Juridical Testimonies after 1945 – Expectations, Contexts and Comparisons

Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow
08.04.2019 - 09.04.2019
Samuel Miner, History, University of Maryland, College Park USA

The workshop was the concluding event of the DFG-funded research project “Opferzeugen in NS-Prozessen. Eine Analyse ihrer wechselhaften Rolle in sechzig Jahren Bundesrepublik” (Victim Witnesses in West German Nazi Trials. An Analysis of their Changing Role in the Sixty-Year History of the Federal Republic) carried out in collaboration between the Dubnow Institute and the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt.

In his greeting to open the workshop, JÖRG DEVENTER (Leipzig) referred to the 1987 John Demjanjuk Trial held in Israel. Many of the questions central to the workshop were then being raised by Israeli public intellectuals such as Yehuda Bauer and Tom Segev. Would it be possible for victims to recognize perpetrators after so many years? What would be the outcome of a trial based largely on victim testimony? With those questions in mind, ELISABETH GALLAS (Leipzig) introduced the joint DFG-project, whose goal was to highlight and critically assess the role of victims as witnesses in the history of Nazi persecution in West Germany. Except for the Eichmann Trial, until recently the testimonies of victim witnesses were perceived as neither significant sources in trials and legal proceedings nor in their historical reconstruction. At the center of this problem lay the tension between witness testimony and the documentary evidence: a tension first borne out by the Nuremberg Trial’s focus on documents instead of witness testimony and seen in numerous trials since.

Further introducing to the project, workshop organizers KATHARINA STENGEL (Leipzig / Frankfurt am Main) and DAGI KNELLESSEN (Leipzig) discussed their parts in the project on the role of witnesses in the Auschwitz and Sobibor trials, respectively. In West German trials, the credibility of victim witnesses was always under suspicion; witnesses were declared to be incapable of “objective truth” in the courtroom because of apparent emotionality, traumas and alleged resentments. While the workshop organizers’ projects focused on trials within West Germany, they looked forward to the comparative national contexts of trials as well as transnational themes which would arise from the coming presentations. These themes included the creation of survivor networks, the role of revenge and justice in witness testimony, and trust – or lack thereof – in legal systems to garner just verdicts.

The first panel of the workshop, chaired by DOMINIQUE TRIMBUR (Paris), discussed “Early Testimonies- Early Trials.” ANNA HÁJKOVÁ (Warwick) began the panel with a discussion of the legal testimony of Theresienstadt Ghetto survivors. Analyzing about 35 trials between 1945 and the 1970s, Hájková found that a small group of survivors of the ghetto exercised their agency over time by insisting on testifying repeatedly to find their own voice. They demanded retaliation against those who had wronged them in the Theresienstadt – prisoners accused of working with the Germans or against fellow inmates were special targets for revenge. Victims also sought to reintegrate themselves into Czech public life by associating their victimhood as Jews with broader Czech narratives and by appealing to the anti-German sentiments in Czech society. The second paper of the panel was given by NATALIA ALEKSIUN (New York/Jena). The presentation analyzed the postwar testimonies of Jewish survivors in Eastern Galicia. Among a sample size of about 90 trials for collaboration in the Holocaust, her talk focused on the trials of one Jewish and one non-Jewish collaborator. Remarkably resilient survivor networks generated testimony for trials in 1945 and 1946. Furthermore, many testimonies were given on behalf of dead friends and family by survivors who had fled to Soviet Union to escape the advancing German Army. In their testimonies, survivors focused on class justice or followed anti-German and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, sometimes downplaying the uniquely Jewish nature of the crimes. In this manner, survivors used the language of the ruling authorities to assure convictions within the Soviet justice system.

