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(photo credit: First Run Features)
The name Auschwitz has become a universal synonym for the horrors of the Holocaust and man's infinite capacity for evil. But how did Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a 24/7 annihilation camp, and who were the men who operated the gears and levers of the killing machine?
The answers, or least a glimpse of the answers, are found in the documentary Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965, which was screened in New York City on Friday and will be shown in other major American cities over the coming weeks.
The film lasts three full hours, but it is a mere capsule of the longest trial in German history. The trial lasted 20 months and involved 22 defendants, 360 witnesses from 19 countries and batteries of lawyers, and was covered by 200 journalists. The mere reading of the verdict by the presiding judge took 11 hours.
Filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner culled their material from 430 hours of original audiotapes of the trial, which they discovered in the basement of a Frankfurt courthouse.
On the defendants' bank sat 22 former SS men, now paunchy and middle-aged, in sober civilian suits. These were not Nazi big shots like Auschwitz commandants Rudolf Hess or Arthur Libehenschel, who had been executed in Poland shortly after the war.
Rather, they were the middle-to-low level functionaries, the hands-on torturers and killers, who had distinguished themselves by their brutality and dedication to the job at hand.
One was Wilhelm Boger, an SS political officer and inventor of the Boger-Swing torture device, on which the genitals of prisoners were smashed to a pulp.
Another was Josef Klehr, an illiterate medical orderly who strutted about impersonating a doctor and killed thousands through phenol injections.
Otto Kaduk, a Zyklon B handler, described the operation of the gas chambers with an engineer's precision. Until his arrest, he had been operating an old age home.
Because of the nature of its subject, this is a difficult, often agonizing, film to watch, with few light moments. One is inadvertently supplied by defense attorney Hans Laternser, who gives new meaning to the word chutzpah.
Laternser argues that the SS men who took part in the selection process as the trains pulled into the camp actually saved lives by assigning some of the men and women to forced labor. If his clients hadn't done so, Laternser proposes, all the arrivals would have been killed right away.
At the end of the 22 defendants' protracted jury trial, six were given life sentences, three were acquitted and the rest were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 14 years.
For all its historical and educational value, the trial, and by extension the film, lacks one important dimension.
While Auschwitz-Birkenau was certainly a killing field for vast numbers of Roma (gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war and political offenders, the vast majority of victims were Jews.
Yet in focusing on the nuts and bolts of how Auschwitz functioned, the presence of the victims, particularly the Jewish ones, fades into a kind of amorphous background. This missing aspect may lie partly in the legal mechanics of the trial, but also reflects the reluctance of both the West and East German governments in the 1960s to fully confront the specific Jewish dimension of the Final Solution.