What It’s Like for a Survivor to Stand Trial Against a Nazi

Former SS guard Reinhold Hanning says he’s ashamed he witnessed the injustice of Auschwitz. At such trials, victims just want to stir some human reaction from their former tormenters.

Auschwitz survivor Irene Fogel Weiss at the trial of former SS member Oskar Groening, 2015.
Lesley Weiss

Until recently, Hedy Bohm couldn’t bear to hear German spoken.

“It filled me with tremendous fear,” says the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor from Oradea, Romania. “I would be instantly transported to when I was 16 years old at Auschwitz, the boxcar doors thrown open, with German guards screaming ‘Out! Fast!’ and separating me first from my father, then from my mother all within two minutes.”

The next few months were filled with terror as she tried to stay fit enough to pass the twice-daily roll calls. She would stand motionless for up to four hours a time as SS guards, whips in hand, counted and selected prisoners for death or work. But the worst part was wondering what happened to her parents.

“I was in shock,” Bohm says. “I had to tell myself they were going through similar circumstances and that we’d all reunite and make it out alive.”

Of course, that wasn’t the case. Her parents were selected for the gas chambers immediately.

“Had I known, I wouldn’t have had the will to live,” she says. “When I found out the truth at liberation, it was the only time in my life that I felt capable of murder. I’m not a vengeful person, but I wanted to kill the Germans for what they did to my family.”

These days, though, she doesn’t seek revenge. She says she wants justice and recognition, spurred by a rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“I never spoke much about my past with my children,” she says. “But after they grew up and I retired from business and became widowed, I decided to talk. The first time, we were too naive to think that anyone would kill us. But now I feel differently.”

First Bohm had to get over her fear of flying to Germany. Last July she was asked to serve as a witness to the prosecution against Oskar Groening, dubbed the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.

“I dreaded returning to Germany,” says Bohm, who survived slave labor in the German town of Wolfsburg after a few months in Auschwitz. “It was difficult to convince myself I had to take the trip.”

She also felt unsure about her ability to square off against a Nazi on the witness stand. After all, it’s a moment writ large in many a famed film script, from 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” to 2008’s “The Reader.”

And Bohm, who only recently began lecturing to school groups in Canada, wasn’t sure she had the stamina to face her demons. “I never considered myself good at public speaking,” says the Toronto resident.

The tormenter speaks

But it was just her ability to communicate – and speak from her heart – that prompted a dramatic turnaround in the case against Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning, in Detmold, Germany, last Friday.

94-year-old former SS sergeant Reinhold Hanning sits in the courtroom in Detmold, Germany, Friday, April 29, 2016.
Bernd Thissen / AP

The expressionless defendant finally broke his silence.

“I am ashamed that I witnessed injustice and allowed it to continue without taking any actions against it,” Hanning said after months of avoiding eye contact and refraining from uttering a word.

It was a stunning turnaround for a man whose stonewalling began to overshadow the searing testimonies given by 40 survivors.

“I just couldn’t understand how he could sit there, day after day, and never look up,” says Bohm. “How can you be so detached and distant that you can’t acknowledge the person speaking to you?”

For Max Eisen, reopening the wounds he experienced as a 15-year-old to an impassive Hanning was an eerie flashback.

“Because I couldn’t see his eyes, I was reminded of being in Auschwitz, where we had to look down all the time whenever we were accosted by an SS guard,” says Eisen, a Czech-born Toronto resident. His new book “By Chance Alone” goes into graphic detail about his time at the death camp.

Max Eisen, who was interned at Auschwitz as a teenager.
Julie Eisen

“We could never look them in the face, and here we were 71 years later, and this being doesn’t have the guts to face me? That told me a lot.”

Eisen left the trial feeling unsatisfied, as did Irene Fogel Weiss, an Auschwitz survivor who lost her entire family within an instant of arriving there. Speaking before a defendant who sat “with his head down to his chin” was very difficult for the American grandmother who often lectures to school groups about the Holocaust.