Aleksiun’s presentation resonated with the keynote address by GABRIEL FINDER (Charlottesville) on trials in postwar Poland. The talk examined Holocaust trials against German perpetrators between 1944 and 1959. In comparison to highly politicized Polish collaborator trials of the same period, Polish-run genocide trials were akin to proceedings in the West. In Poland, reputable judges were given the job of trying German criminals; the trials exhibited rule of law and due process. While the communist regime generally hijacked the memory of the Holocaust, the role of trials in the politics of memory was still in flux in the postwar. Those trials offered a space for Jewish survivors to testify as part of fair proceedings, giving room to the Jewish memory of the Holocaust. In this period, there was still a chance to bridge the gap between Polish and Jewish memories of persecution during the Second World War.

That evening, workshop participants screened the movie Zeugin aus der Hölle (Witness Out of Hell). The film was a joint German-Yugoslav production from 1966. It depicted a female Jewish camp survivor forced to relive the trauma of the Holocaust when an attorney from the Zentrale Stelle zur Aufklärung der nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen (Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes) wanted her to testify against a concentration camp doctor. It was one of the only depictions of the trauma endured by Holocaust survivors in West German cinema during those years. The screening spurred a discussion about portrayals of victimhood and gender in the film.

Day two of the workshop began with a panel chaired by WERNER KONITZER (Frankfurt an der Oder) on survivor expectations in trials. The first presentation of the day was given by KATARZYNA PERSON (Warsaw). She discussed the importance of stories and oral statements for collaboration trials. The search for postwar justice crossed physical and ethnic borders, as the movement of people and documents necessitated breaking down the divide between east and west in postwar Europe. Extradition of criminals to Poland relied on an extensive network of Polish emigres who could report to Allied or Polish authorities. In the second presentation of the panel, Katharina Stengel discussed the role of revenge in West German Nazi trials. The prevailing desire of postwar German jurists was that of the “neutral objective witnesses,” an outlook which prejudiced against the lived experience of Holocaust survivors. Witnesses saw the trials and their factual statements about the crimes as a possibility to both tell the truth and retaliate against perpetrators. In the 1950s, German jurists’ fears of “Jewish revenge” played an important role in downplaying the necessity of the witness in trials, while in the 1960s and 1970s courts praised Jewish survivors for their “moral maturity” in overcoming desires for revenge. By declaring the emotional suffering of the Holocaust to be a distant memory, West German jurists distanced themselves from the Nazi past.

In the final presentation of the panel, YEHUDIT DORI-DESTON (Jerusalem) discussed the role of the victim witness in the Eichmann and Demjanjuk trials. The prosecution in both trials pursued fundamentally different strategies in employing witness testimony. Prosecutors in the Eichmann Trial could rely on extensive documentation to secure a conviction. Victim witnesses provided contextual evidence about the crimes of the Holocaust generally, but often did not refer to Eichmann specifically. In the Demjanjuk trial, witnesses made the decisive case for the prosecution, because Demjanjuk’s crimes could not be documented. But the survivors’ statements were found to be insufficient to prove that Demjanjuk had been deployed to Treblinka. Instead of giving the witnesses the opportunity to describe the crimes of the Holocaust more broadly, as was the case in the Eichmann Trial, witnesses were limited to repeating meticulous and often trivial details about Treblinka. The statements in the Demjanjuk trial were given little legal or historical significance, and questions arise as to the extent to which the survivors’ statements so many years after the events could be useful as the sole evidence of the prosecution.

