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Prism Spring 2014

Prism Spring 2014

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Published by Yeshiva University
Yeshiva University Prism Journal Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators is a publication of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish
Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. It is made possible by a generous grant from the Henry, Bertha,
and Edward Rothman Foundation.
Yeshiva University Prism Journal Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators is a publication of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish
Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. It is made possible by a generous grant from the Henry, Bertha,
and Edward Rothman Foundation.

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Published by: Yeshiva University on Mar 17, 2014
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Nuremberg is a multilayered space whose

past echoes resonate. Its architectural lega-

cy, enhanced by its filmic representations,

maintains a vivid dialogue with its new spirit and displays

a remarkable effort to combine both. Public space and col-

lective memory reflect the simultaneous co-existence of past

and present; thus, in a dynamic process, the visitor some-

times retreats to one to enable the other to surface. This

dual and inseverable bond requires full consciousness of

the dark period and a wish to redeem it, a process that is

occurring through acknowledgement and education, using

the sinister icons of the past both as instructive archaeo-

logical sites and as centers of contemporary documentation,

memory, and study. The Zeppelin Grounds and Court-

room 600 at the Palace of Justice serve as overwhelming

case studies in which one can visualize the past and, at the

same time, defy it through the instructive programs they of-

fer. In parallel, Nuremberg is challenging its Nazi legacy

by turning itself into the City of Human Rights, an ongoing

process that began with Karavan’s Way of Human Rights and

is rapidly progressing in a variety of fields including art

and research.

The cradle of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws is pursuing

the opposite path, a metamorphosis achieved not by ignor-

ing the city’s sordid heritage but by building on its ghostly

remains the foundations of a more just and moral society.

Nuremberg’s Nazi-era relics serve as a constant reminder

both of evil and of Germany’s current attempts to combat it.

FIG. 6: Ursula Rössner and Jürgen Eckart, Tortoise—Right to Health
and an Intact Environment,
Street of Children’s Rights, Nuremberg.

Courtesy of Ursula Rössner. Photographer: Jürgen Eckart.




Benjamin, W. (2003). Paralipomena to “On the concept of history,”

in Walter Benjamin: Selected writings, Vol. 4, 1938–1940 (trans.

Edmund Jephcott and others). Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap

Press of Harvard University Press.

Brockmann, S. (2006). Nuremberg: The imaginary capital.

Rochester, NY: Camden House.

Fittko, L. (1991). Escape through the Pyrenees (trans. D. Koblick).

Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Human Rights Office, City of Nuremberg. (n.d.). Street of

children’s rights. Retrieved from www.nuernberg.de/internet/



Kramer, S. (Dir.). (1961). Judgment at Nuremberg (Film). MGM.

Macdonald, S. (2006). Undesirable heritage: Fascist material

culture and historical consciousness in Nuremberg. International

Journal of Heritage Studies, 15(1), pp. 9–28.

Macdonald, S. (2009). Difficult heritage: Negotiating the Nazi past

in Nuremberg and beyond. London & New York: Routledge.

Mayerhofer, B. (2011, January). Germany and National Socialism:

The Nuremberg trials memorial. Goethe-Institut. Retrieved from


Mee, C. B. (2011). Greek archaeology: A thematic approach.

Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Memorium Nuremberg Trials. (n.d.). Project Memorium

Nuremberg Trials. Retrieved from


Rössner, A. (2013, September 25). Personal communication with

the author.

Schmidt, A., & Christmeier, M. (n.d.). Memorium Nuremberg Trials:

The exhibit, a summary. Nuremberg: Museen der Stadt Nürnberg.

Tiedemann, R. (Ed.). (1999). The arcades project—Walter Benjamin

(H. Eiland & K. McLaughlin, Trans.). Cambridge, MA, & London:

Howard University Press.

Walter Benjamin in Portbou. (n.d.). The work. Retrieved from




A year before his death, Primo Levi (1989), a survivor

and memoirist of Auschwitz, wrote an essay he

called “The Gray Zone.”1

It explores a particular

spectrum of Holocaust-era figures who defy the categories

that help to sort, define, and thereby make more compre-

hensible the events and experiences of the Holocaust (vic-

tim/oppressor; good/evil; guilty/innocent). Plotting that

space between black and white, Levi locates at various

points along the tonal gradient those people who made

small to great compromises with the German authorities

to obtain some advantage: a measure of protection, a larger

ration of food, a prolongation of life; or because they

thought they could make a positive difference in the lives

of the Jewish prisoners. They were members of the Jewish

councils (Judenräte) who mediated the relationship of Nazi

officials and ghetto prisoners, communicating the demands

of the former to the latter. They were inmate functionaries

in the camps, from barrack bed smoothers and lice-checkers

(relatively benign in consequence) to kapos—overseers of

work squads, who sometimes brutalized their fellow pris-

oners. At the most extreme, they formed the Sonderkom-

mandos: the prisoners (often, but not exclusively, Jews)

who shepherded unknowing victims to the gas chambers,

search the corpses for valuables, feed the bodies into the

ovens, and dispose of the ashes. This work ransomed for

those who did it better food and sleeping quarters and a

forestalled end in the gas chamber. Exceptionally few sur-

vived the war, however. The first task of newly recruited

Sonderkommandos was to destroy the remains of their pre-

decessors. This occurred at regular intervals.

