Survivor-journalist comes face to face with his tormentor

On Nov. 20, 1945, at age 22, having been kicked out of school in the seventh grade because I was a Jew, after surviving five and a half years in Nazi forced labor and concentration camps — among them Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, Buchenwald and Berga — and seven months after my escape from the final death march, I entered the press gallery in the courtroom of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

It was the opening of the International Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and I was there as a reporter for the German news agency, DANA.

In front of me were the 21 defendants, the surviving top leaders of the Nazi regime. There was Hermann Goering, wearing his Reichsmarshall uniform. There were Rudolf Hess, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Julius Streicher. All the men responsible for what happened to us Jews during the Holocaust.

I could not keep my eyes off them. Often I had the urge to face them: “Why? Why? What had I done? Why did you kill my parents? My 85-year-old grandmother? Losing my education, my friends!

“But I can’t. I am here as a reporter,” I said to myself.

On Monday, Nov. 21, 60 years later, at the invitation of the German government, I am in Berlin to address a major German audience on the 60th anniversary commemoration of the opening of this historic event. If someone would have told me in Auschwitz that I would be in Berlin 60 years after my run for freedom, 60 years after the Nuremberg trials, I would have thought they were out of their minds.

Of all the incredulous moments at the trial, one of the most memorable was my bizarre meeting with Goering.

One day I ran into his defense attorney, Dr. Otto Stahmer. He told me he had read my articles in the German papers.

“So you really were in Auschwitz and Buchenwald?” he asked. Then he told me that Goering had also been reading my articles.

A few days later he approached me and asked whether I would be interested to meet Goering. I was flabbergasted. Why would Goering want to meet me?

I agreed, so one day after the end of the daily proceedings, Stahmer took me to meet him. He made it clear that I could not write or talk about it.

I must admit I was nervous. What would I say? When I entered, Goering got up and reached out his hand.

I asked myself: “What the hell am I doing here? Should I shake his hand? Am I supposed to ask Goering about his reaction to the trial? How do you feel?”

I must admit I simply could not handle it. I froze. Without uttering a single word, I turned around and asked to be let out. The last thing I remember was Goering standing there with his outstretched hand. Still today, I am glad that I never exchanged a single word with the top Nazi in Nuremberg.

The trial lasted about six months. Eleven of the defendants were hanged. Seven were given various prison sentences. Two were freed. Goering, the night before the sentences were carried out, committed suicide by taking a poison pill.

As I reflect on this historic event 60 years later, I ask myself what are the lessons of Nuremberg?

A new word has since entered our language. It is called “genocide.” It means the killing, starvation, rape or murder of tens of thousands of innocent people for religious or political reasons or for no reason at all — on the order of elected or self-appointed presidents or dictators.

Genocide continues until today although the number of victims has declined. The latest genocide is taking place now in Darfur, Sudan.

I believe that genocide is a product of hate and evil. It is a crime of indifference and political inertia. It is moral bankruptcy.

Most genocides don’t just happen. They start with speeches, sermons, incitements and then lead to genocide. This is what happened in Germany. Nobody believed Hitler’s rantings. We know the rest.

Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Israel must be “wiped off the map.’ We must recognize the hatred early and do something about it now. Not later, or worse, not at all.

What did Nuremberg mean to me personally?

After surviving the horror of the concentration camps, never knowing if I would live to see the next day, the greatest experience of my life was to witness justice being served.

Ernest W. Michel is the former executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. This was adopted from his Nov. 21 speech at the German Justice Ministry in Berlin.