By the time British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany on April 15, 1945, more than 50,000 men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, had died there of typhus, starvation, dysentery and a host of other diseases, most of them in the winter and early spring of 1945. Bergen-Belsen, often referred to simply as Belsen, epitomized the final stage of the Holocaust.
Bergen-Belsen was initially intended to be a “residence” or transit camp for Jewish inmates whom the Germans wanted to exchange for prisoners of war held by the Allies. Its population increased dramatically as the Red Army moved rapidly westward in the latter part of 1944 and the Germans evacuated Jewish prisoners from camps in Nazi-occupied Poland to camps in Germany, often on forced death marches. The number of prisoners at Bergen-Belsen grew from around 7,300 in July 1944 to 15,000 in December of that year, 22,000 in February 1945, and 60,000 when the British entered the camp in April 1945.
Many of both the dead and the surviving inmates of Belsen had been brought there from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where approximately 1 million Jews were murdered. A substantial number of the SS officers and guards taken into custody by the British after the liberation of Belsen had also been transferred there from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
And yet, when the Belsen Trial, the first Nazi war crimes trial, began before a British military tribunal in the German city of Lüneburg 75 years ago on Sept. 17, 1945, to try the camp’s SS officers and personnel, the prosecutor, Colonel T.M. Backhouse, essentially ignored or glossed over the victims’ identity as Jews in his opening statement. Instead, he euphemistically referred to “the persons interned both at Auschwitz and Belsen” as “persons who had been deported from [Nazi German-] occupied countries . . . either because of their religion, because of their nationality, because of their refusal to work for the enemy, or merely because they were prisoners of war who it was thought might conveniently be used in such places or exterminated in such places.”
Backhouse similarly dejudaized the killings at Auschwitz by speaking generally of the “mass murder of every person unfit to serve the Reich.” He never told the tribunal that the transports that arrived there were made up predominantly of Jews, or that the “persons” who were “gassed deliberately and killed” there were almost exclusively Jewish. He likewise made no mention of the fact that “the old, children, pregnant women, weak, or sick, or those showing signs of unfitness” who were “loaded on lorries and taken straight to the gas chambers where they were scientifically murdered” were Jews who were murdered only and exclusively because they were Jews.
Backhouse’s only mention of Jews on the first day of the trial was a reference to “45,000 Greek Jews” who were taken to Auschwitz. On the second day of the trial, the first prosecution witness, Brigadier H.L. Glyn-Hughes testified that upon arrival at Belsen, the British had found undelivered Red Cross parcels “sent by Jewish societies for the Jews in the camp.” Otherwise, there was nothing throughout the first four days of the trial to indicate that the crimes committed by the defendants at Auschwitz and Belsen were in fact an integral element of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
One can only speculate as to the rationale for the prosecution’s initial reticence to emphasize the antisemitic essence of the crimes with which the defendants were charged. One possible explanation is that the British military authorities did not want to strengthen the political hand of the Jewish Displaced Persons in Germany and Austria, who were fighting to be formally recognized as Jews rather than as nationals of their countries of origin, something the British military authorities did not want to do. While the liberated concentration camp inmates from western European countries like France and the Netherlands willingly returned to their pre-war homes, the Jewish survivors from Poland and other eastern European countries did not want to go back to what they believed were hostile antisemitic societies. The Jewish DPs, who openly asserted their Zionist ideology and aspirations, also repeatedly protested publicly against the British policy of keeping Jewish immigration to Palestine at a bare minimum.
Alexander L. Easterman, the political secretary of the World Jewish Congress who attended the Belsen trial as an observer, wrote in his report dated Sept. 17, 1945, that, “From the Jewish viewpoint, it is a grievous disappointment in that there is a complete absence in the indictment of the slightest suggestion of the colossal crime against the Jews resulting in the annihilation of six million souls. The word ‘Jew’ is not mentioned once in the preliminary formal proceedings.”
A Dramatic Shift
But on Sept. 21, the fifth day of the trial, this state of affairs changed dramatically. That was when my mother, Dr. Ada Bimko (who would go on to marry my father in 1946), took the stand. She was a 33-year-old dentist who had been an inmate at both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belsen. When asked if she was of Polish nationality, she replied, according to transcripts, “I am a Jewess from Poland.” Asked why she was arrested, she said, “During that week, all of the Jews of the town where I was living were arrested, and because of my being a Jewess, I was sent to Auschwitz camp.”
My mother told the tribunal that upon leaving the train when they arrived at Auschwitz, they were lined up, men on one side, women on the other; that an SS man pointed at them, saying “Right” and “Left;” that all but about 250 women and 250 men were loaded onto trucks and taken away; that “later on I was told that they were sent to the crematorium and gassed;” and that among those taken to the gas chamber were her parents, her first husband, and her six-year-old son.
In light of of her medical training, my mother was assigned to work in the infirmary of the Auschwitz sub-camp of Birkenau, also referred to as Auschwitz II. She has been credited with saving the lives of women inmates there by performing rudimentary surgeries and sending them out of the infirmary in advance of selections for the gas chambers. In November 1944, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she and a group of other prisoners kept 149 Jewish children alive through the brutal winter of 1945. Immediately following the liberation, the British appointed her to organize and head a team of doctors and volunteers from among the healthier inmates to work alongside the British military medical team in an effort to try to save as many of the critically ill survivors as possible.
