Research Unit Law

Paradoxes of Witnessing

Jewish Survivors in the Federal German Sobibor Trials

This empirical study focuses on the history of some fifty Jewish witnesses who testified in five Sobibor trials in the Federal Republic of Germany between 1949 and 1989. These trials related to the large complex of the Aktion Reinhard camps at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, which are characterized as pure extermination camps due both to their special circumstances as well as to their permanent absence from public perception and historical research. On the one hand, the witness testimony will be reconstructed in the context of the transnational interconnections of the survivors and the worldwide participation of Jewish organizations. On the other hand, it will be placed within the constitutive framework of German justice and its specific demands. This work presents the formation, the course, and the concrete circumstances of the survivors’ testimony based on an analysis of their statements. It will moreover explore the legal evaluation criteria of German judges, their perception, and their assessment of Jewish witnesses, especially with regard to their credibility. The overall picture of forty years shows: The witnesses moved into an exposed and precarious position due to the specific circumstances of the Nazi crimes in Sobibor. They encountered a judicial system that confronted them with increasing mistrust and increasingly paradoxical demands. This development of witnessing contradicts the general German history of perception of the Holocaust after 1945.