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Post-Holocaust Testimony

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Auschwitz Trial Testimony of Otto Wolken

Testimony of Otto Wolken
Photo courtesy of the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum; Audio recording courtesy of the Fritz Bauer Institut

The so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was held in Frankfurt, West Germany, from December 1963 to August 1965. Following the 1946 convictions of 23 former Auschwitz personnel in Kraków, it was the second major postwar trial charging a group of Auschwitz camp officials, and the largest trial of war criminals ever convened in West Germany.1

Like the jurists at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, prosecutors in Frankfurt hoped that the trial would educate the public about the Nazi genocide.2 More than 300 witnesses, including over 200 survivors of the camp, were called to testify. Their task was to flesh out the "expert testimony" delivered by historians, providing a view of everyday life in Auschwitz from the prisoners' perspectives. Historian Devin O. Pendas notes that their narratives touched on three main themes: the terrible conditions in the camp, the perverse bureaucratic logic with which death was organized, and the degree of individual responsibility exercised by the SS in Auschwitz.3 

All of these thematic strands appear in the testimony of Otto Wolken, an Austrian Jewish physician imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. Wolken managed to survive working as a camp doctor, and later provided key information on the processes undergirding the campaign of extermination in Nazi death camps. Immediately following the liberation of Auschwitz in January of 1945, Wolken wrote a chronicle of his experiences in the camp. In 1946, he was called as a witness to testify before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.   

As the first survivor to take the stand in Frankfurt, Wolken testified for two hours, describing in harrowing detail atrocities committed by the camp's doctors. His testimony was particularly revealing: one of the few Jews who played an important auxiliary role in the administration of the camp, Wolken had worked closely with members of the SS. In the featured passage, remarkable for both its accuracy and detail, he interweaves factual information and an emotional reflection on his encounters with children sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. At the same time, his narrative recounts the desperate yet defiant forms of agency still exercised by the camp's prisoners. 

For more on the Kraków trial, see the item "On the Auschwitz Trial in Kraków (impressions)" included in this collection. 

See The Eichmann Trial Testimony of Zivia Lubetkin in this collection to learn more about the prosecution's preparation and approach.

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. Despite massive coverage from the German media, Pendas concludes that the didactic goals of the trial went unfulfilled; the proceedeings did not succeed in captivating West Germans' attention. Ibid, 286-287. See also Rebecca Wittmann, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). 

Translation of Wolken's testimony is courtesy of the Fritz Bauer Institut.

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There are three other incidents that remain with me, which I have not been able to forget because they involve children.1 It was after the big selection on January 21. One of those who was to be gassed lost his nerve and was raving and screaming. And so I was sent from the clinic into the block to see what could be done. There was also a little boy in there, who had been with us in the camp, from the town of Będzin. I asked him: 'Well, Jurek, how are you?' and he said, 'I'm not scared. It's all so horrible here, it can only be better up there.' There were two convoys which came from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, in three-month intervals. They had been condemned, as I only learned later, to exactly six months in the camp. So in exactly six months time everyone in the first convoy would be sent into the gas chambers. Those in the second convoy, which arrived three months later than the first, were still in the camp and I witnessed a block elder, speaking with a nine-year-old boy from the Czech camp, from the Theresienstadt camp, with good rapport. He said to the boy: "Oh, Karli, you know so much!" And the boy replied: 'I know that I know a lot. And I also know that I will not learn any more than I already know, and that's the sad part.'

One time, it was already summer—and we rarely had any children, they usually only came to us by chance—a group of ninety children arrived all at once. The ghetto in Kaunas had been emptied, the women were sent to Stutthof and the male children with their parents, with the fathers, were sent to Dachau. From Dachau the children were sent to Auschwitz, and ended up in the quarantine camp. They stayed with us for a while and then they were sent off and gassed. The head of the group was a fourteen-year-old boy and he encouraged them, saying: 'Just get on, onto the vehicle.' And when he had gotten on himself and the children began to yell, he said: 'Don't shout, you saw how they murdered your parents and grandparents? Well, now it's our turn. We will see them all again up there.' And then turning to the SS-men: 'But, don't for one minute think that you'll get off lightly! You'll all going to croak just as you're sending us to croak!' They beat him, but he'd said exactly what he'd felt was necessary at that moment. A brave kid!"

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Photo courtesy of the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum
Audio recording courtesy of the Fritz Bauer Institut
External Website Fritz Bauer Institut
Date Created
February 24, 1964
Duration 00:04:16
Frankfurt am Main, West Germany (historical)
Sound Recording Type Recorded Testimony
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