24 JANUARY 1964, Page 6

The Men from Auschwitz



THE old city of Frankfurt, wrecked in the Nazi war so that it nearly resembled the Biblical threat of not one stone remaining upon another, has been rebuilt.. Among other red sandstone buildings, the medileval council cham- ber of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation was carefully replaced. Here emperors were elected from 1338 until Napoleon abolished the empire. This is now the city hall of Frank- furt, its interior entirely modern, and in the main council hall the largest German war crimes trial is now being held. The twenty-two men on trial are the survivors of the staff of Auschwitz concentration camp. The council chamber is panelled in light oak and though a dais for the Court has been brought in, it still does not in the least resemble a court room. There is no dock, the defendants sit in a block in the centre of the hall in the chairs normally occupied by members of the city council, those on bail move freely about in the intervals, and those on remand remain in the care of their young warders in dark blue uniforms. The warders seem to be listening intently to the complicated proceedings. An upper gallery for the public is full; there are more press correspondents in the main hall than the rest of those present put together.

In the camp administered by these men some- thing like one million human beings died or were killed, about 550,000 or more, directly upon arrival at the railway siding that ran into the camp, in gas chambers: These figures are very approximate, but most of the reports, including the Kohe:r report, compiled for Himmler, sup- port them. .1 he large gas chambers were not built until after the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942. There was a small one in the central camp which had originally been built as a cavalry bar- racks of the Austrian army, and somewhat bungling attempts had been made before in the punishment block at gassing Russian prisoners. At first two, and later four, gas chambers with crematoria were built by Russian war prisoners, beginning in April, 1942. They were blown up before the Red Army got to them in January, 1945, the clearing of the camp and destruction of the installations having commenced in the pre- vious July to the accompaniment of thousands of deaths. The last selections for gassing were probably early in November, 1944. So in less than two years more than 500,000 people were gassed and cremated. By the middle of 1943 phrases such as 'going up the chimney' and 'going to tlie bsths' (the gas chambers were labelled as bath halls) were common in diaries and other surviving papers of eastern ghetto populations.

These gruesome and almost meaningless figures are necessary because up to this week only one of the twenty-two defendants in the Frank- furt Romer has admitted having anything to do with the gas chambers. Franz Hofmann, as SS lieutenant in concentration-camp service from 1934, who is doing life for his career at Dachau, was in charge of the Schutzhaftlager (protective custody—that is, political prisoners) and later of the gipsy section; he cannot even recall clearly whether the gas-chamber roofs showed above graund. They did in fact, as I clearly remember from one fleeting visit, though it is true that my visit was more recent than Hofmann's service there nineteen years ago.

Hofmann, however, is not a man of no feeling. He burst into tears of sympathy for his own fate and complained that his senior officers ought to be there with him on trial, perhaps forgetting that they had all been executed by Polish military tri- bunals years ago. Another accused, Boger, claims to have lived for years after the war under his own name and that everyone in the district knew him as 'Boger of Auschwitz.' This is certainly untrue, like the claim of the long-dead com- mandant Hoess, who said he had gassed 2! million Jews; the claim that everyone sympa- thises with them is as familiar as the perverse bravado that claims far higher death rates than was the case even at Auschwitz. It was an SS attitude of the time, as Eichmann's famous remark is witness that he would jump into his grave laughing at the deaths of six million Jews.

The twenty-two vary in age between forty and the late sixties, they vary in prosperity and pro- fessions, and though most of them look stupid and coarse, this is not so of all of them; one of them looks rather a nice, frail, white-haired old boy.

German court proceedings seem strange to English views; the trial and questionings are con- ducted by the presiding judge and the prosecutors only support or add to his questions. Defence counsel hardly intervene, there is no cross- examination and they seem to be reserving them- selves for their pleas, which cannot be for at least six months. There are two assistant judges and six jurors (including women) with five spare jurors standing by already sworn in case any of the six should fall ill and cause the whole thing to be started all over again. Proceedings are leisurely, for the German system seeks to find the truth by comprehensive discussion and the rules of evidence as well as court etiquette are lax by Old Bailey standards. Accused go on speaking, trying to make some point, while the judge is also speaking; the veteran defehce counsel, Dr. Hans Laternser, who appears to have appointed himself the leader of all defence counsel, argues brusquely and loudly.

Apart from their lies and failures of memory, the accused quite often have to explain some point of administration or topography which has been misunderstood by the court. The SS had its own system of administration in many respects quite different from the armed forces, and it was one of the Nazi control devices to duplicate areas of command and administration in every field of life. To this duplication must be added the lapse of time and the intensive nature of the 'work' at Auschwitz in which single events are lost as they would be in any normal period of work under pressure. There is another hindrance to correct memory : the court uses words like 'death.' `murder,' children,' but throughout the careers of the accused in all official correspondence, orders and verbal discussions, a series of euphemisms was always used. The 'final solution of the Jewish question' was only the best known of these. Special treatment and selection as well as resettle- ment sound now like prevarications and they are, but the prevarications of the red tape, of the period in which these men still talk; for they know no other terms. Himmler himself said this was a chapter of history that would never be written. For instance, Hofmann claims to have established a 'play area' for child prisoners, divided from the adults; and this is probably true, but what he does not say, and it probably is not present to his conscious mind, was that the children were segregated to await gassing. Of another group of children he admits, because his signature is on the order, that they were transferred from a fanriily block in the gipsy camp to Birkenau with the official stamp of Birkenau F 11. This indicated No. 2 Crema- torium. (F = Feuerstelle.)

.Historically it is a great pity that the managers of other death camps in other countries have never been brought to trial. So that we cannot know if the split mind which seems typical of the SS type is also typical, for instance, of M VD men of the purge period.