Why I made a film about the Accountant of Auschwitz

'The Accountant of Auschwitz premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival last month with great reviews. The film will be screened at the Metro Cinema at Garneau Theatre in Edmonton for a limited run from June 15 - 21.

by Ricki Gurwitz

(June 12, 2018) – Three years ago on April 21, 2015, I was working as a TV news producer when a headline started blinking across the wires: “Accountant of Auschwitz goes on trial for the murder of 300,000 people.” It caught my attention immediately.

The idea of bringing former Nazis to court to answer for the crimes of the Holocaust is interesting for any history buff such as myself. I had also recently returned from a trip to Poland, The March of the Living, which pairs people of all ages with survivors of the Holocaust. Together, they travel to ghettos and death camps used by the Third Reich to implement the Final Solution. Staring at the shoes of dead children, and the huge mountains of hair from those who were shaved upon arrival to the camps, there seemed no doubt in my mind of any moral ambiguity. Every SS officer who participated in these crimes, even seventy years later, should pay for his role in the worst mass murder in human history.

What I found, however, as I read more about this particular trial, was a tale with interesting twists that sparked questions with no easy answers. Oskar Gröning, the ninety-four-year-old former SS guard on trial, never killed anyone. As he put it, he was a mere cog in the machine. Meanwhile, most of the ideologues, the elite SS men who gave the orders to kill and were instrumental in the destruction of the Jews, went unpunished after the war due in large part to Germany’s unwillingness to prosecute their own. Now, seventy years later, most have perished but for one man who, at age twenty-one, collected the stolen loot of prisoners as they were carted off trains at Auschwitz.

Gröning came forward in 1985, standing up to Holocaust deniers in an attempt to set the record straight. He gave a public interview in 2005, believing himself to be exempt from prosecution. But in 2009, a new generation of lawyers in Germany, coupled with a change in legal thinking, meant anyone who served at a death camp could be tried as an accessory to murder. The net suddenly got much wider, and Gröning could face prosecution. His 2005 interview made prosecutors aware of his role in the Holocaust, and in 2013 they pressed charges.

Reading more about the details of this case, and the history of German trials after the war, I was convinced that a documentary needed to be made to delve into these complicated questions of law and morality. Determined to make this film, I quit my full-time job and devoted all of my attention to this project. But I had no experience in this realm. I had never made a film before.

I reached out to my friend Mathew Shoychet, whom I had met on The March of the Living, as I knew he had studied film and was as passionate as I was about Holocaust education. But he had also never made a feature film before. We needed some helping hands to guide us through this very ambitious project. By a stroke of good luck, I was put in contact with Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock, whose 2013 film, Tales from the Organ Trade, achieved a similar feat to the one we were trying to accomplish in this film.

In her documentary, Bienstock delved into the world of organ trafficking, a topic which, on the surface, seems to be very black and white, with the line of “good” and “evil” drawn neatly in the sand. Bienstock managed to unpack a complicated issue to expose a world of moral ambiguity and successfully challenge audiences’ previously held beliefs on this subject.

More than anything, I wanted to make a film about this trial because I myself was torn about where I stood on this issue. Gröning claimed he was just following orders. He didn’t kill anyone. But he was there. He was a witness to, and helped to run, a machinery of death that killed 1.1 million people. Who is complicit, and how far down the line do you prosecute? Had Germany gone after all the so-called Grönings–the lesser cogs–after the war, a huge percentage of the population would have been in jail. How does a country move on after a crime is committed on such a large scale by so many of its citizens?

Furthermore, does Gröning’s good deed later in life absolve him of his past sins? Does standing up to deniers right the wrongs he committed all those years ago? And will his trial send a warning to future war criminals that justice will eventually catch up to them as well? These questions are relevant now more than ever as right-wing extremist groups gain traction around the world and war crimes are still being committed long after the world proclaimed “Never Again.”

The Accountant of Auschwitz aims to shed some light on the question of responsibility and culpability at the root of all war crimes and how we might learn from the past to ensure a more peaceful future.


The Accountant of Auschwitz is opening this week in Edmonton at the Metro Cinema at Garneau Theatre (8712 109 St NW) on June 15 for a limited run until June 21.


Ricki Gurwitz is a former producer at CTV News Channel. She started her career in New York, where she was a producer at WABC News Talk Radio. She moved back to Toronto in 2009 where she took over the production of the The Bill Carroll Show and The Jerry Agar Show on Newstalk 1010. In 2011, Gurwitz made the switch to television, joining CTV News Channel as a segment and associate producer, working with reporters in the field to package news stories and in the newsroom to cover the headlines of the day. In 2015, Gurwitz left CTV to produce The Accountant of Auschwitz, her first feature documentary.

1 Comment on "Why I made a film about the Accountant of Auschwitz"

  1. Maurice Smook | Feb 16, 2019 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    I watched this documentary a couple weeks ago. Yes this guy was part of the killing machine. Yes justice was served but not long enough. There was an individual stated that he never knew about the war while he was growing up. How true. When I was growing up my parents rarely talked about as well. When I asked my mother about the war she would tell me that soldiers shooting at each other. The school that I attended never spoke about any wars. I found out about the war was when I was 9 years of age. My uncle attended the Worlds Youth Festival that was held in Poland in 1955. When he returned he talked about the festival and lastly about Auschwitz. It was scary. The people who died and murdered in that camp. The gas chambers and the crematoriums. My parents were in awe. My parents never really knew what really occurred during the war. Mom actually cried. Yes it alleged that 12 of grandparents relatives also perished in that camp. They were Polish citizens. I do not anyone of my grandparents kin. If it is true It would be interesting to know what crimes they committed. After the Thanksgiving weekend of October 1955 I spoke to some of my colleagues about this. Well the girl who was sitting two seats away from me she reported me. I paid the price. I was severely punished. I was not to play with any of my friends. I was not to take the bus. I had to walk to and from school. The teacher made it known that my Uncle was a liar and was spreading propaganda. She was going to contact the RCMP to have my Uncle arrested. Then she was going to contact the local authorities to have my parents arrested. I was close in having been kicked out of school and sent to some reformatory. The teacher had enough nerve telling me she will make sure that my Uncle and Parents will be in prison for a long time. Then she told the the class of 39 that I was a liar and have nothing to with me. After school after the last bus left I was to walk home by myself. Yet there were 6 from my class who waited for me at the bottom of a gully. Yes I was beaten up. Why? My teacher brainwashed the kids that I was a liar. I can recall this one kid hit so hard and I passed out. They left me for dead. It was a couple minutes later I pulled through. I reported this to Heir Teacher. The witch informed me that I better watch myself. Till this day I think about it. My parents did nothing to report this teacher to the school board. The principal of this school supported this teacher. I suffered mentally and physically that year. I recall when I was 13 I become a newspaper carrier. I remember making my first week collection. The girl who reported me her mother confronted me. As she was handing the money to me she stated “can I recall my punishment from my teacher.” I replied with a yes. Then she said that she had people from my school having signed a petition to have me expelled. Then she had enough nerve calling me a liar as well as my Uncle. We should have been locked up. No one ever knew my Uncle yet he was a liar. If this happened to my kids I would have contacted all organizations and a damn good lawyer. Yet anti antisemitism etc. has never vanished. Sad. It is also sad that many of kids had a parent(s) who served. What is really sad is that these so called veterans denied that the war ever occurred. So true. This girl who reported me her father denied it and told me that there was nothing to discuss. Yes two of my so called friends were British. Their parents also served in the British Military. To my surprise their parents denied that the war ever occurred. Today if anyone having watched PBS, the military channel and history channels there are older vets who are suddenly telling us the viewers this actually occurred. Where were they when I needed help?

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