Can I forgive a Nazi?
It’s not a hypothetical question, but one I am asked frequently. This week we will hear the verdict from a court in Germany as to whether a 93-year-old former Nazi guard from Stutthof Concentration Camp is guilty of accessory to mass murder. Bruno Dey stood on the watchtowers at Stutthof with rifle in hand over my family.
My grandmother Judy Meisel is a co-plaintiff and witness in the trial. Her mother, Mina Beker, was murdered at Stutthof in the gas chamber in 1944. My grandmother was 15 years old the day she was ripped from her mother’s arms in the camp. She and her sister escaped and survived.
Dey has said he is sorry for what happened at Stutthof but denies any personal responsibility for any murders. This is the apology about which I’m asked again and again. Do I accept? Over the past four years I have supported my grandmother as she participated in what will likely be the last trial of a former Nazi. I have had a front-row seat to observe and take part in this late pursuit of justice for victims of the Holocaust. But I am not the one who can forgive.
Until about 10 years ago my grandmother could have stood in the courtroom herself and looked Dey in the eyes. She would have had a conversation about what happened, who can forgive, and what this means to her. But now, at 91, she could no longer travel, so I attended the trial on her behalf and in solidarity with all those who could not be there themselves. It’s a symbolic act, however, because nobody can take the place of the survivors or the victims when it comes to justice or forgiveness.
Prosecutors argue that Dey aided in the mass murder at Stutthof. As a guard he prevented prisoners from escape and therefore aided in the systematic murders at the camp. If he is found guilty, the court can send a powerful signal that no guard in any concentration camp can claim they had no responsibility for what happened.
Prosecutors have asked for up to three years in prison for Dey, but any practical punishment at this point is meaningless to my grandmother.
Most perpetrators of the Holocaust were never brought to justice. Two years ago I was in a German courtroom for the first time. Johann Rehbogen was the first guard from Stutthof charged with accessory to mass murder. In the third week of his trial the 95-year-old collapsed in court and never returned.
We thought that was the end of any trials, but to our surprise Dey was charged last year.
Rehbogen and Dey were not masterminds of the Holocaust. They faced trial partly because, as the youngest cogs in the camps, they simply outlived all the others. I’m not suggesting we should have sympathy for them. On the contrary, the inconvenience of facing trial is nothing compared to the pain and suffering of the survivors and victims.
We should look at the old men in court and recognize that certainly there were more cruel and evil actors who never were prosecuted. We should view these trials as a way to remember and acknowledge what happened.
We will soon live in a world where all of the eyewitnesses are gone and with them the ability to tell their stories. That includes not just the survivors, but the perpetrators of the Holocaust, too. Evil and hatred will not die with them. The capacity for humans to be ignorant, manipulated by greed, conspiracies and fear will never go away.
As these trials come to an end, I carry my grandmother’s story and its lessons with me every day. Ignorance is passed from generation to generation and it’s up to each one of us to break that chain. My grandmother has been an outspoken activist since the 1960s, telling her story as a warning against racism, bigotry and hatred.
It’s too late for questions of forgiveness. She would urge you to do whatever you can to help her keep a promise she made in the barracks at Stutthof — to make sure nobody will ever forget what happened.
Ben Cohen is a filmmaker in Brooklyn, N.Y., who grew up in St. Louis Park, where his grandmother lives.