The murder of six million Jews encompasses crimes of unimaginable horror, but less than one per cent of Nazi war criminals were ever brought to trial. This paucity of justice makes the conviction of SS guard Oskar Groening such an important legal milestone, Eli Rubenstein, national director of the March of the Living, told about 150 people gathered at Congregation Habonim in Toronto on Nov. 5.
They had come to hear learn about Groening’s historic trial in Germany in 2015, an event author Kathy Kacer documented with Jordana Lebowitz in the book, To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A teen’s account of a war criminal trial.
Kacer discussed the trial and introduced some key witnesses in an event presented by March of the Living and Second Story Press, as part of Holocaust Education Week.
Leibowitz was 19 when she blogged about the trial for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. She also wrote about some of the survivors who testified against Groening, a man who became known as “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz.”
After hearing about Groening’s impending trial, Lebowitz, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and past March of the Living participant, said she was determined to be a witness to the historic event.
She said that the conviction of the frail-looking 94-year-old former SS guard meant there would be a legal record of his guilt.
Kacer noted that the person responsible for bringing Groening to trial was Thomas Walther, a retired German judge who took it upon himself to investigate Nazi war crimes.
In 2011, Walther had succeeded in getting John Demjanjuk convicted for war crimes, on the grounds that the former SS guard at the Sobibor death camp had been an accessory to the murder of 28,000 Jews.
Kacer explained that Walther had established a new legal precedent: people could be convicted of war crimes for “being part of the Nazi killing machine,” even if they weren’t directly responsible for a particular individual’s death.
The landmark case against Demjanjuk led to Groening’s war crimes trial and subsequent conviction. Walther represented a group of 70 Holocaust survivors from around the world, including three Holocaust survivors from Toronto – Hedy Bohm, Max Eisen and Bill Glied – all of whom addressed the gathering.
From May to July 1944, 425,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, where 300,000 were murdered shortly after their arrival.
Groening’s conviction for being an accomplice to the murders was based on the testimony of 70 Holocaust survivors, some of whom testified that he was seen “collecting” valuables from the belongings of the Hungarian Jews who arrived at Auschwitz.
Lebowitz, who was given a standing ovation, described Groening’s testimony as cold and detached.
“The trial was not as much about achieving justice, as about sending a message to the world that there are consequences,” she said.
Bohm recalled the day she received a telephone message from Walters, asking her to testify against Groening. “There was no way that I wanted to go back to Germany. All the fears came back to me, but after thinking about it, I realized I must go,” she told the audience.
Glied, whose parents and sister were murdered in Auschwitz, said it was chilling to hear Groening testify about “the ‘orderly process’ in which people were unloaded, selected and marched to the gas chambers.”
Eisen, author of the memoir, By Chance Alone, recalled being asked by Groening’s lawyer if he could recognize the defendant.
Such an identification was an impossible task,” he said. “When we were stopped by SS guards, we were not allowed to look into an SS guard’s eyes. We had to look down.”
Being in a German court was very stressful, he said. “Jordana was a bright light.”