For the first time in Polish, the book Auschwitz Trial by Hermann Langbein has been published, containing nearly 800 pages of accounts from one of the largest trials against the perpetrators of Auschwitz, which took place from 1963-1965 in Frankfurt am Main in Germany.
Accounts of eye witnesses, full of dynamics and unconcealed feelings, remembering their camp experiences in the place where the Auschwitz Memorial is located nowadays ensure that this document constitutes a unique and harrowing guidebook through the largest Nazi German concentration and extermination camp.
The author, a former Auschwitz prisoner and one of the witnesses in the trial, selected and commented upon the most valuable part of extensive evidence proceedings, dividing the selected testimonies with respect to their content. Thanks to the thematic layout, readers can reach a selected problem and compare various testimonies on a selected subject. Thereby, the publication retains all the advantages of direct contact with a historical source and at the same time, thanks to careful selection of quotations, is deprived of its drawbacks.
Even though, after so many years, the legal aspect of the Frankfurt trial is without greater importance, confrontation with history still remains a valid issue. As written by the author in the introduction to the first German edition of 1965: “If this collection of 825 testimonies filed during the Auschwitz trial by 273 witnesses may help the new generation in obtaining knowledge on what was possible not so long ago in Germany, if it helps in wondering why this could happen and what should be done to prevent this from happening ever again – even in different circumstances – then this book has met its purpose.”
Publishers of the Polish edition, retaining the original layout of the book, enriched it by several elements, enabling today’s reader to have a fuller reception of the presented facts, including footnotes with information about the participants of the trial and a dictionary of names and German institutions and camp terms.
The book was published jointly by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the Via Nowa publishing house and the Institute of National Remembrance – the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation and can be purchased at the Internet bookstore of the Auschwitz Memorial.
The First Frankfurt Trial (1963-65) was the greatest and the most important of all trials against the Nazis, which took place in Germany under the jurisdiction of the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945. It attracted the attention of German and foreign mass media and had the most dramatic course and political repercussions out of all other similar procedures conducted between 1945 and 1980.
The trial of 20 SS men from the personnel of the Auschwitz camp lasted over 180 days; in the course of it, 254 witnesses were heard. According to historians, this event contrasted with earlier treatment of Nazi crimes by Western Germany and was – together with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 – one of the key factors which provided the premises for a more critical approach of German people to the heritage of the Third Reich.
The early 1960’s were a transition period between the early years of the existence of the FRG when the Nazi past was treated restrainedly, whereas former Nazi criminals were actively rehabilitated, and the late 1960’s and 1970’s when the newer generation reacted to the Nazi past, and especially the Holocaust, in a much more emotional manner, frequently combining it with a demand for radical social and political changes. In this context, the Frankfurt trial was an important link connecting these two periods.
Hermann Langbein was born in 1912 in Vienna. Between 1938 and 1939, he fought in the ranks of the International Brigade in Spain. After the outbreak of WWII, he was interned in France and handed over by the Vichy government to the Germans, who sent him to the Dachau concentration camp. In 1942, he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he acted actively in the camp resistance movement, at the same time holding the function of secretary for Eduard Wirths, the chief garrison doctor. This allowed him to have insight into confidential SS information, including statistics of prisoners killed in the camp and Jews murdered in gas chambers. He lived to see the liberation of the Neuengamme camp.
In 1958, Langbein filed a charge against Wilhelm Boger, a former SS man from the Political Division – the camp Gestapo in Auschwitz – which led to the first Frankfurt trial, which commenced in 1963. Langbein participated in the majority of court sessions, writing down the statements of witnesses and the accused, and shortly after announcement of the verdict, he published a two-volume report from the proceedings entitled Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Eine Dokumentation. The layout of the book, divided according to the camp structure, clearly showed that its main point of reference was not so much the trial on Auschwitz, but Auschwitz itself. And this is the nature of this publication: the history of the concentration and extermination camp, told during the course of the trial by eyewitnesses.
Fragments of the book
[Murdering of people in gas chambers]
Chairman of the court: Where did the gassing take place at that time?
Kremer: Old village buildings were transformed into bunkers and provided with tight movable doors. At the top, there was an opening. People were led there without clothes. They would go very quietly, only some would resist – these were taken aside and shot. Gas was thrown inside by an SS man appointed for this task. He would climb a ladder.
Chairman of the court: You said earlier that cries were heard.
Kremer: Yes, it was fear of death. They would kick the doors. I would sit in the car.
Chairman of the court: Were there any special bonuses to those who participated in such an action?
Kremer: Yes, this was normal; there was some vodka and cigarettes. Everybody wanted it. Coupons were distributed for it. I also received such a coupon – in a completely automatic manner.
Representative of auxiliary prosecution Ormond: In your journal, you wrote that SS men would strive for work at the loading dock.
Kremer: From the human point of view, it is very understandable. It was war, and cigarettes and vodka were lacking. If somebody was addicted to cigarettes… People would collect coupons and then go with a bottle to the canteen.
The man who described the course of gassing in such a matter-of-fact manner is the former university professor, Johann Paul Kremer, Ph.D. from Münster. In Poland and in Germany, he was already penalised for participation in the mass murders. In Frankfurt, he left the place for witnesses with a gentle smile.
A lower rank SS man testifies reluctantly. He got to know the places of gassing as a driver:
Hölblinger: I was doing service as a driver and was driving the ambulance assigned for transportation of prisoners.
Chairman of the court: Were you also driving at night?
Hölblinger: Yes, when transports with Jews arrived at the Birkenau ramp. I had to take a paramedic and doctors to the ramp. Then, we would also go to the gas chambers. The paramedics would climb the ladder, they had gas masks on, and they emptied the cans. I saw prisoners when they were undressed; everything would take place very peacefully; they had no idea what was going on. It would happen very quickly.
Chairman of the court: How long did the gassing take?
Hölblinger: More or less one minute. When the gas got inside, one could hear screams of terror. After a minute, everything was quiet. The gas was brought by SDG in tin cans.
Chairman of the court: How were the victims led to the gas chamber?
Hölblinger: Jews unfit for work were transported to the gas chamber by trucks. Five or six trucks would be used. They would drive frequently.
Chairman of the court: Were the bunkers lit by car lights?
Prosecuting attorney Kügler: Was the defendant Klehr the boss of the SDG?
Hölblinger: I do not know. We would only call them the gas Fritz.
Representative of auxiliary prosecution Raabe: How long did the selection last on average?
Hölblinger: It depended. From one hour to an hour and a half.
One of Hölblinger’s friends went with him to the place of murder:
Substitute judge Hummerich: Have you ever participated in a gassing action?
Böck: Yes, it happened one evening; I went with the driver Hölblinger. A transport arrived from Holland, the prisoners had to jump from carriages. These were the best Jews, some women had karakul furs. They came in carriages of fast rail. The trucks were already waiting; in front of them there were wooden steps, and these people climbed them. Then they all drove off. In the area where the village of Birkenau was located earlier, only one long village building remained, and next to it, there were four or five huge barracks. People were standing there on clothes piled up on the floor. There was one Blockführer and one Unterscharführer with a stick. Hölblinger said to me: “Let’s go there.” There was a board: “To disinfection.” He said: “Now they also bring children here.” Then, they opened the doors, threw the children inside and closed the doors again. Horrible screams were heard. One of the SS men climbed the roof. These people shouted for about ten minutes. Then the prisoners opened the doors. Everything was mixed up and shrunk. Heat burst forth from there. Bodies were loaded on carts and taken to a hole. The next group was already getting undressed in the barracks. After all of this, I could not look into my wife’s eyes for four weeks.