First Auschwitz Trial in Germany, 1963-1965

In keeping with the legal interpretation accepted at the time in Germany, there was a statue of limitations on every act of Nazis against Jews and against people with anti-Nazi views, with the exception of murder. Through these documents, it was possible to connect concrete murder cases with concrete people, enabling a legal investigation against the perpetrators.

​Near the small town of Auschwitz (Oświęcim) in Poland, beginning in 1940, the SS established a giant concentration camp, and next to it, an extermination camp as well: Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this camp, the Nazis developed a method of mass extermination in gas chambers, which operated with a merciless industrial efficiency. It is estimated that over one million people were murdered in this camp or died from extreme forced labor while it was in operation. Over 8,000 SS personnel served in Auschwitz, and collaborated in the collective murder that took place over almost five years, until the day the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. This is the date that was established as a memorial day for Holocaust victims in Germany in 1996 (prior to this there was no such day), and in 2005 – 60 years after the liberation, January 27 became International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

​Over 8,000 SS personnel operated in this largest of concentration camps: this group should have been at the focus of attention of litigators and of the courts after WWII. As long as Germany was not a sovereign country, that is, until 1949, the legal institutions of the Allies tried to bring criminals who took part in the planning and execution of the extermination to trial. These efforts yielded the Nuremberg Trials immediately after the end of the war.

The first commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was sentenced to death by a Polish court in 1947 and hung on the grounds of the Auschwitz Camp that year. Until then he had been one of the only chief responsible SS officers in Auschwitz to be brought before a court.

After the establishment of the two German states, the legal processing of Holocaust crimes was not at the center of attention of the legal authorities or the public in general. The ideology in East Germany dictated that according to the definition of the state as anti-Fascist by nature, there was no need to take responsibility for the deeds of the Nazis, since they were concentrated in the western part of Germany. In West Germany, some members of the legal and economic elite returned to their former posts and saw to it that Holocaust-related topics and inhumane behavior would not be raised for public discussion. For the most part, the citizens of both states accepted this approach without protest.

Beyond this, most of the civilians were busy with reconstructing the devastated country, and dealing with everyday life. Here and there, isolated trials were held against leading Nazis and SS officers, but until the 1950s, most of the public believed that a line had to be drawn at the end of the Nazi period, and that everything in the previous period should be let lie. However, not everyone was of this opinion. Among those opposed to the prevailing attitude were a number of lawyers in the city of Frankfurt, mainly in the Office of the Hessen District Attorney, Fritz Bauer (1903-1968).

A catalogue of an exhibition about the Hessen District Attorney, Fritz Bauer, 2014

In 1959, a former Auschwitz inmate submitted a complaint against one of the SS officers in the camp, a man named Wilhelm Boger. The former inmate identified Boger on the streets of Stuttgart. At the same time, a Frankfurt journalist submitted documents to the District Attorney in the state of Hessen. These documents contained reports of the deeds of Nazis in Auschwitz and mentioned the names of Nazis who murdered prisoners and even the names of their victims.

In keeping with the legal interpretation accepted at the time in Germany, there was a statue of limitations on every act of Nazis against Jews and against people with anti-Nazi views, with the exception of murder. Through these documents, it was possible to connect concrete murder cases with concrete people, enabling a legal investigation against the perpetrators.

The General Prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, who was of Jewish origin but did not define himself as a man of faith (he was a member of the Social-Democratic Party), pushed the investigations forward and transferred them to young prosecutors who were not tainted with Nazi ideology. For four years, these prosecutors collected documents, evidence and testimony, and even relied on collaboration with the International Auschwitz Committee (an organization of former camp inmates), mainly with then chairman of the organization, Hermann Langbein. During the investigation, the prosecutors identified 20 criminals who had operated in Auschwitz, among them, the last commander of the camp, Richard Baer, and the assistant commander, Robert Mulka. Baer died during his imprisonment, such that ultimately, 19 people were brought to trial. During the case, 360 witnesses from different countries took to the witness stand, and trips were even conducted to the site of the camp in Auschwitz, in order to carry out on-site verification of the claims of the accused and the witnesses. The trial went on from 1963 to 1965, and attracted the attention of the media and the public in Germany and elsewhere. Punishments were meted out for 17 defendants, six of whom were given life sentences, and 11 more who were sentenced to 14-year prison terms.

Following the trial, additional follow-up trials were held, all against a smaller number of defendants. In total, in all of the Auschwitz trials in Germany, only 60 defendants were stood trial: 60 out of 8,000. In contrast, in Poland, the number brought to trial exceeded 600.