In his reflections, Levi treads lightly and cautions the

reader more than once about both the discomfort of fol-

lowing him in this exploration and the boundaries to be

heeded. He writes that it is “neither easy nor agreeable to

dredge this abyss of viciousness,” that “one is tempted to

turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind” (p. 53),

and that the entire story of the gray zone “leaves one dan-

gling” (pp. 66–67). Still, Levi insists that “if we want to

know the human species” (p. 40), then we must know it.

Who these people were, however, and what their moral

positions were, are complicated questions. Nazi power cre-

ated the structures and pressures by which a victim could

be co-opted into the very process of destruction. In Levi’s

words, the existence of the Sonderkommandos was evidence

of “National Socialism’s most demonic crime” (p. 53).

“The concept of Primo Levi’s ‘gray zone’ has inspired my concept for a course on the Holocaust using postwar trial-related materials,”

explains Valerie Hébert. “The moral ambiguity of his essay’s subject matter and his admonishment to think without judgment reflect a

privilege that I as a historian, and other scholars in the humanities, take for granted. It is a privilege of which our students also should

be aware.”

Valerie Hébert

Teaching the Holocaust with
Postwar Trials

U.S. executive trial counsel Thomas J. Dodd speaks at the Inter-
national Military Tribunal (IMT) trial of war criminals at Nuremberg
that opened in the fall of 1945, six and a half months after Germany
surrendered. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum, courtesy of John W. Mosenthal.



Those people who populated the gray zone were victims,

certainly, but they were also ready to compromise and, in

that bargain, became “vectors and instruments of the

system’s guilt” (p. 49). Thinking about them provides rev-

elations about the Nazi system and about the frailties of

human moral armature. We observers are not equipped to

fit them into any existing moral framework. We must, Levi

declares, “meditate on the story . . . with pity and rigour,”

but no one, he writes, “is authorized to judge them” (p. 59).

Levi’s admonition to suspend final judgment in cases

of moral ambiguity resonates with the approach of hu-

manities scholarship to atrocity. Our disciplines have a

high tolerance for open-endedness, and our contributions

are still considered useful when they generate more ques-

tions than they answer. The historian’s job is to recreate

context, to demonstrate contingency, to analyze outcomes.

Although our work is rife with questions of moral and ethical

significance, it is not our primary responsibility to endorse

one position to the exclusion of all others.

My research has centered on legal confrontations

with atrocity. In many ways, law and history are compatible.

Both concern themselves with the past: Both seek to re-

construct events, to locate and assess evidence, to identify

responsibility and consequence. The disciplines diverge,

however, at that moment when the judge renders a conclu-

sion. A judge must choose only one interpretation, whereas

a historian need not. The analogy I wish to draw between

Levi’s essay and trials of Holocaust crimes is not that the

accused should have been spared from judgment. In the

cases I discuss below, guilt was rarely beyond dispute, and

the means by which the accused acquired that guilt were

wholly different from those with which the members of

the gray zone acquired theirs. Rather, Levi’s essay reminds

us that historical nuance and complexity can be lost in a

juridical process that admits only the binary alternatives

of guilt and innocence. The rigidity and finality of the law

can constrict and abridge our understanding of the past.

Despite this limitation, however, trials lend themselves

readily to teaching. They represent marvelous historical

snapshots because they capture, in neatly packaged form,

a particular set of actors, questions, and conclusions that

are both shaped by their contemporary historical circum-

stances and influential on subsequent interpretations of

key issues. There is a finite list of characters: the accused,

the prosecutors, the defense counsel, the witnesses, the

judges. The central question is usually unambiguous: Is

the defendant innocent or guilty? Specific laws govern the

process and serve as the analytical framework, and a judg-

ment presents a clear and self-contained assessment of the

evidence. Separately, however, the social, political, legal,

and historical implications of each factor provide broad

scope for inquiry and analysis.

Trials and the law enjoy a level of prestige and social

currency that lend their decisions an air of authority and

impregnability. The law, though, is as human and as fallible

a construct as the events over which it sits in judgment,

and the incongruities between law and history can produce

disjointed and incomplete narratives. Nonetheless, the

privilege that attaches to legal decisions often means that

the narrative emanating from a courtroom strikes deep

roots in public memory of events. If we acknowledge that

the very processes of legal investigation and decision are

too narrow to account for all shades of nuance, and that

they do not always match the scope of the crimes they

confront, we can see how misleading legal pronouncements

potentially are. Therefore, building a course on the Holo-

caust using sources generated by trials offers students

means by which to disrupt inherited notions of justice and

retribution, fact and truth, good and evil. Such sources

also, in ways that will be explained below, speak to concrete

historiographical issues that help to refine the details of a

student’s training in the field of Holocaust history. The

questions I highlight, however, are not limited to historical

inquiry. They also have contemporary relevance. As any

good work in history does, the course would ideally inspire

students to apply historical examples to timeless problems.

Such a course would work best at the graduate level.

Students should already have a solid grasp of the historio-

graphical terrain and be prepared to read a monograph or

a collection of excerpts and/or shorter works in each of

the course’s modules, which are indicated by the sub-

headings below. The course could proceed chronologically,

in the order (more or less) that the trials took place. This

would give students a sense of the evolution of legal think-

ing about the events and, placed next to the historical lit-

erature as it developed, would throw into sharper relief

where law and history intersect and diverge. In what follows,

I highlight recent and seminal publications in the field of

Holocaust-related trials with suggestions of how they

might be used pedagogically. I do not purport to encapsu-

late the full complexity of each individual work, nor is the

selection representative of the literature as a whole.2

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