Catholic University law school Professor Lisa Lerman recently completed a trip designed to explore the role of lawyers and judges during the Third Reich. As a faculty member for Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), Lerman joined fourteen law students from around the US and Europe, as well as a fellow law professor and a couple of historians, to explore the insights to be gleaned for contemporary lawyers and jurists from this history of the Nazi death camps.
Sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the trip took place from May 25 to June 6. It began in in New York and included visits to Berlin, Krakow, Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Nuremberg. The group participated in a series of seminar discussions of historical and contemporary legal ethics questions, and visited numerous sights where some of the events under study took place.
For example, the scholars spent a day at Wannsee, the mansion in suburban Berlin where a group of senior Nazi officials, most of whom were lawyers, convened in January 1942 to conclude an agreement that the "Jewish problem" could not be solved by forcing Jews to emigrate or relocating Jews to undesirable places in Eastern Europe, but required that the Germans murder the 11 million Jews who remained in Europe.
Group discussions focused on the ethics of a Nazi lawyer named Loessner, who participated in writing a large number of laws restricting the rights of Jews in Germany and in the occupied territories. One issue was who would "count" as a Jew for the purpose of mandatory deportation. Some of the Nazis argued that anyone with one Jewish grandparent should be deported. Loessner (according to his memoir) argued that to be counted as a Jew, one should have to have at least three Jewish grandparents or two Jewish grandparents and be married to a Jew.
“We talked about his decision to work with the regime and to try to reduce the breadth of the horrors being implemented. Was this a morally defensible position?” said Lerman.
The travelers spent two days at Auschwitz-Birkenau, guided by a local historian who spent many hours showing them examples of the implementation of the "final solution" ratified at Wannsee, explaining the mechanics of the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz.
When people arrived at Auschwitz, the large proportion selected for immediate murder by gassing was led on a march across the enormous area of Birkenau to a patch of woods near the gas chambers. Sometimes the transports included larger numbers than the number who could be crammed into the gas chambers at one time.
“The men, women and children who did not fit into the first gassing sat on the ground in the woods waiting their turns to die, some knowing and some not knowing what awaited them in the ‘shower rooms,’” explained Lerman.
The group learned that sometimes there were too many bodies to fit into the crematoria, so the Nazis burned piles of bodies in a field adjacent to the gas chamber. One brave prisoner managed to get a camera from the camp storehouse—where the Nazis stockpiled all the belongings of the prisoners—and photographed the outdoor cremation of a large group of victims. The photos were part of the evidence presented at the subsequent war crimes trials.