domingo, 26 de octubre de 2014

Nuremberg trials interpreter Siegfried Ramler: ‘The things we saw were shocking’

'I was 22, I just concentrated on the job' … Siegfried Ramler in front of a projection of Hans Frank, the 'Butcher of Warsaw'. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Seven years after fleeing the Nazis on the Kindertransport, Siegfried Ramler made his way to Nuremberg – where he became an interpreter in the trials of Germany’s major war criminals.

Siegfried Ramler travelled from Honolulu to London last month, a little short of his 90th birthday, to give a talk about human dignity and the Nuremberg trials, at which he worked as an interpreter. Coincidentally, he arrived as the Conservative party announced an ill-considered and petulant threat to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, aligning itself with the ideas of Vladimir Putin. The convention was adopted shortly after Ramler completed his Nuremburg assignment, reflecting the “enthronement of human rights” that Winston Churchill had called for in October 1942.

Sig, as he likes to be known, has a wry sense of humour and a gentle German accent. A packed audience at the Army & Navy Club on Pall Mall listened in a state of thrall as he described the experience of sharing a small interrogation room with the likes of Hermann Göring and Hans Frank, men whose acts prompted European states to embrace the revolutionary idea of individual human rights. Organised by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the event celebrated the birth of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg trials, a novel development that took years off the proceedings, while imposing on interpreters the pressures of capturing the horror accurately and fairly, before the speaker had completed the sentence.
Sig’s road to Nuremberg was not direct. In March 1938, as a 14-year-old Austrian Jewish schoolboy, he watched Wehrmacht troops enter Vienna, observing through drawn curtains the coming of the swastika and the jubilation of a multitude of joyous Austrians.
The family were soon thrown out of their home and shortly after Kristallnacht Sig travelled to London on the kindertransport, to live with his uncle near Hampstead Heath in north London, a period he recalls with much fondness. Towards the end of the war, in 1945, Sig signed up with the US air force to work as a linguist in Germany. He learned of the trial of Nazi leaders, went Awol, and hitched a ride to Nuremberg’s palace of justice.
Within days he was sitting in a small room with Hans Frank and a military interrogator. Without any training, he interpreted the pre-trial interrogations of the man who ruled large parts of occupied Poland, the “Butcher of Warsaw”.
Frank was governor general of occupied Poland, as well as Adolf Hitler’s personal lawyer, a man charged with – and then convicted for – the murder of three million Jews and Poles. Sig remembers him as an “interesting and impressive” man “overtaken by fanaticism”. He acted “with a clear mind”, he says: “He knew he had done wrong.”
How did he feel to be in the same room as Frank, given that he had lived through Kristallnacht? That wasn’t the issue, says Sig. “I was preoccupied with doing a good job, with unfamiliar vocabulary” – the search for accuracy. “We were there to interpret, not to judge. Did subconscious, negative feelings intervene? The predominant question was not of feelings but a linguistic question, how do I accept this challenge of words.”
During questions from the audience after his talk, someone asks whether the interpreters were traumatised by what they heard. “The things we saw were shocking,” Sig says, “but they could not be translated into feelings, because we were not in a position to feel one way or another. I was 22, I just concentrated on the job”.
After the pre-trial interrogations came the main trial. Sig was there from day one – 20 November 1945 – to the end, when the sentences were handed down. Ten times he heard the presiding judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence of the English court of appeal, speak the words “Death by hanging” – Tode durch den strang: a straightforward matter for the interpreters. That last session was not filmed, to preserve the dignity of the defendants. He recalls many of the big moments over that year: Robert Jackson’s “unforgettable” opening speech (four nations who chose to “stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law”); Jackson’s near disastrous cross-examination of Hermann Goering, repaired by a “brilliant” David Maxwell-Fyfe; the Bergen-Belsen film of “gas chambers and unspeakable cruelties”; the acceptance of a little responsibility by Hans Frank and Albert Speer (“they pronounced a collective guilt of Germany as a whole but would not accept individual guilt”).He recalls too the moments of levity: the festivities at the Grand Hotel, the excessive drinking by Russian officers, the buffoonery of Hermann Goering. The questions take him back to his own emotions. Yes, he says, there were moments when some of us got into difficulty. One of his colleagues was Virginia von Schon, a librarian and most talented interpreter, also “beautiful, prim and proper”. “She was on an English microphone”, Sig tells an audience on tenterhooks, “when a word came up that she could not bring herself to pronounce, because it was so vulgar”. Not wanting to pronounce it in open courtroom “she interpreted all the way up to the word, then she stopped, she just wouldn’t do it.” Sig pauses. “I took the microphone and used that word, in fact I made it worse.” He pauses again. “On that note, we might adjourn!”
The legacy and lessons of that momentous year were “extremely important”, personally and globally, Sig says. Over the decades a question recurs. “How it is possible that these things happened in a country that produced musicians, a Goethe, a Schiller, how was it possible that a culture like this could sink into the abyss into which they had fallen under the Nazis?” Sig still asks himself that question. The answer? “I attempt a response, that when you live in a society with no checks on behaviour, no acceptance of any rule of law, no respect for rules of procedure, then those things can happen in any country.” He pauses, looks up, around the room. “It’s not only a German problem, it’s a human problem.”
He feels strongly about global cooperation – he still works at the East-West Centre in Hawaii (an organisation founded in 1960 to strengthen relations between nations) – and human rights and international criminal justice. The Nuremberg judgments engendered the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and then two years later, the European Convention. These, he says, are matters of pride and also concern: “Just because it doesn’t all work perfectly doesn’t mean it was the wrong way.” In his view Nuremberg “created a path to the rule of international law, a means for dealing with guilt and the acceptance of responsibility”, a way of distinguishing right from wrong.
It seems that some Conservatives – the justice secretary among them – wish to be rid of the European court. Chris Grayling would do well to spend an evening with Siegfried Ramler, who could refresh him on the rationale for the European Convention and its court, a system of collective security. Sig knows a thing or two about history, and what happens when checks and balances are cast aside.


jueves, 23 de octubre de 2014

A lesson from the Holocaust: Tomi Reichenau, "I was a boy in Belsen"

BY the end of the Second World War, the Nazis had murdered six million Jews in Europe. One and a half million of these were children. Tomi Reichental was only 9 years old when he was sent to Belsen concentration camp. Last week, the Irish-based Holocaust survivor retold his grim story to Limerick teenagers. 

Tomi Reichental 5INSPIRATIONAL Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, who was imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen death camp by the Nazis when he was just nine-years-old, gave a harrowing account of its daily horrors to Limerick teenagers last week.
The 79-year-old, who has been based in Dublin since 1959, lost 35 family members during the Holocaust and described his experiences in the notorious concentration camp as “hell on earth” during his talk to 160 senior cycle students at Ardscoil Mhuire in Corbally.
Author of the memoir ‘I Was A Boy in Belsen’, Tomi was born in Slovakia in 1935 and starts his riveting lecture by recalling the “happy times” of his early childhood growing up on his father’s farm in the small village of Piestany, 80 miles from Bratislava.
“I grew up in a farming community of 700 inhabitants, and although we were Jewish, we were integrated into the village. I have fond memories,” he said.
However, by the time he was six, the world had distorted into a grotesque shape as Hitler’s Nazi Germany set about creating a ‘master Aryan race’ and obliterating the Jews from existence.
Tomi’s parents did their best to protect him and his older brother from the horrors taking place in Europe. But, with all Jews obliged to wear a yellow star, classmates took to verbal and physical abuse and soon, school was no longer an option for the Reichental children. The nightmare beginning for Tomi and its true evil would soon be inescapable for him and his family.
“People began to hate the Jews. Our lives were restricted with lots of silly regulations and life became very difficult. Jews could not go to school, ride a bicycle or drive a car, or go to public places like cinemas and swimming pools and they could not work. We found ourselves strangers in our own land,” he told the Ardscoil Mhuire students.
“I didn’t feel different as a young child but I started to ask why do they hate me so much?” he added.
The gentle, affable old man went on to recount childhoods days spent hiding out in fields to avoid capture from the SS and the constant fear of being taken away as “whispers” of the extermination camps and gas chambers spread like wildfire throughout an already fearful Jewish community.
In 1944, supplied with false papers and new non-Jewish aliases through the aid of a Catholic priest, Tomi and his brother left for Bratislava with his mother. Word soon got back to them, that his father, who decided to stay and keep the farm running was arrested by the SS and taken to Auschwitz.
“Thankfully, he survived and I found out when I was reunited with him after the war that he managed to escape when he jumped from a moving train with a Hungarian safecracker and a third man. He then joined the resistance and fought against the Nazis”.
In Bratislava, Tomi, his brother, mother and grandmother, were not so lucky after being betrayed as Jews and arrested and beaten by the Gestapo. Thirteen family members were captured that day, and only five survived.
The other seven died at Auschwitz.Tomi Reichental 4
After seven days in a dark and cramped cattle truck with 60 other people, Tomi and his family arrived in Bergen-Belsen in the dead of night on November 9, 1944.
Greeted with shouts of “schnell schnell” (quickly quickly), dogs barking, the glare of searchlights and a solid week of being treated worse than an animal, Tomi says they were disorientated and starving, but relieved to finally stretch out, soaked and exhausted, in the barracks’ wooden bunks after a further two and a half hour march through soggy forests.