And yet, in total, no more than 10% of the camp guards in Auschwitz were forced to appear before the court. This number illustrates that the topic was not sufficiently confronted, certainly not in Germany. At the same time, the Auschwitz trials were not a complete failure. Through the testimonies and reports in the German media, many dealt for the first time with the bitter reality of the period of the Third Reich, and did so from the perspective of the Nazi victims. Together with the discussions of cases of anti-Semitism (such as the desecration of the Cologne Synagogue in 1959) and the Eichmann Trial, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials were a landmark in public grappling with Germany’s past and its ethical obligation towards the victims.

One of the examples of existing interest in the topic, an interest that continues to grow, is the large number of books published beginning in 1965 that deal with various aspects of the Auschwitz Trials. Among these books are analyses of the testimonies and the fate of those criminals who were pursued, materials documenting the trials, publication of sources and also a comprehensive catalogue on the character of Fritz Bauer.

Documentation for the Auschwitz trial, by Hermann Langbein, 1965
The first part of the publication of important sources for the Auschwitz trial, 2013
A monograph in English about the first Auschwitz trial, 2010

Letter of the Author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel to His Friend in Germany regarding the Future German Ambassador to Israel, 1963

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel, 1963

Author Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel (Eugen Hoeflic, 1891-1965), was born in Vienna. Early in his career, he was active in his home city as a writer and editor. During WWI, he served as an officer in the Austrian Army, and in this capacity, visited Jerusalem where he discovered his connection to the Land of Israel and the languages spoken here.
In 1927 he emigrated together with his wife, and the couple settled in Jerusalem. In Palestine Ben-Gavriel worked as a journalist and wrote mainly for European newspapers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but also for Jewish and non-Jewish papers in France, England, the United States, Czechoslovakia and other countries. The outbreak of WWII significantly reduced his realms of employment, since most of the newspapers for which he wrote were closed by the Nazis or changed orientation, and articles about the Middle East by a Jewish journalist no longer had a place.

During that time, Ben-Gavriel began to write novels and short stories. Following reports of a Nazi invasion, he wrote Das Haus in der Karpfengasse, perhaps his most important book, in which he describes the fate of Jewish and non-Jewish residents of a fictional house in Prague during the first two weeks after the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

After WWII ended, Ben-Gavriel resumed working as a journalist, but he continued writing novels, stories and radio plays, almost exclusively in German.

His works were also published in Hebrew, but only as translations from the German original. Already in the 1950s Ben-Gavriel became very popular in Germany, of all places. By this time, most of his books were light and humoristic, and relayed a picture of the young Israeli society to German readers. His works gained a large readership in Germany. Due to his success, Ben-Gavriel traveled frequently to Germany and toured among diverse audiences. He read aloud from his writings, was invited to speak on the radio, and became a sought-after interviewee among German intellectuals and cultural figures. This activity and his rich correspondence are testimony to the cautious contacts between Israeli and German cultural figures during the early years after the Holocaust.

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The letters reveal that Ben-Gavriel supported the idea in no uncertain terms.

Among other things, he exchanged views with Dr. Franz Schierholz, a cultural figure and activist in the rapprochement between the two countries in the 1950s and 60s.

The letter presented here suggests that Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel was exposed to rumors regarding who would be appointed as the German ambassador and that these rumors were not to his liking. Ben-Gavriel attributes to the letter’s recipient, Franz Schierholz, the ability to exert his influence in the matter, and he tries to warn the German side against making an unsuitable choice for the sensitive job. It is not known to what extent the letter affected the ultimate outcome, but it is an interesting fact that Ben-Gavriel was so interested and involved in the topic of appointing the first German ambassador to the State of Israel.

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel’s letter to Franz Schierholz

The letter (translated from the German):


Honorable Herr Doctor,

Many thanks for your letter and particularly the news regarding the likelihood of establishing diplomatic relations; of late, the matter has also been addressed in Der Spiegel. Since I know that you maintain particular ties, I would like to draw your attention to the matter in which certain dangers inhere. To the best of my knowledge, at least two journalists in Bonn – perhaps even more – are trying to secure the position of ambassador to Jerusalem, but they bear no particular advantage beyond the fact that for a number of years they have chosen Israel as a life’s profession. I believe that it is imperative to make every effort possible in order to prevent this erroneous selection, also since a few of them have close ties with Adenauer. In order to arrange the complex affairs here, what is necessary, in my opinion, is an experienced diplomat who brings with him all of the necessary tact, which a publicist cannot offer, by virtue of his profession. Since you also place a value on the proper development of ties, I would like to place this matter at your discretion and I ask, if you agree with me, to take the necessary steps on the matter. It is desirable to do so before they make their final decision. I ask you to relate to this letter as confidential and not to mention my name in this context.

[The last part of the letter has not been translated out of respect for the author’s privacy.]

