On April 21, 2015, Oskar Groening, age 93, a German former SS-Unterscharführer who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was put on trial for accessory to murder in 300,000 cases for his role in the tragic deaths of those interned at the camp during the Second World War. Groening’s trial may be the last great Nazi war crimes trial in history. On April 29, 2015, Judith Kalman testified at this trial on behalf of her half-sister Eva, who was gassed upon her arrival at Auschwitz. She was six years old.
These are her reflections on the experience:
When I first heard about this trial from my sister Elaine Kalman Naves, it was just before Christmas 2014. I had no idea what a gift it would turn out to be, but I did have a strong immediate reaction. I knew I should be there, even as an observer. It felt as if a unique opportunity had fallen from the sky, an eventuality I would never have dreamed of, and that I’d be a fool not to rise to whatever it may offer or require of me.
I didn’t meet Thomas Walther, lawyer for the co-plaintiffs and the force behind bringing this case to trial, until the end of January, just before my husband John and I were bound for a month in Florida. Because of this imminent departure, I couldn’t attend the gatherings of the co-plaintiffs from Toronto. Everything happened quickly. On my return, I spent a couple of weeks preparing my testimony. I had no sense, however, of what to expect beyond presenting this statement. I vaguely imagined a couple of dinners with the other co-plaintiffs; evening walks with John around Luenenburg; perhaps an evening or two in Hamburg after court had adjourned for the day. I worried somewhat about how I might feel surrounded by German people and the German language, having heard it mostly in American war movies as sharply barked commands. Nothing short of this trial would have induced me to visit Germany. I have not objected to my children’s visits to Berlin, but out of respect for my parents’ suffering at the hands of the country, and the senseless murders of their families, I would never have chosen to set foot on German soil.
Somehow, for me, Oskar Groening was the least important character in my experience of the trial in Luenenburg. He was the hook that reeled us all in. Groening, netted finally by the justice system, was the negative force that drew together our galaxy of lawyers, co-plaintiffs, justices, and press. But it was our interactions that held sway for me, the sound of our voices telling our stories, and the meaningful conversations between strangers who had little time or patience under the circumstances for small talk, that made this such a significant and seminal event. What impressions have I come away with? That Germany is a country seeking to change the culture that had produced the Nazis. It not only wishes to distance itself from that sinister period; it wants to fundamentally change the values, perceptions, and ways of coalescing as a society that led to it. I am grateful to have been included in this process, and made use of towards this constructive end. What I’ve gained is personally invaluable.
To quote my husband, proximity is the best antidote to prejudice. Every German person we met during the twelve-day stay—our lawyers, the security detail at the court, the judges and prosecutors, members of the German press, city officials, hotel and restaurant staff—made us feel welcome and cared for. Cared for and cared about. I think this was the point, that even if justice can’t be served at this late date; if justice could never have repaired the enormity of the crimes committed; at least justice—German justice—finally cares. Period. It cares to go through the exercise nonetheless, for the sake of the innocent dead, and the sake of the survivors, and the sake of the national soul which will not forget and continues to grapple with its history of perpetrating genocide. I have never felt more intensely listened to by those who wished to converse, and those who took notes, and those who pinned a microphone to my collar. This invitation to speak about the past, its legacy, its mark upon my psyche and its brutal stamp on the lives of my parents, released an unburdening that has left me more open to the world and freer in my engagement with it. It seems unlikely, at the age of sixty-one, to undergo so formative a change. Yet bringing this trial to court was itself an unlikely venture. Its benefits in my case surpassed all expectation.
To read a transcript of Judith Kalman’s testimony at the trial, click here.
Judith Kalman graduated from the New School of Dawson College in 1974. She is the author of The County of Birches. Her writing has appeared in Grain, The Fiddlehead, Saturday Night, Descant, Prairie Fire, the anthology Celebrating Canadian Women, and the Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women. Judith’s work received the 1995 Tilden Canadian Literary Award and both the Gold Award and the President’s Medal at the National Magazine Awards in 1996. A story from The County of Birches was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology in 1997 and Judith received a Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the collection in 1998. The story “Flight” was broadcast on CBC Radio’s “Between the Covers” and the book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in the USA.
Inspire Solutions is honoured to include Judith Kalman’s reflections in our upcoming collection of Dawson College’s Reconciliation Stories, to be released in the fall.