On Nov. 20, 1945, at age 22, having been kicked out of school in the seventh grade because I was a Jew, after surviving five and a half years in Nazi forced labor and concentration camps — among them Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, Buchenwald and Berga — and seven months after my escape from the final death march, I entered the press gallery in the courtroom of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. It was the opening of the International Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and I was there as a reporter for the German news agency, DANA.
In front of me were the 21 defendants, the surviving top leaders of the Nazi regime. There was Hermann Goering, wearing his Reichsmarshall uniform. There were Rudolf Hess, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Julius Streicher. All the men responsible for what happened to us Jews during the Holocaust.
I could not keep my eyes off them. Often I had the urge to face them: “Why? Why? What had I done? Why did you kill my parents? My 85-year-old grandmother? Losing my education, my friends!
“But I can’t. I am here as a reporter,” I said to myself.
On Nov. 21, 2005, 60 years later, at the invitation of the German government, I am in Berlin to address a major German audience on the 60th anniversary commemoration of the opening of this historic event. If someone would have told me in Auschwitz that I would be in Berlin 60 years after my run for freedom, 60 years after the Nuremberg trials, I would have thought they were out of their minds.
Back then, my first thought when I entered the press gallery was of my parents and my friends who were brutally murdered and who would never know that there would come a day when those responsible for their murder could be brought to justice. It seemed unreal, incongruous. I could not believe this was real, that I was not dreaming.
I will always remember one defendant after another being asked: “How do you plead?” The answer: “Not guilty.”
Of all the incredulous moments at the trial three stand out in my memory.
The first was when the Russian prosecution showed a short film: The footage was taken as the Russian army took over the Auschwitz complex on Jan. 27, 1945. Nine days before, on Jan. 18, we the 60,000 surviving inmates were sent on foot, on a three-day death march to the West in the freezing cold Polish winter. It must have been quite a sight, 60,000 of us in our blue and gray striped clothes marching through the countryside. Half survived.
The courtroom went dark. I could not take my eyes off the screen. It showed the remains of the gas chambers, the crematoria, the hundreds of wooden barracks, the bodies piled up. There was little narration. The pictures spoke for themselves.
This is how we lived. Five hundred men in one barracks. No toilets, no water. Three men in a cot on straw, never knowing whether we would live to see the next day. Five hundred calories a day. That was my life. Life expectancy: four to six months. Slaves were treated better. This is how my friends died. This was Auschwitz, a name that will forever be part of history.
I never gave up hope, but I will never understand how I survived.
When the lights went on I looked at the defendants. Some were smiling. “Propaganda!” I was told was their major reaction.
The second memory was the day that Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, entered the witness stand. This Hoess [different from Rudolf Hess, who was Hitler’s deputy] was bent over and read what was one of the most horrifying statements ever made in a courtroom.
In a monotonous tone, he stated that according to his estimate, 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz. Another 500,000 died from hunger. Most were Jews. In fact, he exaggerated. The actual number was “only” 1.5 million. My parents were among them when they were deported to Auschwitz. I arrived there in 1943. That day they needed laborers, otherwise I would not be alive.
The third most memorable event of the trial was my bizarre meeting with Goering.
One day I ran into his defense attorney, Dr. Otto Stahmer. He told me he had read my articles in the German papers.
“So you really were in Auschwitz and Buchenwald?” he asked. Then he told me that Goering had also been reading my articles.
A few days later he approached me and asked whether I would be interested to meet Goering. I was flabbergasted. Why would Goering want to meet me?
I agreed, so one day after the end of the daily proceedings, Dr. Stahmer took me to meet him. He made it clear that I could not write or talk about it.
I must admit I was nervous. What would I say? When I entered, Goering got up and reached out his hand.
I asked myself: “What the hell am I doing here? Should I shake his hand? Am I supposed to ask Goering about his reaction to the trial? How do you feel?”
I must admit I simply could not handle it. I froze. Without uttering a single word, I turned around and asked to be let out. The last thing I remember was Goering standing there with his outstretched hand. Still today, I am glad that I never exchanged a single word with the top Nazi in Nuremberg.
The trial lasted about six months. Eleven of the defendants were hanged. Seven were given various prison sentences. Two were freed. Goering, the night before the sentences were carried out, committed suicide by taking a poison pill.
When the trial ended I went back to Bad Nauheim, the DANA headquarters. They asked me if I was interested in a permanent job. “We could use somebody with your background as Germany is being rebuilt,” they said.
I was tempted but then decided that I could not stay in the country that was responsible for what happened to me, my family and the 6 million who were killed. In the summer of 1946, I left Germany and arrived in the United States to begin a new life.
That was 60 years ago. I was lucky to have survived one of the greatest tragedies in all of human history when an effort was made to wipe out the Jewish people from the face of the earth. It was the first time in history that the top leaders of a country, one of the great civilized, cultural nations in the world, the country of Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe, were brought to trial for crimes against humanity and waging war.
As I reflect on this historic event 60 years later, I ask myself what are the lessons of Nuremberg?
A new word has since entered our language. It is called “genocide.” It means the killing, starvation, rape or murder of millions of innocent people for religious or political reasons or for no reason at all — on the order of elected or self-appointed presidents or dictators.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, some 170 million innocent men, women and children in 26 countries all over the world were starved, shot, murdered, massacred and tortured by all kinds of means. That is more than half the population of Europe. More than half the population of the United States. The world stood by doing nothing.
The term genocide was coined by a Polish lawyer, a Jew, by the name of Raphael Lemkin. Revolted and deeply affected by the revelations of what became known as the Holocaust, Lemkin became a one-man force to get the then newly formed United Nations to outlaw government-sponsored terrorism and killings.
He never married, had no money, lived on handouts in a walk-up, one-room apartment in Manhattan. All alone, totally obsessed, he cornered government leaders, U.N. officials, ambassadors, religious leaders, U.S. congressmen, senators, wealthy personalities — anyone who would listen to him in his single-mindedness to get the U.N. to confront this issue and deal with it.
One U.S. senator, William Proxmire of Wisconsin, became his supporter and was able to enlist colleagues in the U.S. Congress for what was then called “The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” It was formally adopted by the U.N. in 1948. Eventually it was ratified by 137 nations.
Lemkin lived to see the issue become international law. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize but never received his due recognition.
Lempkin died in 1959. Seven people came to his funeral.
Genocide continues until today although the number of victims has declined. The latest genocide is taking place now in Darfur, Sudan.
I believe that genocide is a product of hate and evil. It is a crime of indifference and political inertia. It is moral bankruptcy.
Most genocides don’t just happen. They start with speeches, sermons, incitements and then lead to genocide. This is what happened in Germany. Nobody believed Hitler’s rantings. We know the rest.
Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Israel must be “wiped off the map.” We must recognize the hatred early and do something about it now. Not later or worse, not at all.
What did Nuremberg mean to me personally?
After surviving the horror of the concentration camps, never knowing if I would live to see the next day, the greatest experience of my life was to witness justice being served.
Ernest W. Michel has been a member of the staff of United Jewish Appeal since 1946, first as a speaker, then as a professional. He retired in 1989 as executive vice president, now emeritus of UJA-Federation of New York. This was adopted from the speech at the German Justice Ministry in Berlin on Nov. 21.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.