Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Jackson List: Respecting the Mother of a Man Killed in Auschwitz (1946)

When the international trial of the Nazi arch-criminals began in Nuremberg in November 1945, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (in English, Hoess) was known to have been the commandant of the Nazi concentration camp near Oświęcim in what had been, before September 1939, Poland.  During World War II, the Nazi invaders and occupiers had renamed that town Auschwitz.  Hoess had, people were alleging, gassed millions, mostly Jews, at Auschwitz.  But as the Nuremberg trial began, Hoess was missing, at least a fugitive, perhaps dead.

Almost four months later, in March 1946, soldiers in the United Kingdom zone of occupation captured Hoess near what had been Germany’s border with Denmark.  They interrogated him.  He confessed that he had, as Auschwitz commandant, on orders from Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler (who had killed himself in May 1945), gassed two million people.

Hoess then was transported to Nuremberg for further interrogation.  The four Allied  nations had by that time concluded presenting their prosecution cases against the defendants, but Hoess’s evidence was potentially relevant to their cross-examinations and rebuttals that still lie ahead, and perhaps to future trials.  He was interrogated, thoroughly and repeatedly, by U.S. personnel.  He continued to confess, in expanding detail, what he and his personnel had done at Auschwitz.  His confession was put in affidavit form, which he and United States assistant trial counsel Lieutenant Colonel Smith W. Brookhardt, Jr. (IGD), each signed on April 5, 1946.

Hoess’s capture and his presence in Nuremberg were made known to defense counsel.  On April 6, British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe applied to the International Military Tribunal (IMT), on behalf of defendant Ernst Kaltenbrunner, for a new “witness called Hoess, who was former Commander of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  My Lord, there is no objection on the part of the Prosecution to that.”  The IMT, determining that other defense counsel either concurred or did not object, granted permission.

On April 15, Kaltenbrunner’s lawyer called Hoess as a witness.  He testified that he had been commandant of Auschwitz for its first three years, and that he had reported to and received his instructions directly from Himmler’s subordinate Adolf Eichmann (who then was believed to be dead).  Hoess’s key testimony, from the defendant’s perspective:

Defense counsel Dr. Kurt Kauffmann:  Did the Defendant Kaltenbrunner ever inspect the [Auschwitz] camp?

 Hoess:  No.

 Dr. Kauffmann:  Did you ever talk with Kaltenbrunner with reference to your task?

 Hoess:  No, never.

U.S. Army Colonel John Harlan Amen, a senior member of U.S. Chief of Counsel Robert H. Jackson’s staff, then cross-examined Hoess.  The examination tracked his horrific affidavit to Brookhart.  It confessed publicly, without remorse, the enormous, deliberate, exterminationist evil of Auschwitz.

*          *          *

On the day of Hoess’s trial testimony, Justice Jackson was in Allied-occupied Vienna for diplomatic, military liaison, and other coordination meetings.

The next day, an Austrian woman, Helene Zacchiri, hurriedly typed a letter in quite-rough German and managed to get it delivered to Justice Jackson.  She obviously knew that he was in the city, that he was the chief prosecutor in Nuremberg, and that Hoess had just testified there.  She had been told years earlier that her son had died in Auschwitz.  She had tried to learn more about his fate but had failed.  Now she was asking Jackson for help.

Jackson, who did not read or speak German, had an interpreter with him in Vienna.  The interpreter shared with Jackson these words from Mrs. Zacchiri:

16 4 46

            [April 16, 1946]

Herrn Vorsitzenden Dr Robert H Jakson

[Mr. Chairman Robert H. Jackson]

Ich habe in der Zeitung gelesen das die Verhandlung gegen Kommandaten Hosch demnachst in Nurnberg stattfindet[.] Daher ersuche herrn Vorsitzden in engelegenheit meines Sohnes denselben einzuvernehmen[.]

[I have read in the newspaper that the hearing against Commandant Hosch [Rudolf Hoess] is taking place in Nuremberg. Therefore, I ask you to please question him about the fate of my son.]

Mein son Demeter Odnega geb Wien am 10 Juni 1901[.]  Maschinen techniker wurde von der Gestappo Wien am 29 Mai 1941 nach Auschwitz uberstellt[.]  Am 10 December hat mir der Kommandant eine Todeserklahrung geschikt[.]  Nun bin ich nach Berlin gefahren und habe dort erfahren dass main Son nur Tod erklahrt wurde[.]  Nachdem hier unde in Auschwitz alle akte verbrant sind kann ich uber das schiksal meines Sohnes Nicht erfahren[.]

[My son Demeter Odnega, born in Vienna on 10 June 1901, is a mechanic.  The Gestapo in Vienna sent him to Auschwitz on 29 May 1941.  On 10 December [1941?], the Commandant sent me a death certificate.  I went to Berlin and all that I could learn there is that my son is declared dead.  Because all the files in Auschwitz were destroyed, I cannot learn about the fate of my son.]

Ich ersuche daher hoflichst Hosch einzuvernnehmen ob mein Sohn getodet wurde in Auschwitz oder verschikt[.]  Ich war drei mal in Auschwitz Herr Vorsitzender[.]  und habe im Ort erfahren wie diese armen Menschen dort auf Befehl des Kommandanten als auf Auftrag des Schirach dort mishandelt wurden und getodet[.]  Ersuche mich schriftlich von der Einvernahme zu verstandigen denn es ist fur eine Mutter furchbar nicht zu wissen funf Jahre wo mein Sohn ist[.]

[Therefore please ask Hosch [Hoess] whether my son was killed in Auschwitz or transferred to some other place.  I was in Auschwitz three times, Mr. Chairman.  I learned how the poor people there were mistreated on the orders of the Commandant, on behalf of Schirach.  Please write back to me what you learn through interrogation.  It is awful for a mother not to know for five years where her son is.]

Hochachtunsvoll

Helene Zacchiri

Wien 4 Muhlgasse 20 12

            [Sincerely

            Helene Zacchiri

            Vienna [Austria] 4 Muhlgasse 20 12]

*          *          *

In Jackson’s position—he was the important chief of a very large, high profile, high stakes project, asked by an unimportant person to seek information that almost surely would not exist—many people would do little or nothing.

Jackson brought Mrs. Zacchiri’s letter back from Vienna to Nuremberg.  He gave it to his secretary Elsie Douglas.  He told her what it said, and that it likely was a futile request.  But he told her to send it to Col. Amen.

Mrs. Douglas sent the Zacchiri letter to Amen, with a cover note that was less than an order from Jackson to do something but not discouraging of action.

Amen passed the letter along to Sender Jaari, one of his Interrogation Division personnel who had been involved in interrogating Hoess.

Jaari asked the imprisoned Hoess about Mrs. Zacchiri’s son’s fate.  Hoess replied that he had no information.  Jaari reported that back to Mrs. Douglas.

Mrs. Douglas reported to Jackson what Hoess had said.

Jackson then sent a letter back to “My dear Mrs. Zacchiri” in Vienna:

As requested in your letter of April 16, which was delivered to me during my brief stay in Vienna, the witness Hoesch [sic] has been interrogated as to some possible clue on your son’s whereabouts.  I regret to advise you that Hoesch states that he does not know anything about him and therefore can give you no helpful information.  I am very sorry we have been unable to help you.

We know, as Mrs. Zacchiri was told in December 1941 and continued to believe, crushingly, in 1946, that her son Demeter Odnega was a Holocaust victim, murdered in Auschwitz—click here for his record in the International Tracing Service database.

I hope that she received Justice Jackson’s letter, and that she felt its humanity.

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This post was emailed to the Jackson List, a private, one-way (me to you), entirely non-selective email list that reaches many thousands of subscribers around the world.  I write to it periodically about Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg and related topics. The Jackson List archive site is http://thejacksonlist.com/.  To subscribe, email me at barrettj@stjohns.edu. Thank you for your interest, and for spreading the word.