All the best to you and your family,

[Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel]

The Author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel and the Red Army Faction Activist Gudrun Ensslin

During those years, an underground organization of activists from the radical German left was established, which operated against the West German government by carrying out a long series of terrorist acts, kidnappings, hijackings and robberies

In October 1963, Israeli author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel received a letter from the German publisher Bertl Petrei of Stuttgart. It was not unusual for Ben Gavriel, who at the time was very popular among the German-reading audience, to be contacted by German publishers. However, the content of the letter was a great surprise for Ben Gavriel. The German publisher was requesting him to write about the works of German author and poet Will Vesper (1882-1962), who was a Nazi sympathizer and had devoted himself unequivocally to the Nazi cause from 1933-1945. For example, Vesper delivered a speech during the book burning in Dresden in the spring of 1933. Vesper incited the public against Jews and mainly against Jewish authors who wrote in the German language. In light of this, the Austrian-German publisher’s request of Ben Gavriel to write a review of an anthology of the Nazi author’s novellas was problematic, to say the least.

A letter from the German publisher Bertl Petrei to Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel, signed by Gudrun Ensslin

Ben Gavriel immediately understood the magnitude of the problem and replied that the request left him with a bad feeling, and that he was unable to write about the works of a Nazi author. According to the wording of the response (a copy of which exists in Ben Gavriel’s archive), together with the letter, he also returned the book to the sender, publisher Bertl Petrei.

Ben Gavriel’s answer to Gudrun Ensslin

And behold, a number of days later, an additional letter arrived from the publisher, longer this time, which attempted to calm the Jewish author in Jerusalem and to justify the request as well as defend the standing of Will Vesper in German literature. And yet the person who wrote the letter did not address all to the problematic biographical details of the author’s life, which did not speak in his favor, certainly given the atmosphere prevailing in 1963, when it was impossible to ignore the Nazi past of a prominent cultural figure. The two letters from the publisher to Ben Gavriel are signed by different people. The first was signed by Gudrun Ensslin, and the second, by S. Mauer. We do not know anything regarding the identity of the second signer, but the name of Gudrun Ensslin is certainly known, in an entirely different context, linked to events that took place in Germany from 1968-1993.

During those years, an underground organization of activists from the radical German left was established, which operated against the West German government by carrying out a long series of terrorist acts, kidnappings, hijackings and robberies. What the author Yaakov Moshe Ben Gavriel could not have known, and given that he died in 1965 never learned, was that Gudrun Ensslin, who signed the first letter he received from the publisher, went on to become a senior figure in a left-wing terrorist organization known as The Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion – RAF). This organization set West German society into a storm mainly in the 1970s and divided the population between opponents and supporters of the movement, which according to its declarations was fighting the capitalist-imperialist regime through “urban guerilla warfare.” To this end, members of the underground, among them, Gudrun Ensslin, even spent time at a PLO training camp in Jordan. The peak of the organization’s activity – which was also the peak of the severe social crisis in West Germany – was in the fall of 1977, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a German airplane, and in exchange for releasing the passengers, demanded the release of the RAF leadership, which had been in prison since 1972, among them Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin. Following the failed hijacking of the German plane – all of the passengers were released – a number of the upper echelon committed suicide in prison in October 1977, Gudrun Ensslin among them. Supporters of the underground were skeptical that the cause of death was suicide, and in their eyes, those who died were martyrs. The underground continued its activities for several more years, and finally dissolved only in the early 1990s.

A study about the Red Army Faction (RAF) by Stefan Aust​
English translation of Aust’s study

However, in 1963, all of these events were still a future that had not yet come to pass, that is, when Gudrun Ensslin wrote to Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel on behalf of the publisher of the author Will Vesper. The question arises as to why Ensslin collaborated with a commercial publisher on this matter; a few years later she acted determinedly against every “capitalist-imperialist-fascist” entity. Studies of Ensslin’s life have shown that at the time, she was involved in a relationship with Vesper’s son, Bernward Vesper. The author’s son tried to grapple with the spiritual legacy of his father, and to this end, promoted the re-publication of his works, in part with the help of Ensslin, who later became a prominent terrorist. The request of Vesper and Ensslin to Ben Gavriel, as well as the wording of the letters, suggest no small degree of political confusion. The confusion characterized a large portion of the supporters of the radical left, mainly in their attitude towards Jews and Israel, a phenomenon which is common among the German Left to this day.

Munich Olympics

Massacre of the Israeli Athletes on German Soil

אילנה רומנו, אלמנתו של יוסף רומנו, מתוך אוסף דן הדני

In 1972, the twentieth Olympics took place. For the first time since WWII, Germany was chosen to host a world sporting event of supreme importance. The Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup were considered then, as they are today, to be the most important and prestigious events in world sports. The years of the Second World War led to the disruption of both. The Olympic Games in particular bore the burden of the difficult memory of the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin and manipulated by Hitler’s Nazi regime for self-glorification and promotion of the vision of the superiority of the Aryan race.

