It’s not often that I have the opportunity to attend a trial of a Nazi war criminal with the defendant present, but that was the case late last week in Hamburg, where the trial of Stutthof guard Bruno Dey opened in the local juvenile court. This fact ostensibly seems utterly absurd, given Dey’s current age of 93, but since he arrived in Stutthof in August 1944 at the young age of 17 years and 10 months, under German law that is where he must be tried. That is also why I needed special permission from Judge Anne Meier-Goering to attend the hearings, which are officially closed to the public, except in this case for press, and individuals with a special connection to the proceedings. Besides my involvement in such issues, I had located 21 survivors of Stutthof to assist the prosecution.
The large crowd that gathered outside the Hamburg courtroom Thursday morning long before the hearing was scheduled to begin was made up mostly of journalists. There were also interested parties, such as two women from the local Auschwitz Committee, and young American filmmaker Ben Cohen, the grandson of Judy Maisels, one of the Stutthof survivors who was interviewed by the prosecutors and for health reasons was unable to attend the trial. Security was extremely tight, and it was obvious that it would take quite some time for us to enter the courtroom, so everyone arrived long before the actual proceedings. Naturally, the journalists put the time to good use, looking for potential subjects to interview.
If there was any tension in the air, it was related to whether the defendant would actually appear in court. There had beena difference of opinion among the doctors who examined him about his ability to stand trial — that was on many people’s minds. Given the large number of Holocaust perpetrators who were never prosecuted because of health reasons in recent years, that issue has become the major concern of those who seek to hold Nazi criminals accountable. In fact, the trial of another Stutthof guard, Johannes Rehbogen, that began in Munster several months ago was abruptly closed due to the deterioration of Rehbogen’s health.
Everyone who was concerned in this regard breathed a sigh of relief when Dey was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, several moments after everyone else had been seated. He tried to hide his face with a red cardboard folder, but once at the defense table, he put it down and his visage was fully exposed. The person who wheeled him in attracted quite a bit of attention, as she was dressed in pink and had a matching hijab. I assumed she was a caregiver, but she turns out to have been his daughter, who had converted to Islam. What a twist to the story!
The major components of the proceedings on the first day of the trial were the opening statements of prosecutor Lars Mahnke and defense attorney Stefan Waterkamp. Dey is accused of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder during his service as an SS guard in the Stutthof concentration camp, from August 1944 until April 1945. Approximately 100,000 people were incarcerated in the camp, which had been established in 1939, initially as a work-education center for Polish and Soviet non-Jews. From mid-1944, however, thousands of Jews from Lithuanian and Latvian ghettos, as well as Hungarian Jews initially deported to Auschwitz, were sent to Stutthof, where a large number were murdered by phenol or gasoline injections to the heart, in gas chambers, or by starvation, disease, or exposure to the cold. The number of victims at the camp is estimated at about 65,000 persons. While there is no evidence that Dey was directly involved in the murders, he is accused of aiding those crimes as a “small wheel in the machinery of murder.”
Unlike many other suspected Nazis, Dey admits both his service in the camp and the atrocities that took place there. He also acknowledged in pre-trial statements that he had mistreated the inmates by serving in Stutthof. According to an AP report by Dave Rising, Dey told prosecutors, “I knew well that they were Jews who had committed no crime, that they were only there because they were Jews…But it was only that Hitler or his party…had something against the Jews.” In his opening statement, Dey’s defense attorney, Waterkamp, tried to turn the tables on the prosecution by accusing the German authorities of changing their prosecution policy, making it possible now to convict any person who served in a camp that had a gas chamber or gas vans of mass murder, even if there were no proof of the accused’s direct participation in persecution or murder. He noted that Dey had, in fact, already been questioned — in 1974 and in 1982 — but had hitherto never been prosecuted. Implied in this criticism was the accusation that since German justice had failed to convict so many far more prominent perpetrators, prosecuting Dey was unfair.
Waterkamp’s argument is factually correct, but his efforts to turn Dey into an irrelevant accomplice will most likely not succeed. The change in German prosecution policy began a decade ago, in the wake of American efforts to ensure that Ivan Demjanjuk would be prosecuted on criminal charges (in the United States, he could only be charged with immigration and naturalization violations, because his crimes as an armed SS guard in the Sobibor death camp were not committed in the United States, nor were any of his victims, American citizens). Demjanjuk’s conviction, in Munich in May 2011, was the test case for the change in policy, and has been followed by convictions of two men who served in Auschwitz, and the rejection by the highest German court of appeals of one of their appeals..
The proceedings at Dey’s trial concluded with two excellent presentations by German attorneys Runkl and Nestler, who represent the survivors, and offered a more emotional perspective, regarding the importance of the trial and of achieving a measure of justice for the survivors and their families. In that respect, they added a necessary dimension to the somewhat dry and unemotional presentations of the prosecution and the defense.
As I left the courtroom, I was glad that the trial had attracted so much media attention and would be publicized virtually all over the world. In the long run, that was even more important than the legal fate of Bruno Dey — for the attack on the synagogue in Halle a week previous, on Yom Kippur, by a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier cast its shadow over the courtroom. Indeed, that event served as a stark reminder as to why such trials continue to be relevant, and why people like Dey should be held accountable. Certainly, these belated trials are only a small corrective for the gross failures of the German justice over the years, but they send a powerful message: if a person commits such crimes, even decades later, he or she should have to pay for them!
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.