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Auschwitz Survivors as Witnesses in Nazi War Crime Trials

 a  Paul Hoffmann, letter from the records of the Rakers trial:

“Again and again in the past years I’ve thought about the beasts of Monowitz, about Schwarz, Schöttl, Stolten, Fischer, Rakers, etc. What has become of these multiple murderers? I always wished just for them to be dead so that they can’t be sentenced by a court only to be released ‘for good conduct’ a short time later and then restored to the ranks of citizens with equal rights again, while their guilt cries out to heaven, and only dying a thousand deaths would atone for their crimes.”

(Letter from Auschwitz survivor Paul Hoffmann (Bielefeld), dated November 22, 1950, to the Auschwitz Committee (Berlin). StA b. LG Osnabrück, 4 Ks 2/52, Hauptakten, Vol. II, p. 17R. (Transl. KL))
 b  Article by Norbert Wollheim about the verdict in the Harlan trial:
We will not tire of demanding punishment, whether the direct or indirect participants like it or not. Punishment for the crimes committed, punishment for the crimes not paid for, punishment for the crimes—unique in the modern history of mankind—committed against an entire people. Demanding punishment for the crimes of the past means preventing them in the future. If true accountability still exists, then this is the time, now and here, energetically to put a stop to a further demoralizing development.
(Norbert Wollheim: “… denn Harlan ist ein ehrenwerter Mann.” [“… for Harlan is an honorable man.”] In: Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland, June 17, 1949, p. 7. (Transl. KL))

Members of the work detachments that were forced to burn the victims’ bodies in the four crematoria of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp kept records secretly and buried them at the scene, in the hope that posterity would discover and take note of their “manuscripts.”


Even before the closure of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, escaped prisoners such as Jerzy Tabeau, Rudolf Vrba, Alfred Wetzler, Czeslaw Mordowicz, and Arnost Rosin had wished to inform the world about the mass murder. Immediately following their liberation, survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau-Monowitz concentration and extermination camp complex made reports to Polish and Soviet investigative commissions on the crimes committed in the camps.


The Allies decided even before the end of World War II to call the so-called major war criminals and other responsible executives and decision-makers to account. The Nazi criminals had to stand trial before military tribunals of the United States of America, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, as well as before national tribunals of the countries invaded by the German Wehrmacht. In many proceedings, survivors testified against the defendants.


Victim witnesses were examined by the prosecuting attorneys in preparation for the proceedings, and the records of interrogation were introduced into the trials as evidence. Surviving witnesses were summoned to appear as witnesses for the prosecution, particularly in the main trial. They gave their testimonies and answered questions posed by the parties to the action, based on the evidence that had been produced. The victim witnesses were examined in accordance with the procedural rules in force in the respective proceedings. In the Anglo-American criminal proceedings, the witnesses were questioned by the prosecution and the defense. The courts themselves, according to the provisions of the applicable procedural law, were not obliged to contribute to bringing to light the facts of the case. This circumstance is blamed, for example, for the fact that examinations of the witnesses in the I.G. Farben Trial before an American military tribunal in Nuremberg (1947/1948) were not always very productive when it came to portraying the progression of events.


The examinations conducted in the context of the arraignment (depositions, affidavits), the testimony given during the main trial, and the voluminous collections of documents represent an important body of source material for historical research, a stock of information that remains largely untapped by historians.


In the Federal German trials of Auschwitz perpetrators, the examination of victim witnesses in the principal proceedings was conducted by the jury courts, which according to § 244 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Strafprozessordnung) must extend ex officio the hearing of evidence to include all facts and evidence of significance for the judicial decision, for the purpose of finding the truth. Therefore, in addition to the examinations conducted by the police, public prosecutor, and judges in the scope of the pretrial proceedings, the hearings of the survivors as witnesses in the main trial are an important historical source.


In the trial of the Nazi film director Veit Harlan, for example, testimony given by the witness Norbert Wollheim indicated the devastating consequences of anti-Semitic films like Jud Süß (Germany, 1940) for the persecuted Jews. In the criminal trial of the former roll-call leader at the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, Bernhard Rakers, survivors described the daily terror they experienced at the hands of the SS. In the civil lawsuit against I.G. Farben i.L. (Wollheim suit), former forced laborers of the chemical concern had an opportunity to give very comprehensive accounts of the working conditions in I.G. Auschwitz.


The testimony of the survivors in the various proceedings was documented in several ways. The statements given before the court are recorded in court minutes, in press reports on the trial, and in the court opinion. In the case of the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial (1963–1965), the available source material is extraordinarily good. Most of the witness examinations were recorded on tape. The recording has been preserved and is available in transcription.[1]


Because no sources are available, no information can be provided about the motivation of the individual survivors in making themselves available as victim witnesses and functioning as material evidence in legal proceedings. People who escaped extermination occasionally say that the crimes must not go “unatoned,” that the perpetrators should suffer a “just punishment.”  a   b  Some, while still engaged in the daily struggle to survive, had sworn revenge in the unlikely event that their lives should be saved; they wanted to exact vengeance in remembrance of their murdered family members and comrades. For the most diverse reasons, almost all the survivors who had resolved to avenge the dead abandoned this plan. Most placed their hopes in ordinary courts, which they expected to implement the justice and fairness they longed for, by providing redress.


It is impossible to say how much confidence the individual survivors placed in the respective jurisdictions, how they evaluated the decisions handed down, or what purpose they saw in the sentences imposed. The survivors were all too aware of the limited possibilities of the judicial process, through the verdicts it delivers, to requite, to atone, to make up for an injustice that has occurred, or to achieve any other stated purpose of punishment. However strong their need for punishment, however great their longing for justice, however agonizing their wish for retribution, for the Holocaust survivors, the remainder, the surviving remnant of a murdered people (Sheʼerit Ha-pletah / שארית הפלטה), no verdict could signify satisfaction, compensation, and reconciliation. Therefore it must have been extremely painful for the witnesses from the ranks of the survivors to have to see that many of the Nazi criminals sentenced to prison terms in Germany were pardoned right away and given early release from custody.

(WR; transl. KL)


Paul Hoffmann, letter to the Auschwitz Committee (Berlin), November 22, 1950, Bielefeld. StA b. LG Osnabrück, 4 Ks 2/52, Hauptakten, Vol. II, p. 17R.



Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Tonbandmitschnitte, Protokolle und Dokumente. DVD-ROM. 2. Ed. Fritz Bauer Institut / Staatliches Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, eds. Berlin: Directmedia, 2005.

Inmitten des grauenvollen Verbrechens. Handschriften von Mitgliedern des Sonderkommandos. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 1996.

Świebocki, Henryk, ed.: London Has Been Informed—: Reports by Auschwitz Escapees. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 1997.

Norbert Wollheim: “… denn Harlan ist ein ehrenwerter Mann.” In: Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland, June 17, 1949, p. 7.

[1] Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Tonbandmitschnitte, Protokolle und Dokumente [The Auschwitz Trial: Tape Recordings, Minutes, and Documents]. DVD-ROM. 2. Ed. Fritz Bauer Institut / Staatliches Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, eds. Berlin: Directmedia, 2005, 48,679 screen pages, 528 illustrations, 100 hours of audio sampling (hearings of witnesses).