At the trial, my mother testified that there were “three methods of selection” at Auschwitz: “The first one immediately at the arrival of the prisoners; the second in the camp among the healthy prisoners; and the third in the hospital amongst the sick.”
She said that a camp doctor was always present, as well as other SS men and women, and described the selections she had seen at the hospital: “All the sick Jews were ordered to parade quite naked in front of the doctor, and they had to pass this sort of commission. The seemingly weak people were put aside at once, but other times the doctor looked also at the hands or the arms and any small sort of thing which caught his attention.” She added that other SS men and women were present, and that “Sometimes they pointed with a finger to one or the other, pointing out that those may join those people who were condemned to death.”
Asked what usually happened to those who had been selected, my mother said that “they had to go quite naked to a very ill-famed block, No. 25, where they were waiting often for days without food or drink, naked, until the trucks arrived to take them away to the crematorium.”
Dec. 1, 1943, she recalled, “was a day of very large selections. Typhus was rampant through the camp and there were in the hospital 4,124 sick Jewish women. Out of this number 4,000 were selected for the crematorium and only 124 remained.”
On cross-examination, my mother said that during her 15 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau, “only Jews were sent to the gas chamber,” adding that “I was told that there was a camp for gypsies [that is, Roma], and they were also sent to the gas chamber.”
Making a Point of Their Jewish Identity
Subsequent witnesses made a point of emphasizing their Jewish identity, and that they had been arrested only because they were Jews. They were neither criminals nor, with one exception, active opponents of the German occupation of their respective homelands.
Asked to state their nationality, Estera Guterman, Paula Synger, and Ester Wolgruch replied, like my mother, “A Jewess from Poland;” Anni Jonas said, “I am a Jewess from Germany;” Helen Hammermasch said, “I am a Jewess born in Poland;” Hanka Rozenwayg said, “A Polish Jewess;” Ewa Gryka said, “I am a Polish Jew;” and Ruchla Koppel and Genia Zylberdukaten answered simply, “Jewish,” as did Roman Sompolinski, who also declared that he was arrested “Because I am a Jew.” Asked why they were arrested, Sofia Litwinska, Anni Jonas, Dora Szafran, Ilona Stein, and Lidia Sunschein all said, “Because I am a Jewess.”
Dora Szafran testified that, “People were sent to the gas chamber for being Jews,” and Anni Jonas told the tribunal that she had attended selections which were “For the purpose of gassing the people.” Asked who were picked for gassing, Jonas answered, “Jews.”
It would appear that these prosecution witnesses and erstwhile concentration camp inmates were determined to do what the prosecution itself was not willing to do: make their Jewish identities and the fact that they had been persecuted and their families murdered only because they were Jews a matter of record.
The prosecution’s reticence to highlight the antisemitic essence of the crimes with which the defendants were charged was derailed when one of the British defense counsel created a furor. Major Thomas C. Winwood represented Josef Kramer, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen, and other senior members of the camp’s SS personnel. In his opening address, Winwood denigrated the Jewish inmates of the Nazi death and concentration camps as “undesirable,” that is to say, inferior. “The object of the German concentration camp was to segregate the undesirable elements,” he said, “and the most undesirable element, from the German point of view, was the Jew.”
Had he stopped there, his words might well have gone unnoticed outside the Lüneburg courtroom, but Winwood went on to add:
by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettos of middle Europe. These were the people who had very little idea of how to behave in their ordinary life, and they had little idea of doing what they were told, and the control of these internees was a great problem.
This blatant disparagement of European Jewry as a whole caused an uproar. World Jewish Congress political secretary Alexander L. Easterman sent a telegram to Major General Berney-Ficklin, the president of the Lüneburg tribunal, protesting that Winwood’s statement “constitutes a vile calumny against the innocent Jewish men, women and children deliberately murdered by the Nazis” and that it was a “gross violation of British fairness and transgresses the just limits of British advocacy.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews followed suit, expressing its “deepest indignation” at Winwood’s remarks. In due course, Winwood apologized in open court, explaining that “I have been acting only as a mouthpiece of the accused whom I represent.”
Whether influenced by the testimony of Ada Bimko and the other witnesses, or by the controversy over Winwood’s ill-chosen disparagement of the Jewish inmates of Auschwitz and Belsen, or for other reasons, Colonel Backhouse’s approach underwent a dramatic transformation by the time he delivered his closing address. There, in sharp contrast with his opening statement, Backhouse emphasized that one of the reasons for the internment of people by the Nazis was “the deliberate destruction of the Jewish race.” He told the tribunal that the men, women, and children murdered at Auschwitz “were gassed for no other reason than they were Jews.” The selections at Auschwitz, he argued, constituted
an attempt to murder an entire race – an attempt to murder the whole Jewish race . . . . That martyrdom of the Jews . . . insofar as it was employed on these persons who came into the power of the Germans and into the power of the personnel at Auschwitz, was a war crime which has never been equaled.
The Belsen trial did achieve a modicum of justice. The tribunal found 30 of the defendants guilty, with Kramer and 10 others sentenced to death and executed. In retrospect, however, the way the trial was conducted – with the prosecution’s initial attempt to downplay the genocidal nature of the crimes at issue – highlights the difficulty inherent in reconciling the principles of justice with its far too often brutal realities. As one of the witnesses at Lüneburg, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, wrote in her memoirs, “Is it possible to apply law in the conventional sense to crimes so far removed from the law as the massacre of millions of people, which were perpetrated in the cause of ‘purifying the human race’?”