(July 17, 2015 / JNS)
Oskar Groening, 94, known as the “bookkeeper” or “accountant” of Auschwitz, was sentenced to four years in prison by a German court this week for his complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the Auschwitz gas chambers between May and July 1944. His role at Auschwitz was to sort and count money taken from those killed or enslaved in the death camp, collect the cash, and send it to Germany.
This guilty verdict was made possible by one of the main prosecutors, Thomas Walther, the retired German judge and a truly righteous gentile, who was instrumental in altering German law to allow the prosecution of people who were accessories to Nazi crimes even if they were not directly involved in murder. Groening’s guilty verdict upheld Walther’s new paradigm of legal reasoning.
I take great pride in this verdict, both for my family’s very small contribution to the case and for the general implications of the ruling. I first heard about the case approximately one year ago when I read about it in an article in the Jerusalem Post. At the time, approximately 15 co-plaintiffs were involved. These were Hungarian Holocaust survivors who were deported between May and July 1944 to Auschwitz. The more co-plaintiffs involved, the stronger the case for Groening’s prosecution. Whereas the number of all Holocaust survivors in general is rapidly dwindling, locating Hungarian survivors—in particular, those deported during that precise timeframe—is akin to finding needles in a haystack.
Coincidentally, at the time, I had just completed editing my parents’ memoirs, “Kuzminio Chronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival.” Realizing that my parents, Leib and Gittel Moskowitz, who were deported from their small Czechoslovakian town, Kuzmino, in May 1944, could potentially be added to the list of plaintiffs, I proceeded to contact Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, who was quoted in the Jerusalem Post article. He put me into contact with Walther, who was flying across the globe, desperately searching for more co-plaintiffs.
In order to qualify to be a co-plaintiff, a Holocaust survivor, in addition to being deported during that precise range of dates in 1944, also had to have relatives that died in Auschwitz on the day of their deportation. My mother qualified as a co-plaintiff because she fulfilled these criteria, having many relatives who died on that day, whereas my father did not qualify. Despite having many relatives who died in the Holocaust, his direct relatives did not die on the day of transport. My parents and I subsequently enlisted my father’s first cousin and two of my father’s close friends as co-plaintiffs, thus providing four out of the ultimate total of 50 co-plaintiffs in the case.
At the request of Walther, we constructed a family tree documenting the more than 60 relatives of my parents who perished in the Holocaust. This was submitted as evidence to the court, exemplifying the impact the Holocaust had on a single family. In addition, we presented to the court an old photograph of my father’s brother, Herman, which was damaged and as a result rendered his face invisible. Herman’s face was forensically and artistically reconstructed in a family painting by myself and portrait artist Judy Horowitz. A photograph of this painting was entered as evidence to the court and used by Walther to symbolize that the trial would give both visualization and voice to forgotten victims, just like the painting created a real face for a faceless Holocaust victim.
But what is the real impact of finding a 94-year-old Nazi guilty of war crimes? Is justice possible for a man who lived a carefree life for 94 years? Is it too little, too late? Should this verdict elicit a sense of victory for justice, or a wide gaping yawn?
As others have pointed out, the verdict is important predominantly for the symbolism that there is no statute of limitations on genocide and crimes against humanity, and that no matter how long it takes, those complicit in genocide and atrocities should be brought to justice.
But symbolic verdicts only matter to the extent that they prevent similar activities that transpired in the past from happening again in the future. The good news is that this verdict will enable the prosecution of the dwindling number of elderly Nazis, and potentially bring a semblance of justice to both the ever-fewer living Holocaust survivors and the millions of deceased martyrs.
Yet the real question is: What impact will this verdict have on the Jews who are currently alive, who are the genocidal targets of today’s and tomorrow’s madmen? Can this verdict impact the rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism throughout Europe? Will it have any impact on the political decisions of civilized nations dealing with modern-day anti-Semitic genocidal regimes such as Iran (and its surrogates Hamas and Hezbollah) who on a daily basis proclaim their desire to annihilate Israel? Who will stop an Iran seeking nuclear weapons, and seeking to sow anti-Semitism not only in its neighboring regions but throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and elsewhere?
Will Oskar Groening’s guilty verdict reverberate within the ivory halls of college campuses, influencing pusillanimous professors and administrators who currently enable the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to flourish while maintaining their hypocritical respect for free/hate speech that seeks to undermine Israel and Jewish identity by falsely camouflaging anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism? Will this guilty verdict resonate with pseudo pro-Israel organizations who call themselves pro-peace while advocating policies inimical to Israel?
Groening was declared guilty because the group he belonged to was defined as absolutely evil by civilized society, because humanity stood up and called a spade a spade. Unless democratic nations today also identify and label radical extremist genocidal regimes (and their surrogates) as such, they will never be able to combat them. Even worse, by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, they will be aiding and abetting them.
In the absence of political recognition and awareness of the evil intentions of today’s anti-Semitic genocidal maniacs, Groening’s verdict, while meaningful for the dead Jews of yesterday, will ring hollow for the endangered Jews of today who throughout the globe are exposed to a tide of anti-Semitism no less noxious and potentially devastating as that unleashed by his compatriots in the 1930s. Let us hope that our political leaders—in particular, our American federal legislators who will soon vote on the Iran nuclear deal—internalize the meaning of Groening’s verdict, and in so doing, take pre-emptive action to prevent future genocide.
Nathan Moskowitz is the author of “Kuzminio Chronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival” and “The Color of Prophecy: Visualizing the Bible in a New Light.”