Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Where To Draw the Line

In the news today, there's the story of an 83-year-old German woman who lived in San Francisco and was discovered to have been a guard at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp during World War II. Although she was not a member of the Nazi party, she worked with an SS-trained attack dog.

When federal officials found out about her past, the woman agreed to leave America and never return, give up her green card, and move back to Germany (because she lied on her immigration papers). Ironically, she married a German Jew after she came to America, who has since died. Relatives claim that her husband had no idea of his wife's past.

Such stories keep coming up of Nazis who have finally been tracked down and are now awaiting punishment. It's been sixty years since the end of World War II and these people are now senior citizens.

While in grad school, a story like this appeared in the news. I talked to my graduate advisor about it, who is Jewish and a Holocaust specialist. His response surprised me. He thought we should leave these people alone. What will we gain by forcing senior citizens to go on trial (and possibly go to prison) for something they did sixty years ago?

But then there's the other side of it. These people are guilty of participating in one of the worst crimes in human history. They can't just get away with it.

But did they get away with it or has their conscious and the fear of being caught for over sixty years been enough punishment?

It's hard to say. Where do you draw the line?


  1. Wow, that's a tough one.

    What if to them sixy years have gone by and they still believe in what they did? Then they are still liable and should be punished accordingly...but how can you tell who is telling the truth, who is trying to get away with it, and who is sincerely repentant for the crimes they committed.

    Unfortunately, it is one of those grey zones with no clear answers and far too many questions.

  2. So hard. In that atmosphere of Germany when Hitler ruled, going against the Nazi's could be a death sentence. Did she do bad things to people? I mean the regime did terrible things, but if you were a guard how do you get out of that situation without getting a big cross tattoed on your forehead?

    I think penance and forgiveness have their place--look at South Africa.

    People who commit war crimes should be considered by the Hague, but sometimes the war *is* over.

  3. I have no idea, but that is an absolutely fascinating ethical question.

  4. Without a stake in this chapter of history, I'm incapable of judging the situation. I'm neither Jewish, nor German. I read about the fear 'ordinary' Germans must have felt within their state--a fear so great that it resurfaced upon the runification of East and West (could it happen again?). And I can wrap my mind around the need to hold these people accountable. If this woman held a position of authority, had the power of life or death over others...if not, does that make her participation easier to forgive?


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