served as a guard in the "Death's Head" unit of the SS at the Stutthof concentration camp, 24 miles east of the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Gdańsk.
On Thursday, a court in Hamburg, Germany found him guilty of 5,232 counts of accessory to murder - the number of victims believed to have been killed at Stutthof during his time there between 1944 and 1945. He was also convicted on one count of accessory to attempted murder.
Dey never denied being a guard at the camp, but consistently said in court that he considered himself innocent, having not taken part directly in any murders and claiming he was unaware of the atrocities. On Monday he asked the victims for forgiveness, however, saying they had gone through the "hell of madness."
Dey said Monday that it was only through the trial that he had become aware of the full extent of the cruelty and suffering at the camp. "Such a thing must never happen again," he said in his apology to the victims.
His defense attorney had argued that membership in the SS alone couldn't make Dey an accessory to the murders, and that he had not recognized his service at the time as participation in Nazi crimes.
The 5,232 victims killed during Dey's service include about 5,000 who died of typhoid in the horrifically unhygienic conditions at the camp, but Dey was also implicated in the executions of 200 people who were gassed with Zyklon B, and 30 more who were shot in the neck.
Because Dey was under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged crime, he was tried at the juvenile court in Hamburg. He had faced up to 10 years in jail, but it was always considered unlikely that he would serve any prison time due to his old age.
The American plaintiff
Judy Meisel was one of the 20 co-plaintiffs in the case against Dey. She witnessed the atrocities carried out by the Germans in Stutthof. Together with her mother and her sister Rachel, she was sent to the concentration camp from her native Lithuania in 1941 after Hitler's forces invaded.
"Her mother was murdered in the gas chamber," Meisel's grandson Benjamin Cohen told CBS News in October last year, after watching the trial begin. "They were tortured, her hair was ripped out by two SS men when they arrived at the camp. It was total brutality."
Meisel is now an American citizen and lives in Minnesota. She couldn't travel to Germany for the trial for health reasons.
She and her sister both managed to escape from Stutthof.
In a statement sent to CBS News on Thursday, Benjamin Cohen said his family considered the verdict, "a powerful message."
"We hope that the world can learn from this trial about where racism and hatred can lead," Cohen said. "The most important thing to us is that these horrific things should never happen again and that the world can be educated about the capacity for seemingly normal people to be part of the most horrific evil."
He said his grandmother now "looks forward to focusing on other things like her great grandchildren."
A dying breed
The verdict in Hamburg may well be one of the last handed down on the crimes of Hitler's Nazis, as there are very few suspects left alive.
Since the 2011 sentencing of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian POW who became a Nazi collaborator, the criminal justice system in Germany has opened multiple cases against former Nazi personnel. The trial against Demjanjuk set a new precedent, allowing suspects to be tried as accessories to the Nazi killing machine even if they didn't commit individual murders.
In Dey's case, the prosecutors argued that he had played a crucial role in Stutthof's mass killings as he stopped prisoners from escaping the camp. Before its liberation in April 1945, some 65,000 people were murdered at the camp, 70% of them Jews.
Recently another former guard from the Stutthof camp was charged in Wuppertal, Germany, but it was still unclear Thursday whether he would be deemed fit to stand trial.