The final panel of the workshop, chaired by Elisabeth Gallas, discussed the difficulties of transnational witnessing. PETER DAVIES (Edinburgh) gave the first presentation on the role of interpreters at the first Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial. Interpreters’ main role in trial was to make witnesses accessible to the court. They must negotiate the demands of verbatimness, and readability, all while preserving the integrity of the trial. This all meant making the witness “readable in terms of the court’s knowledge discourses.” Victims’ forms of knowledge which are personal, subjective and embodied need to become the objects of knowledge rather than the subjects. In this way, interpreters must make choices which ultimately destroy the fiction of the neutral interpreter and reinforce power hierarchies within the courtroom setting. While not necessarily intentional or ideological, the decision-making process of the interpreter confines the speech of the witness to linguistic choices which might be pleasing to the court. At the end of the workshop, Dagi Knellessen discussed the transnational witnessing of Sobibor survivors in the context of the West German Sobibor trials. In the first two Sobibor trials in 1950, when some survivors in an interim geographical constellation were still living in Germany, transnational action, which initiated and pushed forward the proceedings, was a constitutive element of testimony unchallenged by the judiciary. In the 1960s, the Zentrale Stelle in Ludwigsburg started the large Sobibor proceedings. After a phase of paralyzed witnessing in the 1950s, connections were resumed primarily within witnesses’ respective countries of residence. Transnationally, the World Jewish Congress acted as a facilitator of witnessing. But although the German judiciary was dependent on the reorganization of witness testimony, that same reorganization led German courtrooms to expound the fiction of a Jewish world conspiracy against Germany.

In workshop presentations and discussions, participants raised several issues, which could stimulate further discussion. Many of the issues surrounded the language of postwar trials: the use of collaboration, describing Holocaust crimes as war crimes versus crimes against humanity, the attributes of revenge versus justice. Those tensions between seemingly dichotomous terms were perhaps a reflection of the very international nature of the workshop presentations. Collaboration, legal terminology, and revenge in witness testimony and trials are terms, which may reflect transnational developments in the postwar world – yet they were also highly dependent on national contexts.

The discussion at the workshop turned to the notion of trust in trials. Katharina Stengel said that this was a term one never heard among victim groups testifying before German courts, as victims felt themselves to be in hostile territory. Peter Davies said that there can be trust on many levels – one can distrust institutions but may trust the interpreter in the courtroom – to which Anna Hájková pointed out that trials can be narrated in many different ways. Yehudit Dori-Deston made the important point that trust “depends on where the witnesses are sitting.” In the Israeli Demjanjuk trial, Israeli witnesses could testify in their own country and in their own language. For most witnesses, testifying meant reliving trauma and being exposed to degrading questioning by defense attorneys eager to de-legitimize witness testimony. Despite this, thousands of Holocaust survivors still chose to bear witness to the brutality of Nazi crimes in front of courts all around the world.

Conference Overview:

Jörg Deventer (Leipzig) / Elisabeth Gallas (Leipzig): Welcome Remarks

Katharina Stengel (Frankfurt am Main) / Dagi Knellessen (Leipzig): Introduction

Panel 1: Early Testimonies- Early Trials
Chair: Dominique Trimbur (Paris)

Anna Hájková (Warwick): Narrative Agency of Theresienstadt Survivors

Natalia Aleksiun (New York): Survivors and Witnesses- Early Jewish Testimonies at Collaboration Trials in Poland

Keynote Lecture

Gabriel Finder (Charlottesville): Jewish Witnesses and Postwar Justice in Communist Poland

Movie Screening: Zeugin aus der Hölle (Witness Out of Hell)

Panel 2: Multiple Expectations
Chair: Werner Konitzer (Frankfurt an der Oder)

Katarzyna Person (Warsaw): Reactions to Postwar Collaboration Trials in Transnational Perspective

Katharina Stengel (Frankfurt am Main): Revenge and Resentment in West German Nazi Trials

Yehudit Dori-Deston (Jerusalem): „The Podium of Law and the Podium of History” The Multifunctional Position of the Survivors Testimonies in the Eichmann and the Demjanjuk Trials

Panel 3 Transnational Witnessing
Chair: Elisabeth Gallas (Leipzig)

Peter Davies (Edinburgh): Knowledge, Testimony, Translation- Interpreters at the First Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

Dagi Knellessen (Leipzig): The Barriers of Transnational Witnessing-German Sobibor Trials in the 1960s

Concluding Discussion

Tagungsbericht: Juridical Testimonies after 1945 – Expectations, Contexts and Comparisons, 08.04.2019 – 09.04.2019 Leipzig, in: H-Soz-Kult, 01.07.2019, <www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-8343>.