To Poland, to Auschwitz, for the International March of the Living

I will be in Poland later this week.

On Thursday, I will participate in the International March of the Living. It is a Holocaust education and commemoration program that, each year, organizes and assembles over 10,000 people in Poland. They include Holocaust survivors, younger adults, and many students. Many are Jews and many are non-Jews. The International March of the Living occurs at Auschwitz on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Marchers cover about two kilometers, walking from Auschwitz I, site of the original Nazi prison barracks and murder camp during World War II, to the much larger Auschwitz II (Birkenau) Nazi slave labor prison camp and extermination site. The March concludes in Birkenau with a ceremony of remembrance.

On Friday, I will attend and speak at a related conference, primarily for U.S. lawyers and judges, that will be held in Krakow.

I have seen Auschwitz on two previous trips—one to participate in the International March of the Living in 2016. I know from those experiences, including sights and conversations, that it all is something that I struggle, as every person does or should, to comprehend. I also know that Auschwitz and other Nazi-related sites are things that students and others ask me, often, to describe.

My words can’t meet this challenge. But I do plan this week to blog some things here, and also to tweet (@JohnQBarrett). If this is of interest, look for my writing in those places.

Jackson List: Ernest W. Michel (1923-2016), Survivor, Reporter, Teacher & Builder

For the Jackson List:

Of the hundreds of press corps reporters who covered the Nuremberg trial of the principal Nazi war criminals seventy years ago, only one, I believe, had been tattooed by the Nazis.

Ernst Wolfgang Michel, then only twenty-two years old, was an Auschwitz survivor.  On his arrival in that Nazi death camp in 1943, a guard had tattooed a number on Michel’s left forearm.

Three horrifying and miraculous years later, Michel covered the Nuremberg trial as a reporter for the Allied occupation-approved German news agency.  At his insistence, each story he wrote bore this byline:  “By Ernst Michel, DANA Staff Correspondent (Formerly prisoner No. 104995 at Auschwitz concentration camp).”

*          *          *

Ernst Michel was a German and Jew.

Born in Mannheim in 1923, he lived a happy, comfortable life there until Hitler came to power in 1933.  Michel’s father’s business soon was taken from him—“Aryanized”—for a token payment.  In 1937, Ernst, then in 7th grade, and all Jewish children were barred from public school by government edict.  That ended his schooling.  He went to work in nearby Bruchsal, as an apprentice in a cardboard factory.

On the night of November 9, 1938 (Kristallnacht), Ernst Michel, age fifteen, awakened to see the Bruchsal synagogue, torched by Nazi brownshirts, in flames.  Gestapo agents arrested his employer, a Jew, and seized his factory.  Returning to Mannheim, he found its synagogue destroyed, Nazis swarming the streets, his family’s apartment destroyed, his mother beaten, his father arrested…

In March 1939, Michel’s parents managed to send his younger sister to France.  She later was sheltered in Switzerland and then made it to Palestine—she lived.

In September 1939, the Gestapo arrested Ernst Michel.  He never saw his parents again.  He learned later that the Nazis deported them in spring 1940 to a concentration camp in southern France.  In August 1942, they were transported in cattle cars to Nazi-occupied Poland.  They were murdered on their arrivals at Auschwitz.