“You didn’t know what to think or feel,” she says of her time in court with Hanning. “He just sat there, and we wondered, is he sleeping? Is he listening? I wasn’t expecting a written confession, but something. How can he be such an animal? What prepared him in his life to be such an animal?”

Bohm had longed stopped asking why. She just wanted to get him to acknowledge her. Frustrated, she asked if she could go off script and approach Hanning directly. The judge obliged.

“I asked him if he heard me or understood me, but he didn’t answer,” she says. “Then I told him he didn’t have to be afraid of me, that I’m just another human being, and he still didn’t respond, until his lawyer whispered in his ear, and then suddenly he looked up at me.”

Locking eyes with a Nazi was a moment Bohm will never forget.

“It felt surreal there we were just looking at each other,” she recalls, though she wasn’t sure what she expected from him next. An admission? An apology? A breakdown? Or maybe just a tear?

Though she got none of the above, her words finally got through, says prosecutor Thomas Walther, who with partners Cornelius Nestler and Manuel Mayer indicted the former Auschwitz guard for being complicit in the murder of 170,000 people.

“It was because of Hedy that he looked up,” Walther says, speaking from Germany. “We were all surprised and even more so by his statement, though his lawyer read most of it.”

Still, Walther cautions, saying you are remorseful about what happened, as Groening did, isn’t the same as accepting guilt.

“I was in shock when I got off the plane from that trial,” says Eisen. “He told one story about patrolling the platform with a comrade who picked up a baby who was crying and smacking it against the steel side of the boxcar, and that’s how he ‘got the crying to stop.’ He never referred to it as killing a baby. He really believed he was doing the right thing. So when he said he felt a ‘moral guilt,’ it meant nothing to me.”

Annihilation by living condition

Bohm was equally surprised by her days in court with Groening, but for other reasons.

“He talked and talked, but what he said was of so little significance it was boring. And isn’t that shocking?” she asks. “All these years, you imagine about what it would feel like be able to confront this ultimate evil in court, and here he makes what he did sound boring!”

This time, Walther isn’t going to let the accused get off easy and is peppering him with questions to probe the depths of his culpability.

“He shows up in a wheelchair to win sympathy,” he says. “He might say he has no remembrance of the incidents so he can’t answer the questions, at which point we’ll have to evaluate his mental state to determine whether he’s really not able to or just not willing to.”

Further distinguishing the Hanning trial from previous ones is that it’s the first time the prisoners’ work environment is being viewed as a method of killing.

“Annihilation by living condition,” explains Walther. “When you’re restricting how many calories the prisoners can eat and you work them so hard they’re constantly expending energy, you know what you’re trying to do. Hanning witnessed the prisoners go from having a human face to being a Muselmann, a walking corpse. And he was responsible as an Unterscharfuehrer [unior squad leader] who was there from January 1942 until July 1944.”

Hanning was there when 300,000 of some 430,000 prisoners from Hungary were exterminated upon arrival from May to July 1944.

“We were the fastest group killed in the whole war, so getting him to look up was a vindication of sorts for me,” says Bohm, who arrived in that transport.

“I know this can’t bring my parents back. It’s too late for that. But it did make me feel that at least they can be heard. And that’s a gift of fate that I could testify against a Nazi in a German court 71 years after the Holocaust ended. Who would have ever thought that would happen?”

That’s certainly a positive development, as is Hanning’s turnaround, though others remain cautious.

“He says he’s ashamed and that for decades since the war he tried to suppress and forget his memories of that time,” says Weiss. “This is an important step, but it’s only a first step . It is time to stop forgetting and suppressing. My family and the murdered millions are not here to accept his apology.”

Bohm agrees.

“Let him spend the rest of his time lecturing to neo-Nazi groups and telling them that it’s wrong what he did,” she says. “That would be a transformation.”

And Bohm should know.

“Speaking out in Germany has changed me,” she says after appearing at what may be the last Nazi trial. “It lifted a great big heaviness out of my heart.”