As I set out on my recent trip to Europe as a faculty member for the FASPE Law Program, one of the things I struggled with was how much to tell people on the trip about my personal connection to the Holocaust. What qualified me for faculty status -- if anything -- was what I know about roles that lawyers played in the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II. I was along to offer a comparative perspective on the subject matter at hand, not to involve everyone around me in my personal quest to learn about my great-uncle Leo. I did not want to set myself up, through the story of Leo's deportation from Wuerzburg and death in Poland, as having special access to the story or occupying some privileged position. So I briefly mentioned Leo's story when I introduced myself to everyone on the first day, but tried my best to keep a lid on it thereafter. I don't know if I succeeded. I hope so.
What surprised me repeatedly was how, for all of my efforts at keeping Leo's story to myself, the story kept cropping up in the world around me. It turns out that the deportation that included the Jews of Bad Kissingen -- on April 25, 1942, from the northern Bavarian city of Wuerzburg to the Polish transit ghetto of Izbica -- was one of the best-documented of all of the deportations of Jews in the Aktion Reinhard. Every stage of the deportation was photographed, from the gathering of the region's Jews in a park ...
... to the march through the streets of the city to the train depot ...
... to the loading of people and luggage onto the trains.
The photograph that has always moved me the most is this one; I connect with the man at the head of the column looking back over his left shoulder. Is he just taking in the scene, or looking for a way of escape?
At every exhibit we visited, in Berlin and in Poland, we saw this photograph. I couldn't escape it.
So the trip kept bringing me back to Leo. He is in there somewhere, shuffling inside the perimeter of policemen, laden with useless belongings.
And what I found myself wanting to do, over and over again, was very physical: I wanted to reach into the photograph and open it up, the way you might part curtains or push apart pocket doors. I wanted to do the opposite of what Tom Baxter does in The Purple Rose of Cairo when he escapes the flat movie screen; I wanted to climb into the photograph, run to the deportees, and turn them around one by one until I found my great-uncle.
I don't know what I would do then. Warn him? Spirit him away? Just walk alongside him a few paces in solidarity? Take on the armed officers? I really have no idea. The police officers and SS men don't worry me; this is a fantasy, and in it I have greater power than theirs.
Since the FASPE trip ended, I've spent some time trying to learn what happened to the bureaucrats who oversaw this deportation and the perpetrators at the other end of the line in Poland who dispatched these people by shooting or gas. What I have learned has been distressing. Allied courts assumed no jurisdiction over crimes committed by German nationals against other German nationals, so the SS and Gestapo men involved in these deportations could only be tried in German courts, for crimes defined by German law. In 1949, prosecutors in Bavaria brought charges against seven Gestapo men implicated in the deportations from Wuerzburg and other nearby areas. The chief defendant in this trial was Dr. Benno Martin, the Gestapo chief in Nuremberg. He sent two of his top aides to Wuerzburg to oversee the April 25 deportation that included Leopold, and sent thank-you notes to local officials a couple of weeks later to express his appreciation for how well they carried out the operation.
In proceedings that dragged all the way out to 1953, across multiple levels of German courts, Martin and the other defendants were all acquitted. The successful defense theory was duress: even though they should have known that the deportation of Jews was an illegal deprivation of liberty, they had no choice but to carry out their orders because they feared they would be sent to a concentration camp if they did not comply. (Note, though, that scholars have not found a single case of a German being punished for refusing to follow these sorts of orders.)
At the Polish end, only one prosecution that made its way to completion.
Two were aborted by suicides. Izbica's SS commander Kurt Engels went to Hamburg after the war and, astonishingly, opened up a restaurant in his own name. A survivor identified him in the mid-1950s and he was indicted. He committed suicide during his trial. Engels' top deputy, Ludwig Klemm, changed his name after the war and lived peacefully in Germany until 1979, when he was arrested. He too took his own life in jail.
The prosecution that was completed was of one Rudolf (first name unknown), a Nazi bureaucrat who ran the administrative office in the region that included Izbica and its nearby death camps Belzec and Sobibor. Testimony from an eyewitness placed Rudolf in Izbica on a day of mass deportations from that transit camp to the death camps in October 1942, a whip in one hand and a pistol in the other, shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. On the strength of this, a German trial court convicted Rudolf of murder. An appellate court, however, questioned the credibility of the eyewitness testimony, and acquitted him.