“The first thing we saw were the tall chimneys. Imagine the horror of what must have been going through the adults’ minds after whispers of gas chambers?
“This place was hell on earth,” he said.
“People were so emaciated and starved that they looked like skeletons. They did not have the attributes to tell if they were men or women, they just looked like skeletons.
“The guards were very cruel and we were constantly hungry. People would do anything to try and escape the suffering, but there was no escape. So they would walk towards the barbed wire fence and the soldiers would see them and shoot them. Suicide was their end to it all.
The chimneys in the crematorium were going 24 hours a day and we got used to the stench of burning flesh. People would fall down around the camp and most of the time they would never get back up.
Typhoid and starvation were epidemic and, as children, we used to play hide and seek among the piles of dead bodies, which were piled four feet high.”
Liberated from the Nazis in April 1945, Tomi also recalls the sound of the Allied tanks and jeeps approaching and the relief as they entered the gates of the camp after their captors fled four days earlier.
The Dublin-based pensioner did not talk about his experiences for 55 years, but for the past nine years has traveled to schools and universities up and down Ireland and abroad to tell of his dark experiences under Nazi rule.
“My story is a story of survival and Holocaust survivors are a dying breed. It is important that this story is told to young people so they can teach their families and their children in the future,” he explained to the Limerick Post in Corbally last week.
Ardscoil Mhuire principal Collette McGrath described Tomi as a “great storyteller” and said it was a “privilege” to have him tell his story to senior students at the school after taking up art teacher Mike Connor’s invitation.
Close to evil
Tomi Reichental 7DURING a two-hour talk at Ardscoil Mhuire in Corbally last week, Tomi Reichental brought one of history’s ugliest chapters to life as he gave a chilling account of life in a Nazi concentration camp.
Teachers and students fought back the tears as Tomi, now 79, told of the hellish reality of Bergen-Belsen, which claimed over 70,000 lives under brutish Nazi depravity. His grim tales of playing among piles of rotting corpses as a 9-year-old boy, who lived with death always a hair’s-breadth away, were, at times, hard to take.
An extraordinary man, he told the Limerick Post after his riveting lecture that he believes it vitally important for his message of tolerance and reconciliation to be gifted to today’s youth.
“It is important that we remember. There is racism in Ireland and we need young people to use their voices and not stand by silently. They must use their voices to stop injustice,” said Tomi.
RTE recently made a documentary about the Holocaust survivor called ‘Close To Evil’, in which he travels to Hamburg in the hope of meeting one of his former jailers — the SS guard, Hilde Lisiewicz.
A convicted war criminal who was found guilty of crimes against humanity, Hilde Michnia, as she is known today, still denies that she beat prisoners to death.
Tomi discovers during the making of the film that the unrepentant and defiant Lisiewicz was a participant in a forced death march of female prisoners from Gross Rosen concentration camp in Poland, but is still prepared to reach out to her.
“I was not looking for an apology, but I was hoping she would have courage and show remorse for her actions. Unfortunately, she is still living back in 1945. She too is a victim of those times,” Tomi told the Limerick Post.
Tomi Reichental lost 35 family members in the Holocaust.
At the end of ‘Close To Evil’ the big-hearted pensioner embraces a German woman who honestly faces up to the terrible legacy of her grandfather Hanns Ludin, the Nazi Envoy to Bratislava, who was responsible for sending Tomi to Belsen.