Between 1939 and 1945, Ernst Michel survived in Nazi forced labor and concentration camps, including near Berlin, Paderborn, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, Buchenwald and Berga.  Some particulars:

  • In February 1943, Michel and hundreds of other prisoners were shipped by rail, in cattle cars, to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
  • On arrival, a Nazi officer asked Michel his age (which he inflated from nineteen to twenty).  The Nazi pointed Michel into a line to the right.  Trucks then took him and others to squalid barracks and forced labor.  He soon understood that prisoners who had been sorted to the left went directly to the gas chambers.
  • Michel was one of the slave laborers who worked to building the Buna synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz-Monowitz.
  • In winter cold, with minimal food and beaten severely, he approached death.
  • In desperation, he went to a camp infirmary.  He got some treatment and volunteered to fill out (false) cause-of-death records that the Nazis insistently kept.  Because Michel improbably had some calligraphy skills, he was useful in that task and thus was spared harsher forms of labor.
  • During the next two years, Michel worked as an Auschwitz infirmary orderly.  He survived typhus and other disease.  He witnessed gruesome “experiments” that Dr. Josef Mengele and others performed on prisoners.  Michel carried thousands of bodies to storage, and to trucks which moved them to crematoria.
  • On January 18, 1945, as Soviet troops approached, Michel left Auschwitz after 674 days.  The Nazis marched him and thousands west, to Buchenwald.

In April 1945, as Allied forces closed in on the Third Reich, Ernst Michel and two friends, again on a forced march, escaped into the woods.  After more than five and one-half years as a Nazi prisoner, he was free.

Soon the Nazis surrendered and Michel was a displaced person.  He was restored to some health, mentored, and given the chance to become a journalist.

In late 1945 and into spring 1946, Ernst Michel was in Nuremberg, covering the trial.  He watched the U.S. chief prosecutor, Justice Robert H. Jackson, in action.  Michel met the Soviet chief prosecutor, General Roman Rudenko.  Indeed, Rudenko, learning that Michel had observed Dr. Mengele’s atrocities in Auschwitz, contemplated calling Michel as a trial witness but then explained, apologetically, that he could not—with only one exception, it was Soviet policy to call no trial witness who was a German, regardless of the person’s religion.

*          *          *

“Ernie” Michel, as he became to all who knew him, went on to live a long, energetic, constructive and generous “second life,” including—

  • During 1945 and 1946, Michel worked in Allied-occupied Germany with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC, or “the Joint”) to assist displaced persons (“DPs”).  Through Joint leaders, Michel learned of its broader history and work, and of the United Jewish Appeal (the UJA, which would become his career), and of a special quota for DPs to emigrate to the U.S.
  • In June 1946, Michel was among the first Jewish DPs to sail for the U.S.  He reached New York, then Chicago, and then (of all places) Port Huron, Michigan, where he got a newspaper job and began to give speeches about his experiences in Germany and during the war.
  • The UJA national office, raising funds for Jewish refugees and to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, soon recruited Michel to speak at appeal events around the country.
  • In 1948, Michel went to work for UJA in California.  He traveled throughout the west, speaking and fundraising.  (He also married and became, in time, a father of three children.)
  • In 1955, he visited Israel for the first time—and, for the first time since she had been smuggled out of Mannheim in 1939, he saw his sister, a fellow survivor and by then an Israeli, a kibbutznik and a mother.
  • In 1958, he moved to New York, joining UJA’s national staff.
  • In 1960, Michel was part of a small group that met in Washington, in the White House oval office, with President Eisenhower—once the supreme Allied commander who had liberated Europe and, Michel felt, himself.  This was the first time that Holocaust survivors were received at the White House.
  • In 1962, Michel returned to UJA work on the West Coast.
  • In 1967, he left UJA, working for the next three years in Paris and throughout Europe on behalf of the Joint.
  • Beginning in 1970, Michel returned to UJA for the rest of his career.  He was chief executive of New York UJA, and then in the leadership of the merged UJA-Federation of New York.  He was a tireless fundraiser for Jews and for Israel, working with government leaders and private individuals.
  • In 1981, he was instrumental in organizing the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, which brought 6,000 people and many of their descendants together in Jerusalem.
  • In 1983, forty years after his first arrival in Auschwitz, Michel led a UJA mission to that place (and then to Israel).
  • In 1988, he led UJA-Federation’s trip to West Germany to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  On that occasion, this delegation met in a private setting in Bonn with Richard von Weizsäcker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany (and son of Nazi criminal who had been convicted at Nuremberg).  Michel spoke of his German life and wartime suffering.  Von Weizsäcker listened carefully and then (as Michel later wrote about it) “spoke of his own feelings as a German, about the Nazi period and the fact that Germany would for all time, carry the stigma of those years.  [He r]ecogniz[ed] the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Germans, the injustice and persecution, [and] assured [the] group that there would be no forgetting.”

