The first account of the August Trials, in which postwar Poland confronted the betrayal of Jewish citizens under Nazi rule but ended up fashioning an alibi for the past.
When six years of ferocious resistance to Nazi occupation came to an end in 1945, a devastated Poland could agree with its new Soviet rulers on little else beyond the need to punish German war criminals and their collaborators. Determined to root out the “many Cains among us,” as a Poznań newspaper editorial put it, Poland’s judicial reckoning spawned 32,000 trials and spanned more than a decade before being largely forgotten.
Andrew Kornbluth reconstructs the story of the August Trials, long dismissed as a Stalinist travesty, and discovers that they were in fact a scrupulous search for the truth. But as the process of retribution began to unearth evidence of enthusiastic local participation in the Holocaust, the hated government, traumatized populace, and fiercely independent judiciary all struggled to salvage a purely heroic vision of the past that could unify a nation recovering from massive upheaval. The trials became the crucible in which the Communist state and an unyielding society forged a foundational myth of modern Poland but left a lasting open wound in Polish-Jewish relations.
The August Trials draws striking parallels with incomplete postwar reckonings on both sides of the Iron Curtain, suggesting the extent to which ethnic cleansing and its abortive judicial accounting are part of a common European heritage. From Paris and The Hague to Warsaw and Kyiv, the law was made to serve many different purposes, even as it failed to secure the goal with which it is most closely associated: justice.
One of the deadliest phases of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime’s “Operation Reinhard”
produced three major death camps—Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor—which claimed the
lives of 1.8 million Jews. In the 1960s, a small measure of justice came for those victims
when a score of defendants who had been officers and guards at the camps were convicted
of war crimes in West German courts. The conviction rates varied, however. While all but
one of fourteen Treblinka defendants were convicted, half of the twelve Sobibor defendants
escaped punishment, and only one of eight Belzec defendants was convicted. Also,
despite the enormity of the crimes, the sentences were light in many cases, amounting to
only a few years in prison.
In this meticulous history of the Operation Reinhard trials, Michael S. Bryant examines
a disturbing question: Did compromised jurists engineer acquittals or lenient punishments
for proven killers? Drawing on rarely studied archival sources, Bryant concludes
that the trial judges acted in good faith within the bounds of West German law. The key
to successful prosecutions was eyewitness testimony. At Belzec, the near-total efficiency
of the Nazi death machine meant that only one survivor could be found to testify. At Treblinka
and Sobibor, however, prisoner revolts had resulted in a number of survivors who
could give firsthand accounts of specific atrocities and identify participants. The courts,
Bryant finds, treated these witnesses with respect and even made allowances for conflicting
testimony. And when handing down sentences, the judges acted in accordance with
strict legal definitions of perpetration, complicity, and action under duress.
Yet, despite these findings, Bryant also shows that West German legal culture was
hardly blameless during the postwar era. Though ready to convict the mostly workingclass
personnel of the death camps, the Federal Republic followed policies that insulated
the judicial elite from accountability for its own role in the Final Solution. While trial
records show that the “bias” of West German jurists was neither direct nor personal, the
structure of the system ensured that lawyers and judges themselves avoided judgment.
Jost Hermand's A Hitler Youth in Poland is an invaluable first-hand account of his experience in Nazi education camps for German children, four in Poland. An important addition to the growing record of the childhood experiences of so-called Kriegskinder (children of war) in Germany during the Nazi regime, A Hitler Youth in Poland is a memoir of Germany's Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) program, by which German children were evacuated from large cities to countryside camps designed to toughen and prepare them for future careers in the military.
During the Nazi era, millions of German children between the ages of seven and sixteen were taken from their homes and sent to Hitler Youth paramilitary camps to be toughened up and taught how to be "German." Separated from their families and sent to the far-flung corners of Europe, these children often endured incredible abuse by the adults in charge. In this memoir, Jost Hermand, a cultural critic and historian who spent much of his youth in five different camps, writes about his experiences as a small, unathletic boy thrown into a "wolf pack" governed by brutalization, dreary routine, and sadism.
Intelligent and persuasive, A Hitler Youth in Poland should be read by anyone interested in psychology or the history of everyday life in Hitler's Germany and the mental scars of adults born during the Nazi regime.
A man of towering intellectual accomplishment and extraordinary tenacity, Emmanuel Ringelblum devoted his life to recording the fate of his people at the hands of the Germans. Convinced that he must remain in the Warsaw Ghetto to complete his work, and rejecting an invitation to flee to refuge on the Aryan side, Ringelbaum, his wife, and their son were eventually betrayed to the Germans and killed.
This book represents Ringelbaum's attempt to answer the questions he knew history would ask about the Polish people: what did the Poles do while millions of Jews were being led to the stake? What did the Polish underground do? What did the Government-in-Exile do? Was it inevitable that the Jews, looking their last on this world, should have to see indifference or even gladness on the faces of their neighbors? These questions have haunted Polish-Jewish relations for the last fifty years. Behind them are forces that have haunted Polish-Jewish relations for a thousand years.
Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State stands as one of the most poignant and inspiring memoirs of World War II and the Holocaust. With elements of a spy thriller, documenting his experiences in the Polish Underground, and as one of the first accounts of the systematic slaughter of the Jews by the German Nazis, this volume is a remarkable testimony of one man’s courage and a nation’s struggle for resistance against overwhelming oppression.
Karski was a brilliant young diplomat when war broke out in 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Taken prisoner by the Soviet Red Army, which had simultaneously invaded from the East, Karski narrowly escaped the subsequent Katyn Forest Massacre. He became a member of the Polish Underground, the most significant resistance movement in occupied Europe, acting as a liaison and courier between the Underground and the Polish government-in-exile. He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, and entered the Nazi’s Izbica transit camp disguised as a guard, witnessing first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust.
Karski’s courage and testimony, conveyed in a breathtaking manner in Story of a Secret State, offer the narrative of one of the world’s greatest eyewitnesses and an inspiration for all of humanity, emboldening each of us to rise to the challenge of standing up against evil and for human rights. This definitive edition—which includes a foreword by Madeleine Albright, a biographical essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski, previously unpublished photos, notes, further reading, and a glossary—is an apt legacy for this hero of conscience during the most fraught and fragile moment in modern history.