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Nuremberg Trial Testimony of Avrom Sutzkever

Sutzkever, Avraham Testimony 1946
Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
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tags: ghettos law & the courts

type: Raw Footage

From October 18, 1945, to October 1, 1946, the Allied-led International Military Tribunal prosecuted twenty-two German leaders on charges that included the newly established category "crimes against humanity." This effort resulted in the vast gathering of evidence that provided much of the backbone of future Holocaust research. The chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, Justice Robert Jackson, made the choice to rely primarily upon documents rather than witness statements. He explained this decision thusly:

"The decision [...] was to use and rest on documentary evidence to prove every point possible. The argument against this was that documents are dull, the press would not report on them, the trial would become wearisome and would not get across to the people. There was much truth in this position, I must admit. But it seemed to me that witnesses, many of them persecuted and hostile to the Nazis, would always be chargeable with bias, faulty recollection, and even perjury. the documents could not be accused of partiality, forgetfulness, or invention, and would make the sounder foundation, not only for the immediate guidance of the tribunal, but for the ultimate verdict of history. The result was that the tribunal declared, in its judgment, 'The case, therefore, against the defendants rests in a large measure on documents of their own making.'"1

However, while witness testimony was sparse, it was, nevertheless, still present, albeit under specific circumstances. One such example is the Nuremberg testimony of Yiddish poet and partisan fighter Avrom Sutzkever. Sutzkever was a prominent member of the communist partisans. He was born in Vilna, and maintained strong ties to the partisans of Vilna during the war. Sutzkever was also a prolific Yiddish poet before, during, and after the war. Indeed, when he agreed to testify at the Nuremberg trials, he asked to speak in Yiddish, his mother tongue. This wish was not to be granted; since Yiddish was not an official trial language, Sutzkever testified in Russian instead. Sutzkever wrote in his diary on February 17, 1946:

"I will go to Nuremberg [...] I feel the crushing responsibility that I bear on this journey. I pray that the vanished souls of the martyrs will manifest themselves through my words. I want to speak in Yiddish, any other language is out of the question. I spoke about this with Ehrenburg, prosecutor Smirnov, and all the others.2 I wish to speak in the language of the people whom the accused attempted to exterminate. I wish to speak our mameloshn.3 May it ring out and may Alfred Rosenberg crumble.4 May my language triumph at Nuremberg as a symbol of perdurance."5

Sutzkever's testimony is part of a larger discussion on resistance during the war that should be put into context with its contemporary counterparts. How his testimony might have differed had he delivered it in Yiddish remains unknown.6

Quoted in Whitney Harris, Tyranny on Trial: the Evidence at Nuremberg (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995), xxxv-xxxvi.

Ilya Ehrenburg, a leading member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee; Lev Smirnov, the assistant chief prosecutor for the Soviet Union at the Nuremburg trial.

"Mother tongue" in Yiddish; also, a frequent way Yiddish speakers refer to Yiddish in Yiddish.

Alfred Rosenberg was one of key Nazi ideologues, on trial at Nuremberg. See his recently discovered diary digitized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Quoted in Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 31.

A translation of Sutzkever’s testimony can be found in the Yale Law School's Avalon Project.

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Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 81

SIXTY-NINTH DAY, Wednesday, 27 February 1946

Morning Session

[...]

 

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Your Honors, I would like to recall to you certain figures which I mentioned yesterday afternoon. I am speaking about the number of Jews who were exterminated in Poland and Czechoslovakia. I allow myself to remind the Tribunal that the figures I mentioned yesterday, which were based on the report of the Polish Government, show that 3 million Jews in Poland have been exterminated. In Czechoslovakia out of 118,000 Jews only 6,000 remain.

 

I beg the Tribunal to call to this Court a witness who will confirm these data. He is Abram Gerzevitch Sutzkever, a Jewish writer, who together with his family became a victim of the German fascist criminals who had temporarily occupied the territory of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. I beg the Tribunal to allow me to question this witness.

[The witness, Sutzkever, took the stand.]

THE PRESIDENT: What is your name?

AVROM GERZEVITCH SUTZKEVER (Witness): Sutzkever.

THE PRESIDENT: Are you a Soviet citizen?

SUTZKEVER: Yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Will you repeat after me: I -- and mention your name -- citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- summoned as a witness in this Trial -- do promise and swear -- in the presence of the Court -- to tell the Court nothing but the truth -- about everything I know in regard to this case.

