Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Introduction to the Holocaust Trials
The IMT Series
The Belzec Trials
These former SS officers who served in the Belzec death camp were brought to trial in Munich, during August 1963, indicted with murdering Jews:
The Belzec trial in Munich lasted only three days from 18 January – 21 January 1963 Only Josef Oberhauser was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment, the following SS men were acquitted:
The crimes of genocide committed in the three Aktion Reinhard Camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka only began to come to light during the euthanasia trials in 1948.
Heinrich Unverhau who had been in charge of the locomotive depot at Belzec, where the clothes was sorted and stored and cutting out the yellow stars, from the clothes of the murdered Jews, was the first to be arrested and charged.
This was in connection with the killing of patients at Grafeneck euthanasia centre, it was during the course of the trial that information began to emerge about the Aktion Reinhard death camps.
Unverhau, after a lengthy hearing into the euthanasia allegations, was acquitted of all charges and released. His references to the death camps were held to be inadmissible and were disregarded by the court.
Even then, the wheels of justice were slow to turn, it was only in 1959 that the West German government instigated a wide-ranging investigation into the Aktion Reinhard death camps.
Belzec was the first Aktion Reinhard death camp was first to be identified as a major killing centre in Poland. At the conclusion of these enquiries speedily the Belzec personnel were arrested and interrogated. They were arraigned at the Munich Assizes charged with several counts of murdering several hundred thousand Jews in Belzec.
Although the defendants had made admissions, the defence put forward a mixture of defensive lies, self exoneration to the actual killing, and not without some foundation, that they were in fear of their very lives and their families lives, should they not carry out the express orders of the Belzec camp commandants Wirth and Hering.
The defendants attempted to lessen their own involvement in the genocide, by suggesting that the “actions of destruction” could not have been carried out without the assistance of the Jews.
They had suggested to the court that the Jews carried out the whole operation – removed the victims from the transports, cut the hair of the females, removed their bodies from the gas chambers, extracted gold teeth and buried the bodies in the pits, which they had previously prepared.
Fortunately, on this point the court was not persuaded. To convict these men of the Belzec crimes there had to be direct evidence identifying them as the perpetrators of destruction. Whilst there was circumstantial evidence or loose admissions by the accused, the main requirements the witnesses to events implicating individual defendants was absent.
Rudolf Reder also known as Roman Robak who had travelled from Toronto, Canada was unable to positively identify any of the defendants.
To rebut the general defence proffered collectively by the defendants, the prosecution relied on one principle – that the defendants were guilty of collective participation, even though they had not acted as instigators.
In principle, the one in charge who gives the orders, in this case Wirth or Hering, is solely responsible, the one who carries out these orders must also share the responsibility if he knows the task in hand is unlawful. The jury disagreed. At the end of January the trial collapsed and all the defendants with the exception of Oberhauser, were acquitted. The defence of “acting out of fear for life” was accepted by the court
Immediately on leaving the court as free men, Dubois, Fuchs, Juhrs, Unverhau and Zierke, were re-arrested and held in custody on similar charges relating to the Sobibor death camp. The case against Josef Oberhauser was adjourned, and a new trial was ordered. In January 1965 Oberhauser again appeared before the Munich Assizes, but this time the prosecution were better prepared.
Immediately Oberhauser claimed to the court that he had already been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for the Belzec crimes at the Magdeburg court in 1948, where a Soviet Military Tribunal sentenced him to a term of fifteen years imprisonment.
When the Munich court investigated Oberhauser’s claims, it was established that he had been tried and sentenced for crimes relating to euthanasia and not the Belzec crimes, as these were not known at the time. The trial continued.
Giving evidence against him were the co-defendants from the previous Belzec trial, witnesses for the prosecution were 73 year old Wilhelm Pfannenstiel who was a former SS-Standartenfuhrer, who was a consultant hygienist and who had visited Belzec, with Kurt Gerstein, and Rudolf Reder who was 84 years old.
Neither witness was able to identify Oberhauser, Pfannenstiel described his visit to Belzec in August 1942 he stated “it was the worst experience of his life.”
He confirmed that he had seen Jews operating the gas engines, a point picked up in the closing speeches of the prosecution. “The facts learned in this case show the extent of the conveyor belt killings. It is a mockery, that Jewish people were forced to participate in the killings of their brothers in faith, while people like the accused get away with playing the gentlemen.”
In his defence, Oberhauser refused to comment on any issue relating to the allegations, but statements made by him previously to the investigating officers, were read to the court.
Among the defensive answers to the officer’s questions, Oberhauser made two relevant points:
“What Wirth ordered I had to carry out, it would have not mattered to him to shoot even an SS man, if he refused to carry out an order. As far as gassing of the old Jews was concerned, I could understand it, anything over and above that was too much for me. I thought to myself that there must be some other way of getting rid of the Jews,” a sentiment shared by Zierke and Fuchs."
Because of Oberhauser’s close association with Wirth and his arrogant aloofness in Belzec, his colleagues took the opportunity in the court to discredit him.
They implicated him with the camp construction and the full gassing operations.
Former SS-Scharfuhrer Karl Schluch stated:
Oberhauser not only knew well the entire running of the extermination operation but he also took part in it. In my opinion there is no doubt that Oberhauser was an authoritative person in the killing of the Jews in Belzec camp. The Belzec camp operated for only one reason, and for what Oberhauser did he was well promoted.”
One point, that came over very strongly during the trial and was corroborated by all the defendants to Oberhauser’s advantage, was that Wirth’s law and discipline was fearful with no way of challenge.
The prosecution were able to weaken Oberhauser’s defence ploy of only being on the periphery of events in Belzec. He was convicted and sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment
After having served only half his sentence he was released from prison and returned to Munich where he worked as barman in a beer hall.
He died in 1979. For the terrible crimes committed at Belzec, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews there, Josef Oberhauser was the only conviction.
Copyright CW H.E.A.R.T 2007
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