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Witnesses for the Prosecution at the Krakow Auschwitz Trial

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust


Postwar Justice

Featuring sources spanning the two decades following liberation, this collection examines the postwar pursuit of justice for genocide. Commentary from the Jewish press, witness testimony, and verdicts from war crimes trials show how Jews worked to prosecute the Holocaust's perpetrators.

The effort to bring the Holocaust's perpetrators to justice spanned several decades and evolved during a period of rapid social and political upheaval in postwar Europe. Amidst devastation and hope for renewal, officials in courtrooms across the continent grappled with daunting questions: How should humanity respond to genocide? How should guilt be determined? What kinds of evidence should be used to prosecute the accused? What punishment would be appropriate for such unimaginable cruetly? In light of the scope of Axis crimes, was "justice" even attainable?

This collection of sources focuses on Jewish responses to these questions. The materials included here highlight changing Jewish attitudes toward notion of "justice," explore how trials helped to shape knowledge and memories of persecution, and influenced the ways in which Jews were included—or excluded—from new understandings of the Holocaust. They also consider how Jewish voices contrasted with dominant theories of jurisprudence, as well as discussion surrounding the moral codes to govern postwar Jewish life.

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In the wake of their victory over Nazi Germany, the Allied powers established the International Military Tribunal (IMT), a judicial body representing the international community and composed of 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 (according to their function within the Third Reich) 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. Nuremberg's architects intended the IMT and later trials to serve not just as a means of retribution, but as a forum for the moral re-education of German society. It would also provide the foundation for reforming international law to prevent future armed conflict. Using evidence of Nazi crimes produced in large part by the perpetrators themselves, the prosecution marginalized Jewish experiences by leaving little room for victims' testimonies.1  

The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union held trials in their respective zones of occupied Germany. They charged a variety of "lesser" perpetrators for wartime offenses. In some respects, this was an impossible task. 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 While overshadowed by the Nuremberg trials—and thus little remembered today—the thousands of lower-profile trials held in postwar Germany represented a large undertaking. Suspected war criminals, including German officials, concentration camp functionaries, and German civilians, as well as non-Germans who collaborated with the Third Reich, became the objects of investigations that attested to the scale of Nazi crimes.3 Jewish historical commissions, archivists, and historians actively participated in gathering evidence for these trials.4

Following the division of Germany in 1949, both West Germany and the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic convened national courts to try suspected war criminals. This collection includes a source from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, held between 1963 and 1965 in Frankfurt. One of the largest ever to take place in West Germany, the trial featured firsthand testimonies of Jewish survivors that showed the degree to which German complicity in the Holocaust extended well beyond a handful of high-ranking Nazis.5

Thousands of war criminals, both German military personnel and local collaborators, also faced trial in countries once occupied by German armies.6 Whether they fell within the spheres of Soviet or Western influence, the governments of Europe's liberated nations often regarded these trials as critical to their own legitimacy, and used them to settle scores or generate social cohesion. As a result, national courts often avoided trying crimes that challenged notions of collective victimhood. Sources included here touch on two such trials that took place in Poland. In the so-called First Auschwitz Trial, a Polish Supreme National Tribunal in 1947 prosecuted a group of German Auschwitz officials in Kraków. This source offers a rare perspective on the trial: that of a female victim encountering her former persecutors in the courtroom. Another set of trials showcases survivors' calls for the prosecution of Poles implicated in the 1941 mass murders of their Jewish neighbors. Controversies raised by postwar revelations about Poles' collaboration in the Holocaust are also considered here.7

The most closely-watched single trial of a Nazi war criminal took place more than 15 years after the war's end: Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer responsible for organizing the deportations of Jews to ghettos and death camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, was captured and brought to Jerusalem to face trial in 1961. Eichmann's trial is sometimes described as the "Jewish Nuremberg" because it re-centered the experiences of Jewish victims, many of whom gave testimony on the stand. The televised proceedings attracted an audience of millions and brought the shocking realities of the Holocaust into homes around the world. Moreover, Eichmann's trial presaged a major shift in collective memory of the genocide.8

A final set of documents in this collection come from Jewish honor courts convened in Jewish communities and DP camps following the war. Brought before these courts were Jews accused of collaboration with the Nazis, including former prisoner-functionaries in concentration camps, Jewish policemen, and members of Judenräte. The courts' sentences reflected the circumstances surrounding particular cases. But they also reflected contemporary debates about which core values were to govern an emergent Jewish society composed of survivors. Faced with an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion, determining the guilt of Jews often coerced into collaboration with the Nazis often proved a challenging task for Jewish courts.9

The pursuit of justice after the Holocaust unfolded during a period of chaotic geopolitical realignment and was at times supported by blurred understandings of the past. However, these sources complicate the popular view that a preference for stability obscured more nuanced, Jewish-centered narratives of Holocaust history and memory. Instead, the attempts to bear witness to, as well as to assess and assign responsibility for mass murder have proven both elusive and dynamic. Even as they often struggled to gain a voice in local, national, and international proceedings against perpetrators, in the decades following the war Jews debated, reflected, and acted upon their own conceptions of vengeance, communal values, and the nature of "justice" itself.

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).

For more on 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 this subject, 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 16 Items in the Postwar Justice Collection