[The witness repeated the oath in Russian.]

THE PRESIDENT: You may sit down, if you wish.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Please tell me, Witness, where did the German occupation find you?

SUTZKEVER: In the town of Vilna.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: You stayed in this town for long time during the German occupation?

SUTZKEVER: I stayed there from the first to nearly the last day of the occupation.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: You witnessed the persecution of the Jews in that city?

SUTZKEVER: Yes.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: I would like you to tell the Court about this.

SUTZKEVER: When the Germans seized my city, Vilna, about 80,000 Jews lived in the town. Immediately the so-called Sonderkommando was set up at 12 Vilenskaia Street, under the command of Schweichenberg and Martin Weiss. The man-hunters of the Sonderkommandos, or as the Jews called them, the "Khapun,' broke into the Jewish houses at any time of day or night, dragged away the men, instructing them to take a piece of soap and a towel and herded them into certain buildings near the village of Ponari about 8 kilometers from Vilna. From there hardly one returned. When the Jews found out that their kin were not coming back, a large part of the population went into hiding. However, the Germans tracked them with police dogs. Many were found, and any who were averse to going with them were shot on the spot.

I have to say that the Germans declared that they were exterminating the Jewish race as though legally.

On 8 July an order was issued which stated that all Jews should wear a patch on their back; afterwards they were ordered to wear it on their chest. This order was signed by the commandant of the town of Vilna, Zehupfennig. But 2 days later some other commandant named Neumann issued a new order that they should not wear these patches but must wear the yellow Star of David.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: And what does this yellow Star of David mean?

SUTZKEVER: It was a six-pointed patch worn on the chest and on the back, in order to distinguish the Jews from the other inhabitants of the town. On another day they were ordered to wear a blue band with a white star. The Jews did not know which insignia to wear as very few lived in the town. Those who did not wear this sign were immediately arrested and never seen again.

On 17 July 1941 I witnessed a large pogrom in Vilna on Novgorod Street. The inciters of this pogrom were the forenamed Schweichenberg and Martin Weiss, a certain Herring, and Schonhaber, a German Gestapo chief. They surrounded this district with Sonderkommandos. They drove all the men into the street, told them to take off their belts and to put their hands on their heads like this [demonstrating]. When that order had been complied with, all the Jews were driven along into the Lukshinaia prison. When the Jews started to march off, their trousers fell down and they couldn't walk. Those who tried to hold up their trousers with their hands were shot then and there in the street. When we walked in a column down the street, I saw with my own eyes the bodies of about 100 or 150 persons who had been shot in the street. Blood streamed through the street as if a red rain had fallen.

In the first days of August 1941 a German seized me in the Dokumenskaia Street. I was then going to visit my mother. The German said to me, "Come with me, you will act in the circus." As I went along I saw that another German was driving along an old Jew, the old rabbi of this street, Kassel, and a third German was holding a young boy. When we reached the old synagogue on this street I saw that wood was piled up there in the shape of a pyramid. A German drew out his revolver and told us to take off our clothes. When we were naked, he lit a match and set fire to this stack of wood. Then another German brought out of the synagogue three scrolls of the Torah, gave them to us, and told us to dance around this bonfire and sing Russian songs. Behind us stood the three Germans; with their bayonets they forced us toward the fire and laughed. When we were almost unconscious, they left.

I must say that the mass extermination of the Jewish people in Vilna began at the moment when District Commissar Hans Fincks arrived, as well as the referent, or reporter on the Jewish problems, Muhrer. On 31 August, under the direction of District Commissioner Fincks and Muhrer...

THE PRESIDENT: Which year?

SUTZKEVER: 1941.

THE PRESIDENT: Go on.

SUTZKEVER: Under the direction of Fincks and Muhrer, the Germans surrounded the old Jewish quarter of Vilna, taking in Rudnitskaia and Jewish Streets, Galonsky Alley, the Shabelsky and Strashouna Streets, where some 8 to 10 thousand Jews were living.

