The trials against Nazi perpetrators in Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany represented an earlier engagement with the crimes of the Holocaust than took place in other fields. In both countries, this broke the social resistance, motivated in each society for entirely different reasons, towards engaging with the Jewish catastrophe on the one hand and with the German perpetrators on the other. Hundreds of survivors testified in Israel and West Germany in enquiries and criminal proceedings against the perpetrators. In the courts, the survivors often for the first time were able to publicly articulate their knowledge and experience, even if in a legally regulated form. Concepts and categories describing events and contexts of the Holocaust were developed which were to inform the engagement with Nazi crimes for a long time to come. Aside from the spectacular appearance of 110 survivors in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, the impact of which has been researched extensively, little is known to date about the concrete circumstances, conditions, and consequences of the appearance of survivors as legal witnesses in Israel and Germany, and the corresponding source materials are hardly used in scholarship. Moreover, hardly any systematic analyses exist in either country on the development of legal engagements with Nazi crimes in the 1970s and 1980s, following the much publicized trials of Nazis in Jerusalem and Frankfurt am Main. The divergent legal basis in each country – in Israel the 1950 “Nazi and Nazi Collaborators law” and in West Germany the regular German criminal law – had in certain areas a massive impact on the function of Jewish witnesses and their position in the trials of Nazis. Nevertheless, parallel developments are discernible in the period after the 1970s with regard to the legal recognition of survivors and their testimonies, which essentially point to an advancing schism between law and society: While the social perception of Holocaust survivors as public contemporary witnesses rose successively, their significance as legal witnesses continuously fell.
Katharina Stengel (Leipzig/ Frankfurt am Main)
Introduction and Chair
Leo Gürtler (Wien)
Witness Testimony of Treblinka Survivors in the Stangl Trial in Düsseldorf, 1970
The Stangl trial, which took place from May to December 1970, was one of the longest and most comprehensive criminal procedures against an individual Nazi perpetrator in West Germany. Numerous survivors of Treblinka testified at the trial, some of whom had already testified only a few years previously before the same court in the trial of Kurt Franz and nine other SS men from Treblinka. Their witness testimony is of special importance for the historiography of the “Operation Reinhard” camps as hardly any sources pertaining to this program of murder have survived. Having for a long time been almost completely forgotten in German-language research, they are now being scrutinized in new studies. This presentation offers a systematic overview of the testimonies of Treblinka survivors in the criminal trial of Franz Stangl in Düsseldorf.
Dagi Knellessen (Leipzig)
The Failure of Witness Testimony: Jewish Survivors in the West German Sobibor Trials in the 1970s and 1980s
Altogether five trials took place in West Germany relating to Nazi crimes in the extermination camp at Sobibor. In the 1970s and 1980s, the crimes of the Sobibor perpetrators Hubert Gomerski and Karl Frenzel, who had already been convicted previously, were brought once more to trial. In both retrials, the courts sentenced the perpetrators to lower penalties, which could only be achieved by impeaching the credibility of the jewish witnesses and their testimonies. The paradoxes that had shaped the witness appearances of Sobibor survivors in the West German trials of Nazis since 1949 became particularly potent in these decades.
Yehudith Dori Deston (Jerusalem/Leipzig)
“Please tell his honor the Judge that I cannot tell him everything that occurred there”: Treblinka Survivors on the Witness Stand in the Demjanjuk Trial in Israel 1986–1993
Twenty-five years after the Eichmann trial, the Demjanjuk trial was the last Holocaust criminal trial in Israel. Demjanjuk was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” who operated the gas chambers in Treblinka. Five survivors of Treblinka were called to the witness stand at the Jerusalem District Court, and their testimonies led to conviction of the accused and to a death penalty. Five years later, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction due to reasonable doubt. The legal result of the trial caused the disappearance of the survivors' testimonies, despite their tremendous historic value. Through the discussion of the Demjanjuk Israeli trial, the presentation will seek to draw general conclusions relating to the limitations of legal proceedings in coping with the Holocaust and its collective memory.
Ingo Loose (Berlin)