Erna de Vries
Holocaust survivor Erna de Vries faced alleged SS leader Reinhold Hanning in the court in the German city of Detmold Reuters

Three Holocaust survivors have faced a former SS sergeant charged as an accessory to the murder of 170,000 during his trial in the German city of Detmold. Erna de Vries, 93, Justin Sonder, 90, and Leon Schwarzbaum, 94, gave testimony against Reinhold Hanning, himself 94, in what could be one of the last court cases against an alleged Nazi war criminal.

Sonder told how he was sent to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of 17 and had been selected as a labourer for the IG Farben Company, while the accused sat just meters away from him. He revealed that after a few months he had come to fear "selection" days as he was then regarded as one of the older prisoners and therefore expendable.

On "selection" days, he said, SS troops would line up rows of inmates and decide who was still fit to work and who should be killed. "I don't have the words to describe how it was, when you know that you could be dead in one or two hours, it made you sick, made you crazy," Sonder said. The former police officer from Chemnitz revealed that he survived 17 selections and that he had lost 22 family members in the holocaust.

De Vries, who was taken with her mother to Auschwitz, told the court how she had later been separated from her and taken to the women's concentration camp Ravensbrueck.

Schwarzbaum, a Berlin native, and one of 40 survivors of Auschwitz who are involved in the trial also gave evidence. He had been taken to the camp to help build a factory for Siemens.

Hanning is accused of being an SS leader, or an Unterscharfuehrer (a junior squad leader) at Auschwitz from January 1943 to June 1944. He is expected to answer his accusers later in the trial.