The Olympic Games were resumed in 1948, in London, and the choice of the English capital was not incidental. The World Cup Games were resumed only in 1950, and took place in Brazil. Germany, which meanwhile had been divided into two countries, was not privileged to host one of the two distinguished institutions until 1972. West Germany, the republic that made its trademark democracy and the desire to rehabilitate Germany, both materially and in terms of its image and standing among the world’s nations, related to the 1972 Olympics as a corrective opportunity. Munich was chosen as the host city. This, too, was highly symbolic. Munich, birth city of the Nazi Party and cradle of the cultic worship of the German race, the place where giant processions were held aimed at glorifying the superior race and demonstrating its physical power, had now become a place where over 7,000 athletes from more than 121 nations were to gather for fifteen days of brotherhood, equality and cooperation based on universal human values. The Olympics were intended to take place from August 26-September 10.

American investigation of the Munich events, 2002

Israeli participation in the 1972 Munich Olympics had a clear symbolic significance. Although at this stage the relations between Israel and West Germany were developed and deep in many realms, the delegation of Israeli athletes, waving the Israeli flag over German soil before the entire world on live television, was a sensitive public declaration regarding Israel’s readiness to accept “a different Germany.” The Munich Olympics were the first to be broadcast on Israeli television, making the emotional resonance aroused by participation of the Israeli delegation in Olympics held in Germany particularly strong among the Israeli public.

The Germans sought a “happy Olympics” so that the atmosphere would reflect the new age in their rehabilitated land that had made a commitment to the ideal of peace and brotherhood among nations. In effect, it appears that this desire on the part of the organizers led to inattentiveness to very clear warnings that the games might be threatened by various terror organizations. The Israeli delegation was housed in an unprotected building facing the street, separated from it only by the minimalistic fence of the Olympic Village. Although Israeli officials had warned against the poor security, and despite the information received by the German security authorities, the Olympic Village authorities and members of the International Olympic Committee took no steps to augment the security measures.

And so, at the crack of dawn on September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists, members of the “Black September” organization, crossed the fence of the Olympic Village. During the takeover some of the members of Israeli delegation resisted and tried to block the way of the terrorists. The terrorists shot the boxing coach Moshe Weinberg and threw his body outside of the building. Meanwhile, the media arrived at the scene and photographed the sights. The terrorists presented their list of demands. The police organized a group of plainclothes policemen, who lacked proper training, and sent them to the apartment where terrorists were barricaded with the Israeli hostages. Due to the television coverage, the Israelis were able to see the police in live broadcast. Meanwhile, Yossef Romano, from the Israeli delegation, was murdered after trying to attack the terrorists with a paring knife. The Germans conducted a negotiation with the Palestinian terrorists, who demanded that they be allowed to fly with the hostages to Cairo. During the night of September 5, two German helicopters, carrying eight terrorists and nine bound Israeli hostages, landed at the Fürstenfeldbruck near Munich.

Booklet by the Israeli Foreign Ministry containing a collection of international press responses to the massacre, 1972

At this point, the failed German attempt to extricate the hostages began. An unskilled team, lacking proper equipment and adequate planning, exhanged fire with the terrorists, until close to midnight. Ultimately, all nine hostages were killed. Five terrorists were also killed, and three were captured alive. A German police officer was killed during the operation. The next day, the Olympic Committee decided to resume the games, which had been suspended for 24 hours, after a memorial ceremony had been held. The Israeli delegation left Munich immediately after the ceremony.

Special stamp commemorating the 30th anniversary of the massacre, 1972

The murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics left a deep scar on Israeli society, not least because the tragedy occurred in Germany. With time, the extent of neglect by the German authorities in handling the event became known. As if that were not enough, it emerged that German officials had warned of the possibility of a terror attack at the game. The terrorists who were captured were imprisoned in Germany for only a brief period. It seems that West Germany made agreements with the Palestinian terrorist organizations in order to keep their activities away from them. The German authorities did not carry out an in-depth investigation or complete proceedings against the guilty. Germany also refused Israeli offers of help in rescuing the hostages: members of the Mossad were not permitted to contribute from their experience during the negotiations with the captors, and the Israeli offer to send a commando unit also went unanswered.

Israel acted with determination to assassinate those responsible for the attack, and over the years, conducted an international chase in their pursuit. All Palestinian terrorists who had been involved in the Munich massacre were assassinated by Israel by 1992. But beyond this, harsh feelings remained in Israel regarding what was perceived as cold treatment on the part of the West German government and on the part of the International Olympic Committee. Moreover, since 1972 and to this day, the International Olympic Committee has continued to resist marking the massacre of the Israeli athletes as part of the Olympic Games, and does not allow a ceremony to be held on the premises of the Olympic Village.

The massacre of the 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 is a lasting, indelible stain on the relationship between Germany and Israel, precisely because of the deep symbolism attached to this particular Olympics, and the Israeli participation in them.