A New Nazi War Crimes Trial -- And This Time It's Personal

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alan Elsner Author, 'Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons'

When the trial of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk began in Germany last November, I, like many people, had mixed feelings. As the son of a Holocaust survivor and author of a novel about bringing former Nazis to justice, I instinctively felt there should be no statute of limitations for perpetrators of genocide. On the other hand, seeing this 89-year-old man brought into the courtroom made me fear that people might pity him rather than the victims of his alleged crimes.

But when I recently received a telephone call from a German lawyer, the issue became much more personal. This jurist, who wishes at this point to remain anonymous, told me another Nazi perpetrator had been found who had served at the extermination camp of Belzec in Poland where the Nazis murdered over 500,000 Jews in 1942, my own grandparents among them. He also served at the Trawniki concentration camp, where Demjanjuk allegedly received his training.

Belzec has been an important part of my life for almost 20 years, ever since my first visit there with my father. I was involved in a successful campaign to clean up the sadly-neglected site and build a new memorial. Belzec played a key role in the plot of my novel. But I never imagined that any of the perpetrators were still at large.

Prosecutors in Dortmund, the lawyer told me, were preparing an indictment against a man who has been identified so far only as "Samuel K." German police recently raided his home looking for evidence and questioned him for an hour.

Under German law, victims of a crime or their spouses, siblings or children can be designated as "civil plaintiffs" with their own lawyer representing their interests. This lawyer has access to all documents and can file motions in the court. The lawyer who called me was looking for people willing to sign up as civil plaintiffs. My father, now aged 91, qualifies because his parents were among those murdered.

Belzec, in eastern Poland, was the first place the Nazis used gas chambers. Only two Jews are known to have survived. Both are long dead but one, Rudolf Reder, left a detailed account of his four months in the camp where he worked as a handyman before managing to escape. The average death toll, he wrote, was 10,000 Jews a day. In a memoir, he described the working of the gas chambers: "I heard the doors being shut; I heard shrieks and cries; I heard desperate calls for help in Polish and Yiddish. I heard the blood-curdling wails of women and the squeals of children, which after a short time became one long, horrifying scream."

A relatively small number of Germans and Ukrainians staffed Belzec -- about 20 SS officers and 100 guards. Significantly, in one postwar deposition, Reder identified Samuel K. as one of these and he also appears in an extremely rare photograph of Germans taken at Belzec. This removes a key point of contention. Unlike Demjanjuk, this defendant cannot claim he was not there. Samuel K. himself testified more than once in the 1960s that he was at the camp and knew what was happening there. According to German media reports, he repeated this when recently questioned by Bavarian prosecutors.

In his memoir, Reder described the camp staff he encountered: "Not for a moment did any of them show any human feelings. They tormented and tortured thousands of people from morning until night. At dusk, they went back to their little houses by the railway station."

The important point is that anyone who served at Belzec was involved in mass murder and therefore it is not necessary to find eye-witnesses to testify that a particular individual was involved in a particular act of murder or brutality. An extermination camp is by definition a death factory and all those working in it participate in the machinery of mass murder.

Most of the Belzec perpetrators were never brought to justice. Nine were put on trial in Munich in August 1963. All but one were acquitted. The defendants argued that they were only following orders and would have risked death if they had disobeyed. Moreover, they suggested that the genocide could not have been carried out without the aid of some of the Jews themselves who were forced to act as "kapos." Josef Oberhauser, who played a central role in operating the camp, was the only one convicted. He received a sentence of four-and-a-half years and released after serving only half his sentence.

That was fairly typical of Germany's abysmal record in bringing Nazi perpetrators to justice after the war. In the 1950s and 1960s, opposition to war crimes trials was overwhelming within the legal and political elite -- understandably so, since many of their number were implicated. Samuel K. has apparently been living quietly for decades without anyone troubling him.

It's a terrible pity the German authorities waited until now to bring this case. But when I put the facts to my father, he did not hesitate. "Sign me up," he said. "Anything that contributes to the memory of my parents and the historical record is worth doing, even at this late stage."