lunes, 20 de octubre de 2014

The Pink Triangle and the BA connection

The British Cemetery at the Chacarita cemetery in Buenos Aires holds the tombstone of a man named Carl Peter Vaernet. The name alone does not catch the attention of visitors, but truth is Vaernet was a notorious SS doctor of Danish origin who, in 1942, joined the Nazi ranks as a scientists conducting experiments leading to a long-sought Nazi dream: eternal youth.

But Vaernet’s biological experiments soon led to hormone treatment for the “cure” of another “illness” threatening the very existence of a pure German race: the existence of homosexual men who would not hold the heterosexual pattern of reproduction. This is where Vaernet extreme theories, never proved but tried on homosexual prisoners at Nazi concentration camps and who bore the infamous Pink Triangle mark as a sign of their “deviant” sexual orientation, began to take shape in the form of monstruous procedures — biological and surgical — to “cure” homosexuality and reorient the patients toward “normal” heterosexual behaviour.
Although the history of the Nazi holocaust perpetrated against Jews until their annihilation to attain a “pure” Arian race is well documented and rightly brought to the present through memorials and history books, articles and movies, very little is actually known about the fate of homosexual victims of the Nazi holocaust, imprisoned and segregated from the rest of prisoners just on account of their “abnormal” sexual orientation, drive and behaviour.
When commenting on Nazi biological experiments with purification and the supposed eventual triumph and predominance of the superior Arian race, the name of the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, who, like many other Nazis, fled to secure, protective havens in South America, immediately comes to mind. With the protection of a network of former SS members, Mengele sailed to Argentine in 1949, living in and around Buenos Aires and eventually fleeing to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960. Sought by West German, Israeli and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal, Mengele eluded justice until his accidental death while swimming off the Brazilian coast in 1979.
Less known but equally prominent in the SS quest for a perfect arian race is Vaernet, a physicist of Danish origin who claimed to be able to bring a “solution” to the Nazi preoccupation with the “high percentage” of male homosexuals in the German population. The solution to the homosexual was not extermination but rather finding a cure for this “illness” so that reproduction and the triumph of the perfect race could be achieved.
In the Nuremberg trials conducted between 1945 and 1949 prosecuting the perpetrators of the Nazi horrors, including high-ranking military officers, doctors, lawyers, and industrialists indicted on charges of crimes against peace and against humanity, no mention was made of crimes against homosexuals. According to Nuremberg records, many of the known SS doctors, who had performed biological and surgical procedures on homosexual prisoners, were never brought to account for their heinous actions. Moreover, homosexuals, clearly victims of human rights violations, continued to be incarcerated for their sexual conduct, which was considered illegal and liable to criminal prosecution, and were not mentioned as “Pink Triangle” inmates at the Buchenwald and Neuengamme camps. Vaernet, one of the most notorious physicians to blame for masterminding and performing such experiments, was never tried for his crimes and escaped to South America thanks to a political safeconduct.
Continuing his “homosexual cure” for homosexual conversion to heterosexuality in the posh BA neighbourhood of Palermo, Vaernet practiced for some 20 years before his death as a free man in 1965.
Already shown in the city of Rosario and other venues, El Triángulo Rosa — Y la cura Nazi para la Homosexualidad was formatted as the story of an investigator who unearths the Health Ministry’s contract to conduct research, the results of which remain unsolved to this day. The film unveils the PI’s search for traces of Vaernet’s life and work in Buenos Aires, making an effort to understand his personality and all the while exploring the public opinion and diverse political moves restricting or handling homosexuality over the last 100 years, based on the expose revealed in the book Carl Vaernet: Der Dänische SS-Artz Im Kz Buchenwald, by H Davidsen-Nielsen; N Hoiby; N Danielsen; J Rubin; et al.
As the PI investigates the real-case stories of Argentine patients taken to Vaernet’s office for cure through his hormone injection method, the documentary unexpectedly wraps up with a direct reference to the historic approval of the same-sex marriage bill in Argentina, which set a precedent for other countries where the LGBT community seeks egalitarian treament of their rights.
“You don’t always go searching around for stories, sometimes they come to you,” says co-director Nacho Steinberg. “In this case, I was always interested in the subject of WWII. I was never able to understand nor accept such a disaster, so much human imbecility at the service of weapons, conquest and hegemonic madness. The dead, the genocide, the lack of sense (of it all) hurt. After dealing with Holocaust in a stage plays, a historian friend, moved by the piece, suggested that I write a story about Carl Vaernet, the Danish doctor who sought refuge in Argentina,” Steinberg continues. “It was a revelatory story, unknown, concealed and that eventually did not come to prominence because, until very recently, the world shared this notion that homosexuality is an illness.

