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Witnesses for the Prosecution at the Krakow Auschwitz Trial

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust


Postwar Justice

Including newspapers, witness testimonies, and trial verdicts that span the two decades following liberation, the primary sources in this collection show some of the different ways that Jews took part in the struggle to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. 

Efforts to bring perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice spanned several decades. During a period of rapid social and political upheaval in postwar Europe, officials across the continent grappled with difficult questions: How should humanity respond to genocide? What kinds of evidence should be used to prosecute the accused? What punishments should be sought?

This collection of primary sources focuses on Jewish responses to these questions. Jewish perspectives on postwar justice often reflected the unique experiences of Jewish persecution under Nazi rule. The materials included here highlight changing Jewish attitudes about ideas of justice and explore how Jewish involvement in postwar trials helped shape understandings of the Holocaust. 

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The Allied powers established the International Military Tribunal (IMT) shortly after the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. The IMT was a court that represented the international community, with judges from Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. From October 1945 to October 1946, the IMT tried 22 major German war criminals in the city of Nuremberg, Germany. Defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit three types of crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The IMT was created to punish leading offenders and expose the crimes of the Nazi regime to the world. These trials became a foundation for new developments in international law.

Relying largely on evidence produced by the perpetrators themselves, the prosecution marginalized Jewish experiences by leaving little room for survivors' testimonies. The Nuremberg Trial Testimony of Avrom Sutzkever is a rare example of Jewish testimony before the IMT.1 Nevertheless, many Jews followed these events closely. One Jewish reflection on the sentencing of the defendants can be seen in "The Meaning of the Gallows."

The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union also held trials independently in the different zones of occupied Germany. They charged a variety of perpetrators for individual wartime offenses. According to one analysis, at least 3.5 million German citizens were eligible for criminal charges. Among them were many who had committed crimes against Jews.2 Defendants included German officials, concentration camp functionaries, German civilians, and non-German collaborators.3

Jewish historical commissions played an important role as they gathered evidence. The article "Why Historical Commissions?" explains why it was important for Jewish survivors to document the events themselves. These commissions issued calls for information on war criminals and collected testimonies from Jewish eyewitnesses.4

After the division of Germany in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic (East Germany) both held national trials of suspected war criminals. The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was held between 1963 and 1965 in Frankfurt. One of the largest trials ever to take place in West Germany, it featured eyewitness testimonies of Jewish survivors like Otto Wolken.5

Trials of German personnel and local collaborators also occurred in countries that had been occupied by German forces during World War II.6 In the so-called First Auschwitz Trial in 1947, a Polish Supreme National Tribunal prosecuted a group of German Auschwitz officials in Kraków. "On the Auschwitz trial in Kraków (impressions)" offers the perspective of a female survivor encountering her former persecutors in the courtroom. Jewish survivors also called for the prosecution of Poles implicated in the 1941 mass murder of their Jewish neighbors.7

Perhaps the most well-known prosecution of a Nazi war criminal took place more than 15 years after the war's end. In the 1960s, the trial of Adolf Eichmann became the most closely-watched trial of a perpetrator. Eichmann had been an SS officer responsible for organizing the deportations of Jews to ghettos and killing centers in German-occupied Europe. He was captured and brought to Jerusalem to face trial in 1961. Eichmann's trial is sometimes described as the "Jewish Nuremberg," because it highlighted the experiences of Jewish victims. Many Jewish survivors gave testimony on the stand, such as Zivia Lubetkin and Abba Kovner. The televised proceedings attracted an audience of millions and brought the shocking realities of the Holocaust into homes around the world.8

Jewish honor courts formed in Jewish communities and DP camps following the war in order to pass judgment on Jews accused of participating in Nazi persecution. Defendants including former prisoner functionaries in concentration camps, Jewish police officers, and members of the so-called Judenräte (Jewish Councils). Determining the guilt of Jews accused of collaboration was a challenging task for Jewish courts.9

The pursuit of justice after the Holocaust was complex and took place over many years. The sources in this collection show how Jewish survivors impacted the process in a number of different ways. In the decades following the Holocaust, Jews also defined and advanced their own concepts of postwar justice.

For more information on the first round of trials at Nuremberg, see: Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir (New York: Knopf, 2012); Michael R. Marrus, The Nuremberg Trials, 1945-1946: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997); Donald Bloxham, Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). For more on subsequent proceedings, see: Valerie Geneviève Hébert, Hitler's Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Trial at Nuremberg (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010); Hilary Earl, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). For a general source volume covering evidence used in postwar Holocaust trials, see Kevin Mahoney, ed., In Pursuit of Justice: Examining the Evidence of the Holocaust (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1996). 

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), 56.

For more on the complexities of war crimes trials, see Patricia Heberer and Jürgen Matthäus, eds., Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2008).

To learn more about the work of historical commissions, see Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 

For more on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, see Devin O. Pendas, The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963–1965: Genocide, History, and the Limits of the Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 156-157.

For more on war crimes trials held in countries once occupied by Nazi Germany, see István Deak, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt, eds., The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). 

 

For more on the massacre in Jedwabne, see Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

 

An extensive interdisciplinary literature exists commenting on the Eichmann Trial. The most well-known—Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem—has produced an entire literature of its own. Notable works on the Eichmann trial include: Deborah E. Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (New York: Random House, 2011); David Cesarani, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (London: W. Heinemann, 2004); Shoshanna Felman, "Theaters of Justice: Arendt in Jerusalem, the Eichmann Trial, and the Redefinition of Legal Meaning in the Wake of the Holocaust," Critical Inquiry 27, no. 2 (Winter, 2001): 201-238; Lawrence Douglas, The Memory of Judgement: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). 

For more on postwar justice within the Jewish community, see DP Camp Trial File of Chaim Chajet, A Verdict from "Our Camp-tribunal," and Notice on the Execution of Jakub Lejkin. To learn more, see Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder, eds., Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2015).

All 17 Items in the Postwar Justice Collection

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