Translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer
The Frankfurt Trial, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Trial, started on December 20th 1963 and ended on August 20th 1965, nearly 20 years after the Nuremberg trials. Facing prosecution were 22 former members of the SS, who had worked as camp guards, doctors and commandants at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. It wasn’t a trial the Germans were relishing. The prevailing attitude at that time was that it was time to move on.
However, the trial went ahead and, apart from all the shocking details of how inmates were treated, was the further shock of how ordinary and integrated into society the defendants were. How crass their defence. “I was only following orders”. “I knew nothing about any of that”. And how loaded the system was against the surviving inmates, whose evidence was called into question because they couldn’t remember the exact date of their arrival at camp nor the dates of the murders, tortures and brutalisations that they witnessed.
The young Polish translator, Eva Bruhns, finds herself, more by accident than design, assigned to the court. It is a commission that neither her parents, who own the eponymous restaurant, The German House, nor her rich fiancé wish her to undertake, though neither party will explain why. For a fact, it is a life-changing assignment for Eva, for as the trial progresses, and her committment grows, long forgotten (surpressed?) childhood memories begin to surface, and with it suspicions that her parents are not being entirely honest. The young girl, who dreamt only of being submissive blushing bride, becomes a woman of conscience, with a mind of her own. Something that her fiancé cannot tolerate. So he goes and requests she be fired (apparently men could simply do that in 1963!) End of engagement.
Eva continues and when she eventually discovers her parents secret, another estrangement ensues. An estrangement which raises questions about whether those who didn’t commit war crimes, but who did nothing to stop them either, are deserving of forgiveness. Other questions too arise in relation to the damage inflicted on those too young to understand what was happening, but who nevertheless bear the scars. Eva becomes overburdened with guilt. Her sister’s response is altogether more psychopathic.
Hess offers no easy answers – a particular strength of the novel, I found. Eva’s naïvety and contrition on behalf of the older generation isn’t enough to build bridges between persecutor and persecuted, as much as she would find that a comfort. And there are limitations on the legal front also. In addition to the aforementioned, the judge emphasises that acts that were legal at the time they were performed, cannot be made illegal in retrospect. Despite that limitation, 19 of the 22 accused received custodial sentences. And there’s another hard question: justice was seen to be done, but was higher justice served?
As for Eva, whose comfortable, ordinary life is shattered by the secrets of the past, she has to learn how to live an ordinary life again. The irony is she needs to take a page out of her parents’ book.