I was ill at the time and asleep. Suddenly I felt the lash of a whip on me. When I jumped up from my bed I saw Schweichenberg standing in front of me. He had a big dog with him. He was beating everybody and shouting that we must all run out into the courtyard. When I was out in the courtyard, I saw there many women, children, and aged persons -- all the Jews who lived there. Schweichenberg had the Sonderkommando surround all this crowd and said that they were taking us to the ghetto. But, of course, like all their statements, this was also a lie. We went through the town in columns and were led toward Lutishcheva Prison. All knew that we were going to our death. When we arrived at Lutishcheva Prison, near the so-called Lutishkina market, I saw a whole double line of German soldiers with white sticks standing there to receive us. While we had to pass between them they beat us with sticks. If a Jew fell down, the one next to him was told to pick him up and carry him through the large prison gates which stood open. Near the prison I took to my heels. I swam across the River Vilia and hid in my mother's house. My wife, who was put in prison and then managed to escape later on, told me that there she saw the well-known Jewish scientist Moloch Prilutzky, who was almost dead, the president of the Jewish Society of Vilna, Dr. Jacob Wigotzky, and the young Jewish historian, Pinkus Kohn. The famous artists Hash and Kadisch were lying dead. The Germans flogged, robbed, then drove away all their victims to Ponari.

On 6 September at 6 o'clock in the morning thousands of Germans, led by District Commissar Fincks, by Muhrer, Schweichenberg, Martin Weiss, and others, surrounded the whole town, broke into the Jewish houses, and told the inhabitants to take only that which they could carry off in their hands and get out into the street. Then they were driven off to the ghetto. When they were passing by Wilkomirowskaia Street where I was, I saw the Germans had brought sick Jews from the hospitals. They were all in blue hospital gowns. They were all forced to stand while a German newsreel operator, who was driving in front of the column, filmed this scene.

I must say that not all the Jews were driven into the ghetto. Fincks did this on purpose. He drove the inhabitants of one street to the ghetto and the inhabitants of another street to Ponari. Previously the Germans had set up two ghettos in Vilna. In the first were 29,000 Jews, and in the second some 15,000 Jews. About half the Jewish population of Vilna never reached the ghetto; they were shot on the way. I remember how, when we arrived at the ghetto . . .

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Just a moment, Witness. Did I understand you correctly, that before the ghetto was set up, half the Jewish population of Vilna was already exterminated?

SUTZKEVER: Yes, that is right. When I arrived at the ghetto I saw the following scene: Martin Weiss came in with a young Jewish girl. When we went in farther, he took out his revolver and shot her on the spot. The girl's name was Gitele Tarlo.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Tell us, how old was this girl?

SUTZKEVER: Eleven. I must state that the Germans organized the ghetto only to exterminate the Jewish population with greater ease. The head of the ghetto was the expert on Jewish questions, Muhrer, and he issued a series of mad orders. For instance, Jews were forbidden to wear watches. The Jews could not pray in the ghetto. When a German passed by, they had to take off their hats but were not allowed to look at him.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Were these official orders?

SUTZKEVER: Yes, issued by Muhrer.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Were they posted?

SUTZKEVER: Yes, they were posted in the ghetto. The same Muhrer, when he visited the ghetto, went into the shops where the Jews were working for him and ordered all workers to fall down on the ground and bark like dogs. On Atonement Day in 1941 Schweichenberg and the same Sonderkommando broke into the second ghetto and seized all the old men who were praying in the synagogues and drove them to Ponari. I remember when Schweichenberg went to the second ghetto and the man-hunters seized the Jews.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Who were these hunters?

SUTZKEVER: The soldiers of the Sonderkommando who seized the Jews and whom the population called the hunters.

 

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: So they were soldiers of the Sonderkommando, whom the population called hunters?

SUTZKEVER: Yes, that is so. These hunters dragged the Jews out of the cellars and tried to drive them to Ponari. But the Jews knew that nobody returned alive and did not want to go. Then Schweichenberg began to shoot at the inhabitants of the ghetto. I remember that there was a big dog at his side; and when this dog heard the shots, it jumped at Schweichenberg and began to bite his throat like a mad dog. Then Schweichenberg killed this dog and told the Jews to bury it and to cry over its grave. We really cried then -- we cried because it was not Schweichenberg but the dog that had been buried.

At the end of December 1941 an order was issued in the ghetto which stated that the Jewish women must not bear children.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: I would like you to tell us how, or in what form, this order was issued by the German fascists.

SUTZKEVER: Muhrer came to the hospital in Street Number 6 and said that an order had come from Berlin to the effect that Jewish women should not bear children and that if the Germans found out that a Jewish woman had given birth, the child would be exterminated.

