I’ve never been tempted to visit the place where my father and maternal grandparents came from. It was “cleansed” of its Jews in 1942 and 1943, and I’m told the remaining occupants admit to only a vague memory that Jews once lived there.
I’d like to see one or more of the concentration camps where so many of my relatives died and at least one survived. But I realized only in recent weeks that my desire was even stronger to visit Gerichsstaal (Courtroom) 600 in Nuremberg’s Justizpalast (Palace of Justice). That’s where the truth of the holocaust became official for the world to recognize, in the same city where a decade earlier huge Nazi rallies proclaimed laws to marginalize the nation’s Jews.
I was born during the Nuremberg trials, so when I was old enough to learn about the holocaust and the refugees in my Philadelphia neighborhood with blue tattooed serial numbers on their arms, I learned also that it all ended with some degree of justice. That’s why Courtroom 600 meant so much to me.
I was there this past Wednesday and took the photo accompanying this post. The courtroom had been enlarged for the Nazi trials, rearranged a bit, and the cross was removed. But this was the place.
I sat in the middle section of the spectator seats, with some space on either side of me. I closed my eyes and maintained a meditative, mindful state as I listened to our tour guide. Among the things she mentioned was the testimony of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, calmly speaking of the 1.2 million Jews he had put to death. That’s when I had to suppress a sob and wipe my eyes. Those 1.2 mullion Jews were real people, some of them my relatives, whom I never got the chance to meet.
As I reviewed Hoess’s testimony today, this exchange in particular caught my attention:
Q: Did you yourself ever feel pity with the victims, thinking of your own family and children?
Q: How was it possible for you to carry out these actions in spite of this?
A: In view of all these doubts which I had, the only one and decisive argument was the strict order and the reason given for it by the Reichsfáhrer Himmler.
I don’t think Hoess was denying his own culpability here. He had already made a confession. He was explaining how war obfuscates compassion.
While on my trip to Eastern Europe, I also happened to learn about the 13th Century Rintfleish massacres of Jews, which occurred in some of the cities I passed through. Around the same time, the heated discussions were continuing in the United States about the removal of Confederate statues. I read articles with statements like this one, by Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming:
While…comparisons to Germany are illustrative and understandable, they risk concealing as much as they reveal. As a scholar of collective memory and white supremacy, I would like to highlight a significant difference between Germany and the United States. While there are no state-sanctioned memorials to Hitler in Germany, there was a Germany before Hitler. There was no United States before white supremacy. [Emphasis the author’s.]
A statement like that, from a scholar, seems to be an obfuscation of its own, either deliberate or a product of conflict-clouded us-and-them thinking. There was indeed a Germany before Hitler, but there was no Germany before antisemitism, anti-Islamism, and anti-Paganism. While I’m not a scholar, I’d suggest that there were no effective national governments at all in Europe before Christian supremacy.
I don’t know if it began with the Crusades or earlier, but Christian supremacy (Catholic or eventually Protestant) came before viable nationhood. Around the time of the Rintfleish massacres, the town where Nuremberg now stands needed a market, so its inhabitants killed the occupants of the Jewish quarter to make room. Superiority and oppression existed before Columbus made landfall in the Americas.
I don’t mean to get into comparative victim-hood here. My white skin does give me some privileges in the United States that black Americans don’t have. And I was not in Eastern Europe long enough to learn how Nazi statues are treated in different countries. But what we need most is truth and reconciliation. Maybe that’s what the Nuremberg trials represented, incomplete as they were.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine