Sitting in a Munich courtroom last month, I thought of my youngest child becoming a bat mitzvah in six weeks. I thought of how thrilled she is and how proud we feel. As I watched the two paramedics wheel in John Demjanjuk, I thought of my father’s brother and sister — who did not live to become bar and bat mitzvahs because they died as young children in the gas chambers at Sobibor.
For years, when I have closed my eyes at night, I often wonder whether their mother, my grandmother, held them in her arms as they gasped for air; I imagine their deaths were quick and painless as they held each other in their mother’s lap.
But the testimony by Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt on Jan. 19 shattered my naïve fantasy; I learned that their deaths were neither quick nor painless.
Presiding Judge Ralph Alt asked Blatt how long the screams from the gas chambers persisted before death set in. Twenty to 30 minutes, answered Blatt, who survived the extermination camp by taking part in a revolt in October 1943.
My father, Martin Haas, was in the courtroom, as well, one of 22 Dutch co-plaintiffs against Demjanjuk. Now a San Diego resident, my dad is part of a group of plaintiffs called the Nebenkläger — composed of three survivors and 19 other Dutch who lost a first-degree relative at Sobibor between April 1943 and September 1943, the period during which Demjanjuk is accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 27,900 people.
My father was born in 1936 in the south of Holland, the youngest of four children. In 1942, his father, Jacob, was taken to Auschwitz and was never heard from or seen again. He died in Auschwitz on Feb. 28, 1943, one month after his 42nd birthday.
In October 1942, the rest of the family (mother Margaretha and four children, all age 9 and under) were ordered to report for deportation to Kamp Westerbork. The evening before, my then 5-year-old father and his 6-year-old sister, Roosje, were smuggled into hiding, a plan that was devised by an underground organization of Catholic nuns.
In his testimony during the first week of the trial — which I was not present for — my father recalled that on that fateful evening, his mother had told him that he was a Jewish boy, but instructed him to forget that fact for a short while.
Now, some 65 years later, there was my father, in Munich, as a co-plaintiff against Demjanjuk. Among the victims of the accused: 36-year-old Margaretha Haas, 9-year-old Isaak Haas and 10-year-old Elisabeth Haas — Martin’s mother, brother and sister. As well as countless aunts, uncles and cousins.
My father, now 73, is represented by one of five co-plaintiff lawyers, Cornelius Nestler, a law professor from Cologne, Germany, who sat immediately in front of my father in the center of the courtroom.
I sat one row back with my partner, Suzanne, my 20-year-old son, Yonatan, and my 17-year-old daughter, Shira. On stage were seven judges.
My father, who moved to Israel immediately after his bar mitzvah in Amsterdam, then brought his family to San Diego in 1980, was the fifth Nebenkläger to testify. The Los Angeles Times wrote about how he had to hold back tears as he described the day in 1943 when he and his sister were smuggled into hiding.
“I remember that it was a rainy day,” he said in slow but measured German, the Times reported on Dec. 4. “The woman hid me under her cape, and took me away just in time.”
I did not even know my father spoke German, but he actually testified in German and answered all the judge’s questions in German. He did not shed a tear, but I know that testifying was extraordinarily emotional for him.
During the three days I was in the courtroom in January, what had been hazy images of horror in my mind suddenly got filled in with details.
Blatt’s testimony brought Sobibor to life as only death can: the beautiful greenery surrounding the platform onto which unwitting Jews disembarked to their deaths; the music playing as they stepped off the trains; the precise location of the towers housing the snipers around the camp; the double rows of barbed wire; the exact positions of all the barracks.
Blatt described the speech given by the German head of Sobibor to the Jews as they disembarked: the SS officer apologizing that their travels to this “resettlement camp” were difficult and expressing hope that their stay at Sobibor will be more comfortable.
Then, Blatt continued, the officer would point them down the path toward the gas chamber, explaining that for hygienic purposes, their clothes must be removed and their heads must be shaven. Blatt described the women and children walking in a silent procession down the walkway where the sign “Road to Heaven” hung.
At one point, I looked over at Demjanjuk, who was reaching up to adjust his baseball cap to better cover his face. During the three days I was there, he conversed with his paramedics, lawyers, attendants and translator, but never once did he indicate that he had heard a word of the testimony — nor did he acknowledge the presence of those sitting only a few feet from him, the people who lost their mothers, brothers, sisters and other family members at Sobibor.
On the first day I was there, my family and I ate lunch with Nestler, the German lawyer representing my
father. He expressed surprise that most people do not understand the difference between a concentration camp such as Auschwitz and an extermination camp such as Sobibor.