jueves, 16 de octubre de 2014

Excavation of gas chamber at Nazi Sobibor concentration camp completed

With the assistance of supporters, archaeologists Yoram Haimi from Israel and Wojciech Mazurek from Poland have excavated the remains of the gas chamber at the Nazi Sobibor concentration camp near Lublin, near the eastern Polish border, as Spiegel Online reported on September 23.
In a clearing near the old Sobibor train station, one can see the newly discovered finds and remains of the walls. It includes the remains of an estimated four gas chambers, each 5 by 7 metres, which served as death chambers for between 70 and 100 people. Haimi and Mazurek hope that their findings will make the Nazi crimes at Sobibor more comprehensible. The Nazis destroyed the concentration camp 71 years ago, after SS officers and their allies had murdered between 170,000 and 250,000 people, mostly defenceless Jews and Roma.
The Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka concentration camps were designed to carry out the systematic extermination of Jews and Roma living in the “General Government,” which was composed of those parts of Ukraine and Poland occupied by the Wehrmacht. Jews from the Netherlands, Germany and other states were also murdered there.
From the outset, the concentration camps were purely extermination camps. Only a small number of the people sent there were employed in forced labour. Most were driven directly from the goods wagons to the gas chambers.
In the three camps, between July 1942 and October 1943, at least 1.7 million Jews and 50,000 Roma were killed, more than in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which became the synonym for industrial mass murder. The implementation of the mass murder, code-named “Operation Rheinhardt,” was tasked to the SS and the police chief in Lublin, Odilo Globocnik, by SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
According to Spiegel Online, the Nazis ensured that no trace was left of Operation Rheinhardt. In the midst of the war, the war criminals, following the extermination of the Jews, sought to methodically eliminate all remaining traces of them. Between November 1942 and December 1943 they exhumed bodies, killed almost all remaining residents of the three concentration camps in eastern Poland, and burnt all of the remains of bodies.
Plans and documents referring to the camps were also destroyed, as well as the buildings. The grounds were flattened, forests planted and farms established. As few traces as possible of the monstrous crimes planned and carried out within the framework of Operation Rheinhardt were to be left.
Only very few people survived the three concentration camps. On October 14, 1943, 50 prisoners launched an uprising and broke out from Sobibor and survived the remainder of the ongoing war. In Treblinka, where 800,000 people were murdered, only around 60 survived. In Belzec, more than 430,000 were killed and only eight survived.
The excavations were initiated by the Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi, who came as a visitor to Sobibor in April 2007 to pay tribute to his two uncles who died there. “At that time the museum was closed,” he said. “There were monuments to see, but nothing that showed where and how the murders were carried out.”
He decided he would look for the remains of Sobibor himself and in the Polish archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek he founded an equally engaged partner for the project. Together they fought to obtain the necessary financing and authorisations from the authorities.
Already in 2010, next to the square with the monument, the archaeologists discovered remains of security barriers. One year later, they discovered the so-called “route to heaven,” along which the new arrivals were driven to the gas chambers. “It was quite clear to us that the gas chambers would be at the end,” Haimi told Spiegel Online.
