Grandson of Holocaust survivor bears witness as former Nazi guard goes on trial
Ben Cohen's great-grandmother was murdered at the Stutthof concentration camp, his grandmother survived
On Friday, Bruno Dey went on trial. The 93-year-old German man is accused of being an accessory to the murders of more than 5,000.
During the Second World War, Dey was a Nazi SS guard at the Stutthof concentration camp. He may be one of the last people to be prosecuted for his actions during the Holocaust.
Ben Cohen's great-grandmother was one of the thousands of people who were murdered at that camp. His grandmother, Judy Meisel, was also at the camp, but survived. She is one of the co-plaintiffs in the case but was unable to attend the trial.
As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Cohen about his grandmother and what it meant to attend the trial on her behalf. Here is part of their conversation.
What has it been like for you to be in the courtroom to see Bruno Dey face trial?
This is the second trial that I've attended on behalf of my grandmother, Judy Meisel. The anticipation on the first day is always really high. Seeing the accused brought in in a wheelchair for the first time is always really very intense. There's a little bit of a almost feeling of theatre to what's going on sometimes in the courtroom.
It's been a really remarkable experience. I've had a chance to meet the amazing prosecutors and investigators working on this and, in a way, I felt like I've had a good chance to engage with the process.
Your grandmother has been speaking with German officials about her experiences. She didn't go. She's, I believe, 90 years old. Is that right?
The only reason I'm here in Hamburg is because she can't be here herself. She wishes she could have come and stood in that courtroom and given her testimony in person and looked the perpetrator in the eye and faced that herself.
But she can't. Because she's 90, traveling here is no longer possible. So I come here on her behalf. I felt it was important that someone from our family could be here to be a witness to these trials.
My great-grandmother was murdered in the gas chamber at Stutthof. My grandmother survived with her sister, Rachel. And, you know, for me to be able to be here is, in its own way, just a miracle.
And so I do that for my grandmother. I do that for my family. I do that in solidarity with the other survivors and the victims who can't be here.
Stutthof is the camp where Bruno Dey was a guard. He started there when he was 17 years old. What does your grandmother remember? What does she say in her remarks about her memories of Bruno Dey and her time there?
She has very vivid memories of her time at Stutthof. She doesn't have any specific knowledge about Bruno Dey and what he did. She knows what the guards did. She was there. It was total brutality.
She has the most horrible stories to share about that. On the day they arrived at the camp, a female guard said to them, "No one's getting out of here alive. You're all to be doomed."
Two guards ripped her hair out of her head when she arrived at the camp. And from there it just it got worse. I mean, the guards accompanied them to the gas chamber where her mother was murdered.
And, of course, Bruno Dey himself is open about this, right? He says he was a camp guard. He was there. He was aware of what was going on. But he says he personally didn't kill anyone. What's your response to what he's had to say?
He has been willing to co-operate and say quite a bit to the investigators. There's a 200-page transcript of his statements that he made to the investigators over the last few years.
And so, I think that it's actually a really good thing that we can hear from these perpetrators while they're still alive and to have Bruno Dey acknowledge that their plan was to exterminate the Jews and to say those things is actually really important, especially when you think today about Holocaust denial.
And when you think about the fact that people are actually trying to erase these things and deny that they ever happened, who can tell us better than perpetrators what their role was and what was their mission and why did they do this? So I hope we can hear more from him.
This man, Bruno Dey, is 93. He was 17 when he was the camp guard and, in fact, he is being tried in juvenile court. Should we have any sympathy at all for Bruno Dey?
That's a hard one to answer. The short answer is no.
I mean, he's had the chance to live his entire life free. And so, should we have sympathy for him having to answer questions at a courtroom now about what he did in the Holocaust? I don't think that that's very big of an ask, to be honest with you.
My grandmother has spent her whole life without a mother. So my answer to that is no.
I think that whatever pain and suffering he has to endure in a courtroom today is just nothing compared to what the survivors — and that's not even talking about the victims of the camp who didn't even make it out.
You mention the Holocaust denying, which is rearing its ugly head once again, and revisionism. But the people who can actually be put on trial and those who can testify are soon not to be with us. So without the witnesses, without the actual people who went through this, what happens to the story? Do you worry that we can't and won't be telling this story when we don't have the people who can bear witness and tell us what happened?
There's no question that an eyewitness testimony is so much more powerful and useful than anything else in these situations. And so, we will face a time soon when there will be no more eyewitnesses.
And I feel it's my obligation to make sure that my family's story can be preserved in the best way it possibly can. My grandmother made a promise to her fellow prisoners that if any of them should survive that they would tell the story of what happened there to make sure that no one could forget.
And in engaging with these trials, I've realized that her story is actually my story — that I actually have a role to play. And that there is a direct continuation of what she went through and what I've been doing in learning about this and engaging with the process as a way for me to be able to tell her story in an authentic and true way.
Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and John McGill. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.