I was embarrassed to admit that I, too, did not know the difference — until he explained that slave labor in Auschwitz was performed for various purposes to fulfill needs of the German army (such as building a road or working in a factory) while extermination camps like Sobibor existed exclusively for killing.
The few Jewish prisoners who worked in a camp like Sobibor were there only to carry out the jobs that maximized the efficiency of the killing machine. Those jobs included shaving women’s heads, sorting the victims’ clothing, burning documents, or collecting valuables left in the pockets and suitcases.
I didn’t sleep much that night.
The next morning, Blatt continued his testimony, spending more than an hour at an overhead projector that cast a diagram of Sobibor on the courtroom wall. He testified in German, with a smattering of Yiddish and English mixed in. We listened to an English translator through our headsets.
That night we dined with several of the other Dutch Nebenkläger, and for the first time in my life I felt the power of a shared past. They, like my father, spent their entire adult lives having never spoken of their traumatic wartime experiences.
My father told us of his past for the first time only two years ago, when his granddaughter asked him to speak to her class at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. Perhaps it is easier to impart his painful history to his grandchildren than to his children.
On Jan. 21, Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Ulrich Busch, asked to make a statement. Then, in a 30-minute diatribe, he stated that Ukrainian guards were victims of the Nazi regime just as much as Jews were. They had no choice but to follow orders of the German officers.
In a succinct response, Nestler, the German attorney, made several points that I found deeply moving. He stated that the guilt of the Germans in the atrocities perpetuated against the Jews is irrefutable and indisputable — and that is not on trial in these proceedings. What is on trial is the guilt of others, the guilt of the Ukrainian guards that were integral components of the Nazi machinery.
This was one of the most validating moments of the trial for me: the forthright ownership of guilt for German crimes against the Jews stated so frankly in a German court.
Sobibor survivor Philip Bialowitz testified later that day, the horror of his words magnified with each passing moment.
He began by telling us that at age 15 he arrived at Sobibor with his brother, two sisters and young niece. His brother and he were taken to be workers in the camp, while his sisters and niece were led away. An hour later, he ran into a friend, who told him that he had just shaved the hair of Bialowitz’s sisters, and that the stench and smoke bellowing from camp III was of their burning bodies.
Bialowitz spoke of his months of work at Sobibor, where he was assigned the task of helping the Jews from the trains. He told of one train that rolled in with a terrible stench emanating from it. When he opened the doors, the train was full of decomposing bodies, and a few emaciated people who had lost their minds. The few living Jews were shot on the platform because they were too weak to walk to the gas chambers.
He said he saw a young woman clutching a baby on her chest, both dead and swollen after days in the hot train. He tried to take the woman’s body off the train, but her skin came off in his hands. He sat down on the platform and decided he would rather be shot than continue with this work. Then an SS sergeant came over, said “what a beautiful picture,” snapped a photograph of the dead woman and baby, beat Bialowitz and told him to get back to work.
Although Bialowitz spoke with a soft but clear voice that never wavered, many of the Nebenkläger were weeping uncontrollably by the end of his testimony. Only after Judge Alt called for a break did the translator break down in tears, as well.
My son went over to my father and gave him a long, warm hug. Every single Nebenkläger in the courtroom came over to me, hugged me and asked if I was OK. I felt ashamed that those who had lost their parents and siblings — sitting through detailed descriptions of what likely transpired for their relatives — were comforting me instead of the other way around.
Three things surprised me about attending Demjanjuk’s trial.
First, my view of Germany and Germans was completely transformed. I had never wanted to set foot in Germany and had boycotted German goods for my entire adult life. Yet, I felt more kindness and warmth from the Germans in the courtroom than I could have ever imagined. From the bailiffs who spent their own money on cookies for the Nebenkläger every morning to the translator whose empathic smile was more comforting than any words, I will forever cherish the care and compassion shown by members of that German court.
Second, I felt more understood and validated by the Germans in the courtroom than I had ever felt by any group of Americans. Although virtually all of them had been born well after the war ended, they completely owned German sins of the past, and I felt less lonely and alone in my grief than ever before in the U.S.
Third, the Nebenkläger’s strength and integrity were awe-inspiring. There sat people whose mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters were murdered by the most grotesque machinery imaginable.
They listened to detailed descriptions of how their relatives were gassed and yet they exuded only respect, appreciation and kindness toward others in the courtroom. This testament to the human spirit is the victory that will prevail, regardless of the verdict against Demjanjuk.
Dr. Daphne Haas-Kogan is a resident of San Francisco and a professor at UCSF, where she is also the vice chair and program director of the Department of Radiation Oncology.