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Posted: 2015-07-06 04:00:00

The lives of two old men from opposing sides in World War II intersected last week in a vivid reminder of how the horrendous events of the Holocaust are fading inevitably into history.

Laudatory obituaries marked the death of Nicholas Winton, a modest 106-year-old English pacifist who remained quiet for a half-century about his efforts to help 669 children escape the Nazi death machinery in Czechoslovakia. In acid contrast, at one of the last of Germany’s war-crime trials, Oskar Gröning, a 94-year-old former SS soldier working at Auschwitz, admitted his “moral guilt” as an office functionary in the murder of 300,000 mostly Hungarian Jews.

But Mr. Gröning, frail yet quite aware, clung to a qualification that he could not apologize to the victims and survivors because of the enormity of the Holocaust crimes. “I can only ask forgiveness from the Lord,” he said. This added a note of puzzlement to the long search for justice by Auschwitz survivors who testified at the trial in grisly detail about the death camp, where more than a million innocent people were gassed and cremated.

As a new century goes forward, the lives of the two men can be read as invaluable moral lessons, addenda to the war’s ghastly place in history. Mr. Winton took extraordinary measures to save innocent lives. Mr. Gröning was tasked with the accounting of money stolen from Jews before they were murdered en masse.

“You were allowed in your freedom to grow old,” one survivor testified at the trial. “My parents weren’t allowed that.” Another dismissed Mr. Gröning’s insistence that he was a “small cog” in the death machinery: “Any person who wore that uniform in that place represented terror and the depths to which humanity can sink, regardless of what function they performed.” A third found frustration: “I feel disgusted with myself because I feel pity for him.”

Of the 6,500 members of the SS who ran the Auschwitz extermination machine, only 49 have been convicted of war crimes. If convicted, Mr. Gröning faces prison for three to 15 years.

Mr. Winton has left us few comments to ponder on crimes, guilt and forgiveness. “Why do people do different things?” he said of his own choice to save lives. “Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.” There are now 6,000 descendants of the 669 children for whom he chose to take a risk.

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