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Belzec Trials

Last Update 23 August 2006

  




These former SS men who served in Belzec, were brought to trial in Munich in August 1963, charged with murdering Jews in the Belzec death camp.

Name---Result---T4

Dubois, Werner Acquitted Driver/mechanic
Fuchs, Erich Acquitted Driver/mechanic
Girtzig, Hans Acquitted Chief of canteen
Gley, Heinrich Acquitted Driver
Jührs, Robert Acquitted Male nurse
Oberhauser, Josef 4 years Burner
Schluch, Karl Acquitted Male nurse
Unverhau, Heinrich Acquitted Gas chamber assistant
Zierke, Ernst Acquitted Driver

The crimes of genocide committed in the death camps Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka only began to unravel during the euthanasia trials in 1948.
Heinrich Unverhau who had been in charge of the locomotive depot at Belzec (cutting out yellow stars after the victims had been gassed), was the first to be arrested and charged 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 first to be been identified as a major killing center in the East. At the conclusion of their enquiries and in quick succession, the "Belzec 8" were arrested and interrogated.
In August 1963, they were arraigned at the Munich Assizes indicted with several counts appertaining to the murder of several hundred thousand Jews in Belzec.

Although the defendants had made admissions, the defence proffered was 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 carryout the express orders of the Belzec camp commanders 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 requirement, i.e. witnesses to events implicating individual defendants, was absent.
The prosecution traced the Jews who had escaped from Belzec in 1942, but only two, Roman Robak (alias Rudolf Reder) and Sara Ritterbrand made written statements. When the trial opened, Ritterbrand was too ill to attend court to give evidence. 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 (Wirth, 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.
On 30 January 1964 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, Zierke, Dubois, Fuchs, Jührs and Unverhau were re-arrested and held in custody on similar charges relating to Sobibor. 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 more 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 (East Germany) 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 (former SS-Standartenführer, consultant hygienist and professional chemist, who had visited Belzec with Kurt Gerstein in April 1942) and Roman Robak (Reder), 84 years-old. Neither witness was able to identify Oberhauser. Pfannenstiel described his visit to Belzec in August 1942 and stated that it was the worst experience of his life. He confirmed that he had seen the Jews operating the gas engines, a point picked-up in 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-Scharführer Karl Schluch:

"If Oberhauser maintained that he did not participate in the extermination of the Jews in Belzec, or that he did not see the whole operation from beginning to end - from the unloading to the removal of the bodies -, then I say, "try another one!" 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 Oberhausers advantage, was that Wirths 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 years and six months imprisonment.
After having served only half his sentence, he was released from prison and returned to Munich where worked as a barman in a beer hall. He died in 1979.

For the Belzec crimes of murdering over 600,000 Jews there, Josef Oberhauser was the only conviction.

Source:

Robin O'Neil. Extracts from Belzec - The Forgotten Camp

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