Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness

One testified with his words. Samuel Hilton, a Holocaust survivor, sat in the witness chair and described how he lived through the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Others testified with their presence.

A dozen recent emigres from the former Soviet Union, also Holocaust survivors, occupied the last two rows of the spectators’ section and listened reverently to Hilton. Most wore Jewish stars, made from yellow paper, on their blouses.

What brought them together in a Manhattan federal courtroom this week was the white-haired man sitting between them at the defense table. Jack Reimer, a Ukrainian-born SS guard during World War II, is accused of assisting in the persecution of civilians — Polish Jews — and misrepresenting his wartime record upon applying for U.S. citizenship, which gives the government reason to remove his citizenship.

As the denaturalization trial entered its second week with testimony from Holocaust survivors and one-time visa-granting officials, the courtroom of Judge Lawrence McKenna became an impromptu Jewish meeting place. The spectator rows were filled each day with college students and soon-to-be lawyers, curious tourists and representatives of Jewish organizations, the occasional young chasid and a few older Jews with distinct European accents — the survivors.

Some observers buried their face in their hands as Hilton, 68 and balding, spoke. Zhanna Berina translated his words into Russian for the immigrants who sat silently around her.

Berina, from Odessa, is a vice president of the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union, a 5-year-old organization that sponsors annual commemoration ceremonies and second-generation meetings. She and Fira Stukelman, another vice president, led the group of association members to the Southern District of New York Federal Court from Brooklyn this week.

“We want to see with our own eyes the person who was in the SS,” said Berina, who lost several relatives during the Holocaust. A retired electrical engineer, she came to the U.S. in 1990 and lives in Bensonhurst.

Like her, most of the association members immigrated here within the last decade. “We’re newcomers,” Berina said. Most of them, she said, suffered at the hands of the Nazis’ Ukrainian SS guards. And like her, they considered their wartime losses — 1.5 million deaths in the occupied republics — overshadowed by the fate of European Jewry.

“The fate of European Jews is well known,” Berina said. “Very few people know what happened to the Jews of the Soviet Union.”

For the immigrants, who learned nothing about the Shoah in their homeland’s schools, the Reimer trial is a chance to learn some history and see the American justice system up close.

The yellow stars they wore were a reminder of the badges Jews were forced by the Nazis to wear.

“We want Reimer to see the star,” Berina said. “Maybe,” she added bitterly, “he forgot.”

According to the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, Reimer was a captured Soviet soldier, an ethnic German who served as a trainer of new recruits at Trawniki, an SS training base in southeast Poland near Lublin. He is charged with taking part in the liquidation of the Lublin, Warsaw and Czestochowa ghettos and with shooting a Jewish man during a mass killing at a ravine near Trawniki.

Reimer claims he was a clerk and interpreter at Trawniki, unaware of his fellow guards’ anti-Jewish activities. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and became a naturalized citizen in 1959.

OSI’s case against Reimer, who lives in upstate Lake Carmel, includes no eyewitnesses.

Do the Soviet-born survivors consider him guilty?

“Of course he’s guilty,” Berina said. “He was in the SS. The SS was a criminal organization.”

Three prosecution witnesses, all Holocaust survivors, testified to the cruelty of the Ukrainian guards who served under the Nazis.

“Cruel beyond imagination,” said Carl Langner, who survived the liquidation of the Czestochowa ghetto. “They beat us. They did it with pleasure — with a smile.”

Sophie Degan, a prisoner at a Trawniki forced labor camp, told a similar story.

But it was the testimony of Hilton, a Warsaw native, that was the most riveting.

He told about “the Ukrainians,” outfitted in their distinctive black and gray uniforms, who helped the German soldiers clear the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. He hid, in the early days of the Jewish uprising, in a series of bunkers.

“We could hear the [soldiers’] boots,” Hilton said. “We could hear the shelling. We could hear the shots, firing … constantly.” Finally, he was captured and marched to the Umschlagplatz train loading platform at the edge of the ghetto. “The whole ghetto” — set afire by the Nazis — “was completely burned out.”

Could someone serving nearby be unaware of the ghetto’s destruction, as Reimer claims, Hilton was asked by OSI attorney Lisa Newell.

“Impossible,” Hilton said. “You saw destruction all around.”

Each survivor witness was asked if he or she could identify Reimer. Each time Reimer leaned forward to give the witness a clear view of his face, now 55 years older. Each time the witness said no.

“To hear the witnesses” was the most difficult for the Soviet-born spectators,” Berina said. The testimony brought back wrenching memories. “That’s the reason we don’t come every day.”

Her group often outnumbered the European Holocaust survivors at the trial — some days only a few showed up.

“I’ve noticed that, but I can’t account for it,” said Harriet Mandel, Israel and international affairs director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. She attended most sessions of the trial.

Maybe, she speculated, the trial is not a novelty for European survivors who have lived in the U.S. for decades and can attend frequent Holocaust commemorations, programs and gatherings. For the newcomers from the former Soviet Union, an event on the scope of a federal trial is unique. “It’s a first time … experience … for many of them,” Mandel said.

European survivors don’t want to face old memories evoked by the trial witnesses, said Celia Henick Feldman, an Auschwitz survivor who came daily. “A lot of people are scared.”

They don’t want to relive anything,” said Tosca Kempler, a Berlin native who went to England on a children’s transport in 1939. She also came to the trial every day. “They want to forget.”

Feldman lives in New Hyde Park, L.I.; Kempler in Forest Hills, Queens. Both lost several relatives in the Holocaust.

“You’re here for your parents, for your brothers and your sisters,” Kempler said.

“I can’t sleep. It’s on my mind” at night,” she said.

Neither woman is sure that the government will win its civil case, which would lead to deportation proceedings brought by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“What bothers me,” Kempler said, “is that this murderer is running free. There is no justice.”

If Reimer remains free, is the trial worthwhile?

Yes, they say.

“I feel it is worthwhile, even if they don’t deport him,” Feldman says. “The whole world will know he’s a Nazi. That alone has value.”

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