Towards the end of December in the ghetto my wife gave birth to a child, a boy. I was not in the ghetto at that time, having escaped from one of these so-called "actions." When I came to the ghetto later I found that my wife had had a baby in a ghetto hospital. But I saw the hospital surrounded by Germans and a black car standing before the door. Schweichenberg was standing near the car, and the hunters of the Sonderkommando were dragging sick and old people out of the hospital and throwing them like logs into the truck. Among them I saw the well-known Jewish writer and editor, Grodnensky, who was also dragged and dumped into this truck.

In the evening when the Germans had left, I went to the hospital and found my wife in tears. It seems that when she had had her baby, the Jewish doctors of the hospital had already received the order that Jewish women must not give birth; and they had hidden the baby, together with other newborn children, in one of the rooms. But when this commission with Muhrer came to the hospital, they heard the cries of the babies. They broke open the door and entered the room. When my wife heard that the door had been broken, she immediately got up and ran to see what was happening to the child. She saw one German holding the baby and smearing something under its nose. Afterwards he threw it on the bed and laughed. When my wife picked up the child, there was something black under his nose. When I arrived at the hospital, I saw that my baby was dead. He was still warm.

On the next day I went to my mother in the ghetto, and I found her room empty. A prayer book was still open on the table and a glass of tea, not yet touched. I learned that in the night the Germans had surrounded this house, seized all the inhabitants, and driven them off to Ponari. In the last days of December 1941 Muhrer gave a present to the ghetto. A carload of shoes belonging to the Jews executed at Ponari was brought into the ghetto. He sent these old shoes as a gift to the ghetto. Among them I recognized my mother's.

Shortly afterwards the second ghetto was liquidated, and the German newspaper in Vilna announced that the Jews from this district had died of an epidemic.

On 23 December 1941, in the night, Muhrer came and distributed among the population 3,000 yellow tickets, the so-called Ausweise. Those who had these tickets were allowed to register their relatives; that meant some 9,000 persons. At that time about 18 to 20 thousand people lived in the ghetto. Those who had these yellow tickets went to work the next day; and the others, who remained in the ghetto without these tickets and did not want to go to their death, were slaughtered in the ghetto itself. The rest were driven away to Ponari.

I have a document which I found after the liberation of the town of Vilna, concerning the Jewish clothing from Ponari. If this document interests you I can show it to you.

THE PRESIDENT: Do you have the document?

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: I do not know of this document either, Mr. President.

SUTZKEVER: [Continuing.] This document reads as follows -- I will read only a few lines...

[The witness read the document in German, and only part of it was translated. It was later identified as Document USSR-444.]

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Witness, as you have read this document, you must hand it over to the Tribunal, as otherwise we cannot judge this document.

SUTZKEVER: Certainly.

THE PRESIDENT: Will you tell us first of all where the document was found?

SUTZKEVER: I found this document at the district commissioner's building in Vilna, in July 1944, when our city was already liberated from the German invaders.

 

THE PRESIDENT: Where did you say it was found?

SUTZKEVER: In the building of the District Commissar in Vilna on the Gedemino Street.

THE PRESIDENT: Was that the building occupied by the Germans?

SUTZKEVER: Yes, it was the headquarters of the German District Commissioner of Vilna. Hans Fincks and Muhrer lived there.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, read the part of the document you were reading just now; we did not hear it.

SUTZKEVER: Certainly.

"To the District Commissioner at Vilna: Pursuant to your order, the old Jewish clothing from Ponari is at present being disinfected by this establishment and delivered to the administration of Vilna."

THE PRESIDENT: Will you hand it in, please?

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Please, Witness, I am interested in the following question: You said that at the beginning of the German occupation 80,000 Jews lived in Vilna. How many remained after the German occupation?

SUTZKEVER: After the occupation about 600 Jews remained in Vilna.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Thus, 79,400 persons were exterminated?

SUTZKEVER: Yes.

MR. COUNSELOR SMIRNOV: Your Honors, I have no further questions to ask of the witness.

THE PRESIDENT: Does any other Chief Prosecutor want to ask any questions?

SIR DAVID MAXWELL-FYFE: No questions.

MR. DODD: No questions.

THE PRESIDENT: Does any member of the defendants' counsel wish to ask any questions? No? Then the witness can retire.

[The witness left the stand.]

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
RG Number 60.2842
Accession Number 2001.358.1
Date Created
February 27, 1946
Duration 00:10:22
Sound Yes
Language(s)
Russian
Location
Nuremberg, Germany
Reference Location
Vilnius, Lithuania
Wilno, Poland (historical)
Moving Image Type Raw Footage
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