*          *          *

And a small, personal note:  On May 5th in Poland, I was one of thousands who participated in the March of the Living from Auschwitz (Auschwitz I, the original camp) to Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where trains had delivered Ernst Michel and hundreds of thousands of other prisoners who then were sorted for immediate extermination or sent toward grim, overcrowded, filthy barracks for abuse, slave labor and for most, after not very long, death by starvation, work, disease, torture, hanging, shooting or gas.

In those sites of unimaginable horror, I thought of all victims and very specifically of Ernie Michel, the survivor whom I was lucky to have as a teacher and friend.

I knew then that Ernie, back in New York, was in failing health but at peace, no longer remembering the horrors of war and the suffering he had experienced and seen.  He died two days later.

Ernie Michel’s life, and what he did with all of it, was and is a great, lucky, stirring, inspiring victory.

*          *          *

Some links—

  • Ernest W. Michel’s 1993 autobiography is Promises to Keep:  One Man’s Journey Against Incredible Odds! Click here — this is a book to get, to read, and to keep.
  • Video of a 2002 interview, in which Ernest Michel described some of his experiences in Auschwitz, his April 1945 escape from Nazi custody during a death march, and as a reporter at the  Nuremberg trial – click here;
  • An Ernest Michel essay, on meeting Hermann Goering at Nuremberg in 1946, excerpted from a speech that Michel gave in Berlin on November 21, 2005 – click here;
  • Video of a 2007 Ernest Michel oral history – click here;
  • A 2010 New York Times profile of Ernest Michel – click here;
  • Video of Michael Stoler’s 2011 “BuildingNY” interview with Ernest Michel – click here; and
  • A May 2016 Jewish Telegraph Agency obituary – click here.

Michel_Ernest

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This post was emailed to the Jackson List, a private but entirely non-selective email list that reaches many thousands of subscribers around the world.  I write to it periodically about Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg and related topics.  The Jackson List archive site is http://thejacksonlist.com/.  To subscribe, email me at barrettj@stjohns.edu.  Thank you for your interest, and for spreading the word.

Jackson List: March of the Living’s Nuremberg symposium, and the March

March of the Living, an annual international educational program, will host two notable events in Poland this week.

On Wednesday, May 4th, Jagiellonian University in Krakow will be the site of an international symposium, “The Double Entendre of Nuremberg:  The Nuremberg of Hate & the Nuremberg of Justice.”

  • This symposium will consider two “Nuremberg” events of historical, contemporary, and permanent significance:  Nazi Germany’s imposition, eighty years ago, of inhumane, vicious, anti-Semitic Nuremberg  Laws, and the international Nuremberg trial, during 1945-1946, seventy years ago, of the principal Nazi war criminals.
  • The symposium, presented by March of the Living International, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and Jagiellonian University and co-chaired by Professors Irwin Cotler (Canada) and Alan Dershowitz (United States), will be a full-day program of expert speakers from around the world.
  • For full symposium program information, click here.

On Thursday, May 5th, which will be Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah), thousands will march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration, slave labor, and extermination camp complex of World War II.  For more information on the March, click here.

I will be participating in and learning from each of these important events.  And I thank you for your interest.

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This post was emailed to the Jackson List, a private but entirely non-selective email list that reaches many thousands of subscribers around the world.  I write to it periodically about Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg and related topics.  The Jackson List archive site is http://thejacksonlist.com/.  To subscribe, email me at barrettj@stjohns.edu.  Thank you for your interest, and for spreading the word.