Forgotten history of “Little Nuremburg” trials revealed in fascinating new book
A new book published this month claims WWII monster Josef Mengele may have appeared in front of a Polish court in the chaos of the immediate post-war years before eluding justice.
Published next Wednesday, this promises to be just one of the bombshells that will be revealed when the book Small Nuremburg (Mała Norymberga) hits the bookshelves on August 12th.
A resident of the scenic southern town of Świdnica, it was journalist Agnieszka Dobkiewicz’s fascination with local history that first prompted her to hit the archives, a mission that morphed into an obsession after she happened upon a “terrifying but fascinating” story concerning the Gross-Rosen concentration camp from an article that appeared in a 1945 regional newspaper.
“This town, like the whole of Lower Silesia, has been ruled by Poles, Czechs, Austrians and Germans, so it has a terribly gripping past,” she tells TFN. “I’m deeply interested by the history of the region, and especially that of Świdnica, and it was while I was researching the latter that an old press clipping took me to the museum of the former Gross-Rosen camp, which is just 30 kilometres away.”
The product of years of research, the book lays bare the region’s darker history with the onus firmly placed on the trials of camp officials that took place in Świdnica following the war.
Causing a sensation at the time, the story begins in the summer of 1947 when a train transport arrived to the city containing, among others, six former SS men detained by the Allies and Soviets. Their subsequent trial captivated the city yet, until now, has largely been forgotten, as has both the wartime story of the town and the nearby camp.
“Talking of the latter,” says Dobkiewicz, “it’s hard to understand why that is, especially seeing that after their evacuation many prisoners from Auschwitz ended up here – in fact, so did the furnaces of the crematoria though fortunately there was never time to put them to use in Gross-Rosen.”
Although many reasons exist as to why Gross-Rosen has since slipped from public conscience, the author apportions some blame to the sheer dearth of evidence left behind by the Nazis.
“When the Germans left in a panic in February 1945, they followed orders to destroy all documentation – eye witness accounts recall piles of paper burning,” she says. “It was Himmler that ordered traces of all war crimes be erased, and at Gross-Rosen his order was carried out with the greatest of commitment – there’s not even a full record of prisoners. We can estimate that there were 125,000 slaves held there, but the truth is we just don’t know.”
This alone presented Dobkiewicz with several challenges.
“Like everyone who researches Gross-Rosen, a big problem I ran into was the lack of documents,” she says. “For many months I conducted very tedious research ably supported by the employees of the Gross-Rosen Museum, spooling through old archived documents on a Solar reading machine: it was the sort of equipment you see in old films, but frame-by-frame I was able to explore this terrible world of crime.”
Through diligence and persistence she was able to uncover truths long lost to the vicissitudes of time.
“I just can’t believe the scale of the horrors that happened here,” she says. “There was never a collective trial of Gross-Rosen staff as there was in the case of Auschwitz, only a series of individuals who were prosecuted; but to put that into perspective I’ve already counted 55 such processes. For comparison, it should be noted that during the first so-called Auschwitz trial, 40 people were tried.”
Describing eleven of these in her work, Dobkiewicz openly bristles with horror at their acts.
“The criminals who stood before the court in Świdnica were generally not widely known, but that doesn’t negate their actions or make their felonies less acute. They were guards, sentries, many members of the prisoners’ self-government, for example capos, but also women who supervised the female units. The crimes that they committed make the hair stand on end.”
Along the way, difficult topics are not shirked, for instance, homosexual relations between prisoners, Jewish kangaroo courts, the story of a Jewish capo detained after the war by former inmates, and an incident relating to an ordinary tram driver who applied for a position as a Gross-Rosen guard only to be later charged with kidnapping and raping a girl after the war.
Established in 1940 on land leased to the SS by the profiteering Baron Georg von Richthofen, Gross-Rosen developed into a sprawling world of suffering comprised of over one-hundred sub-camps, each with its own tragic story.
“For example,” says Dobkiewicz, “we have a case described by Joanna Lamparska in her book The Empire of Small Infernos: female prisoners, thankful to the Red Army for liberating them, set up an academy in gratitude only to be later raped by these soldiers.”
The Soviet occupation created other problems, not least for those investigating the atrocities committed by the Nazis. With reports indicating that swathes of the camp were later used by the Communists to hold German women and also members of the Polish underground, consent to inspect the grounds was a basic but essential privilege denied by the Soviets to the prosecution team.
Yet while Świdnica’s proximity to Gross-Rosen made it a natural choice to host the trials, parallels to Nuremberg do not end simply with the city’s association with the need for post-war justice. Like Nuremberg, Schweidnitz as it was known to the Germans had been a city that had demonstrated unswerving devotion to the Fuhrer, and holding to account the perpetrators of such vile crimes in such a hotbed of previous support had strong roots in logic.
“It was a city that the National Socialists had a real fondness for,” says Dobkiewicz. “They pushed for power with great force here in the 20s, and Adolf Hitler himself made his first visit to Lower Silesia in 1929 after one such Nazi riot. In fact, to commemorate this, he was later made an honorary citizen of the town, a title that has never actually been removed.”
Shocking as this sounds (though Dobkiewicz herself questions the complex issues relating to the legal continuity of such a title), it is the last chapter that bears the greatest surprise of all: that of the fate of Dr. Josef Mengele, arguably the most revolting criminal to be spawned by the era.
Already notorious for his brutal medical experiments in Auschwitz (perhaps most infamously on children and twins), the man who many remember as the Angel of Death arrived to Lower Silesia in the autumn of 1944, with compelling deposition suggesting that he later organized the death marches of Gross-Rosen prisoners as the Red Army approached.
“In 2017 mass graves were found in the camp,” says Dobkiewicz, “and we can speculate that these were among Mengele’s last victims.”
Building up to a final and bewildering twist, while it is already widely known that Mengele was arrested by the Americans before being allowed to slip from their clutches, facts gathered by Dobkiewicz suggests he paid one last visit to the Lower Silesian region well after the war.
“Something extraordinary happened in 1946 in a small town near Gross-Rosen,” she says, “something that stands to change our knowledge of Mengele’s immediate post-war life. Certainly, it now seems plausible that he returned to this former concentration camp because of an unfinished affair…”
Published in Polish-language by Znak, Mała Norymberga will be available for purchase on August 12th.