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The magnitude of the Holocaust did not become evident until April 17, 1945, when the Allied forces from the west and the Russian forces from the east linked up at the Elbe River in Germany. As unsuspecting Allied soldiers entered the concentration camps in Germany, they discovered thousands of dying people. Despite the efforts of the British and American medical personnel. these prisoners were rescued too late. In the weeks following liberation, many of them died of typhus and other diseases or from starvation.
Allied forces faced a serious dilemma. What was to be done with the freed prisoners of war and displaced persons (DPs). For most survivors, their homes, family, and friends no longer existed. Those who did return to their homelands were often met with hostility by their neighbors; many of whom had profited by their absence. The Allies set up DP camps to house the vast numbers of Jewish survivors and other refuges with no place to return to. The camps were mostly located in areas of Germany controlled by the western Allies, especially the United States and Great Britain. By 1946, 250,000 Jews crowded into DP camps. These camps were considered a temporary arrangement until the DPs could immigrate or return to their native lands. When it became clear that other countries would not significantly raise their immigration quotas, the 200,000 Jews liberated from the camps were returned to their native countries. Some 65,000 Polish and Lithuanian Jews had nowhere to go.
Both political and humanitarian reasons contributed to the decision to open the doors of Palestine to the survivors of the Holocaust. In western Europe and the United States, letters from soldiers in occupied Germany described the horrors of the death camps. In the United States, the findings from committees and individuals contributed to public awareness of the Holocaust.
ISRAEL OPENS DOORS TO REFUGEES
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to sanction a partition plan dividing Palestine into a binational state. The state of Israel became a haven for the surviving Jews of Europe. The modern state of Israel did not result from the Holocaust. Its roots go back to the Zionist political philosophy of the late nineteenth century, but the holocaust experience influenced its establish-ment. After the horrors of the Holo-caust, many Jewish leaders felt that a Jewish state was the only guarantee of safety.
Resettlement of refugees was just one of the problems facing the leaders of the postwar world. Equally pressing was the need to understand and bring to justice those who had carried out the Holocaust. This was the purpose of the Nuremberg Trials held in Nuremburg, Germany. This was the first time that leaders of a country were tried by an international tribunal for crimes that had been in keeping with state policy. There were two sets of trials of Nazi war criminals. The first set began November 20, 1945, and lasted until October 1, 1946. An International Military Tribunal was convened, made up of repre-sentatives of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. These trials were of the political, military, and economic leaders of the Third Reich captured by the Allies. Among the defendants were Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. Many of the most prominent Nazi leaders—Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels—committed suicide and were not brought to trial. At these trials, most of those who had participated in the Holocaust were charged with committing “crimes against humanity.” Such crimes were defined as the murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhuman acts committed against civilian groups on political, racial, or religious grounds.
The second set of trials, the Subsequent Nuremburg Proceedings, was conducted by the Office of the U.S. Government for Germany. Although these trials used American judges, the tribunal considered itself international. These trials tool place from 1946 to 1949. The defendants were high-ranking Nazi officials including cabinet ministers, SS officers, and doctors who had carried out medical experiments. The American Nuremburg tribunal sentenced twenty-four to death, twenty to life imprisonment, ninety-eight to other prison terms while acquitting thirty-five.
DEFENDANTS SAY THEY OBEYED ORDERS
Defendants did not deny the charges, but argued that in a war situation, they were following orders and could not be held responsible for orders from a superior. The prosecutors argued that while war is an evil thing, there is the unwritten “custom of war” which forbids murder as distinguished from killing in legitimate combat. Despite these high profile trials, the majority of Nazi war criminals were not prosecuted. Most returned to normal life. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Gestapo, the SS, the Einsatzgruppen, the police, and the armed forces, as well as business people and bureaucrats who planned and implemented the Final Solution. received no penalties for their participation in genocide.
NAZI HUNTERS SEARCH FOR WAR CRIMINALS
Between 15,000 and 20,000 Nazi war criminals were still alive in the early 1990s. Most were thought to be hiding in Europe, South America, or the United States. The search for these people continues, led by men and women known as Nazi hunters. One of the most famous Nazi hunters is Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor. He has successfully tracked down more than 1,000 Nazi criminals. He discovered the hiding places of Argentina’s Adolf Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi official responsible for arranging all transportation of Jews to the camps during the period of the Final Solution. After the war Eichmann escaped from a POW camp in Germany and made his way to Argentina. He was captured by agents of the Israeli government in Argentina in 1960 and taken to Israel, where he stood trial. Eichmann never denied the accusations against him, but claimed that he was powerless to resist orders from his military superiors. After a sixteen-week trial, Eichmann was found guilty of all charges and was hanged in Israel in 1962.
Other well-known Nazi hunters are Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. Through their efforts, Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo in Lyon after the Nazis took over southern France, was brought to trial in France and sentenced to life imprison-ment in 1987 for committing “crimes against humanity.” Known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” Barbie carried out the deportation of more than 800 Jews and members of the French Resistance. In 1951 Barbie moved to Bolivia and lived there under a false identity until 1972, when the Klarsfelds found him. The Bolivian government refused to extradite Barbie until 1983. He died in jail.
The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.
Justice Robert Jackson
Chief American Counsel
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials