In what could possibly be the last court case of its kind, a former Nazi concentration camp guard is on trial in Hamburg.
Bruno Dey, who joined the SS in his teens, covered his face on his recent arrival at court in a wheelchair, on the third day of a 23-day trial, scheduled to run until late February. As a result of the ages of those involved, each trial day is limited to two hours a day and there are a maximum of two trial days per week.
Facing 5,230 counts of accessory to murder, Dey claimed in a statement he had no knowledge of the mass murders under way at the Stutthof concentration camp, despite admitting seeing prisoners led into the gas chambers, hearing their screams and noting the rattling of the steel door.
The case is one of the last of its kind, not least because those old enough to have been actively involved are now nonagenarians.
When Dey was posted there from mid-1944, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising, were crammed into the camp.
Ultimately, more than 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof, by shooting, starvation or lethal injections of petrol or phenol directly into their hearts. Others were forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, or were sent to the gas chambers.
Around three dozen survivors and their relatives have now come together to join the trial as co-plaintiffs. But why has it taken a lifetime for Dey to face justice?
Immediately after 1945, key Nazi figures were priorities, explains Rajmund Niwinski, the lawyer representing the survivors.
“Right after the war, only those directly connected to the crimes were targeted; some of the key figures like those in the Nuremberg trials and some lower-ranking people in separate trials. The guards, not directly connected to specific crimes, just weren’t on the radar of those prosecuting.”
Prosecution of war crimes was made even more difficult because of Nazi remnants in the judicial system – with some of those working as judges and prosecutors having held positions within the party. “It took a long time for those persons to fade out due to old age so that matters could be taken into the hands of a younger generation with no such burden,” Niwinski says.
The establishment, in 1958, in Germany of the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes (the main agency responsible for investigating war crimes during Nazi rule) was a key step, but “apparently even they were hindered for years by people with a certain past within their ranks”.
Niwinski, a most unassuming hero, has his own reasons for taking on the case. His grandfather, with whom he shares a name, was part of the Polish resistance during the war. “After the capitulation of the army, he enlisted in and became an officer of the Polish home army and fought the Germans until the end of the war.”
The reward for such courage was persecution by the Communist government after the war. He was blacklisted, he says, and struggled to find work, ultimately becoming a celebrated circus strongman and an interesting enough subject to warrant a documentary film prior to his death in 1995. The grandson and namesake of the great circus performer feels he is honouring his ancestor by ensuring those of his generation are able to have their voices heard in court.
At a time when Holocaust denial is on the rise and survivors are dying out, cases like this can have a significant symbolic value. Revenge does not seem to be on the minds of most of those taking the stand and, as the lawyer says: “Almost all of my clients are or were active in keeping the memory of the camps alive.”
This is certainly true of Zigi Shipper, a co-plaintiff who will turn 90 in January and still spends his days educating Britain’s youth in schools across the country about the dangers of prejudice by recounting his experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
Born in Lodz, Poland, Shipper endured a succession of concentration camps – including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof – during his adolescence. But there is not a trace of bitterness in his voice as he explains the importance of this trial.
“This man should go to court so people know what he did but I don’t think he should go to prison. At his age, will he come out a better person? It won’t help anybody. The important thing is that our voices are heard.”
One intriguing aspect of the case is that some of the witness testimony, such as that of Marek Dunin-Wasowicz, is informed by what was only learned later. At 93, the same age as the accused, Dunin-Wasowicz openly conceded in court that personal memory and knowledge acquired later tend to blend. The co-plaintiff was a journalist prior to retirement and can talk for hours about the camp but it will be up to the court to distinguish between memory and that which has been gleaned from reading.
Hearings resume again soon and, as the horrors of the Holocaust are now virtually entirely confined to textbooks, the survivors hope this trial will, for one of the final times, help the world take notice.
As Shipper says: “We must not forget the dangers of hatred and where it can lead.”