But at first they could go no further. The memorial faced closure. Due to a lack of money, the visitors’ centres had to be temporarily closed. Then the foundation for Polish-German reconciliation and the Majdanik State Museum took over responsibility for the grounds.
Haimi and Mazurek continued their excavation and found remains from barriers, barracks, crematoriums, as well as skeletons. The Rabbi of Warsaw gave them authorisation to remove the tarmac from the suspected site of the mass grave.
On September 8 this year, the archaeologists discovered remains of walls of red brick. Everything pointed to the conclusion that they were standing on the remains of the gas chamber. The area was between the “route to heaven,” the crematorium and the remains of a barracks of the “special commando unit,” as well as a water hole. Experts from Auschwitz confirmed the find.
The discovery was of “the greatest importance for Holocaust research,” said David Silberklang, historian at the Yad Washem memorial in Jerusalem. He expected that it would become possible to provide a more accurate estimate of the victims, and know more precisely about how the murders had taken place.
Traces of Jewish life were also found during the excavations at Sobibor, such as an earring with the engraving, “see, you are dear to me,” and a metal plaque with the date of the birth of the then six-year-old Lea Judith de la Penha from Amsterdam. As a result of this find, a television crew from the Netherlands are to film a documentary about the story of the child and her family. At least some of the victims of Sobibor will thereby be recognised.
Eighty-four-year-old Philip Bialowitz, one of the few living survivors from Sobibor, responded with satisfaction to the excavation finds. As a youth, he had belonged to the group of conspirators who planned the Sobibor uprising of October 14, 1943.
He was able to escape and was taken in and concealed along with his brother by a Polish farmer until the Red Army arrived. He had spent his life travelling the world, “because I swore that I would tell my story to young people as long as I am able. What happened back then should never be forgotten.”
Another survivor of the Sobibor camp, and participant in the 1943 uprising, was Thomas Blatt. He turned his recollections of the period into a book titled, “Sobibor, the forgotten uprising.”
Both Philip Bialowitz and Thomas Blatt appeared as witnesses and joint plaintiffs in January 2010 during the trial of SS helper John Demjanjuk in Munich. They described the terrible experiences they had as forced labourers in Sobibor.
The historian of Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History, Dieter Pohl, presented a report to the court. He described the establishment of the National Socialists’ system for exterminating Jews in the areas of Eastern Europe occupied by the Nazis, and the emergence of the extermination camps, including Sobibor. Since May 1942, Jews from throughout Europe had been systematically murdered in this camp in Poland, Pohl told the court. “The sole aim was murder.” The leadership of the camp was composed of 25 to 30 SS soldiers, while the dirty work was carried out by 100-120 so-called Trawnicki guards, Demjanjuk among them.
Although the trial of Demjanjuk shed light on the crimes of National Socialism, it left many decisive questions unanswered. Dumjanjuk died shortly after his conviction in May 2011, before the sentence of five years imprisonment for assisting in the murder of 28,000 Jews in Sobibor went into force.
A major problem in the trial of Demjanjuk was that most of those chiefly responsible for the Nazi crimes and those who assisted them were never brought before the courts in post-war Germany. Many of those responsible in the judiciary, intelligence services and police continued to be active in the federal republic without interruption, and without being held to account for their actions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, only half of the SS men prosecuted in the Sobibor trials were convicted. The camp’s chief at the time received a life-long custodial sentence, and the others imprisonment of between three and eight years.