Judg­ment Before Nurem­berg: The Holo­caust in the Ukraine and the First Nazi War Crime Trial

  • Review
By – April 23, 2012

Greg Daw­son, the author of Hid­ing in the Spot­light about the escape of his moth­er, pianist Zhan­na Arshan­skaya, from the killing fields of Dro­bit­sky Yar, Ukraine, fol­lows that work with a book on the Holo­caust in the Ukraine and the first Nazi war crimes tri­al that took place in Kharkov, Ukraine, in Decem­ber 1943. Although there are many books about the SS Ein­satz­grup­pen, the mobile killing units that fol­lowed the Wehrma­cht into the Ukraine and oth­er areas of the Sovi­et Union after June 1941 and prob­a­bly were respon­si­ble for killing approx­i­mate­ly 1.5 mil­lion Jews, near­ly all are writ­ten by his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars and are not geared to a gen­er­al audi­ence. Excep­tions would include the books by Christo­pher Brown­ing, Richard Rhodes, and Father Patrick Des­bois. Daw­son is nei­ther a schol­ar nor a his­to­ri­an but a print jour­nal­ist accus­tomed to writ­ing for a gen­er­al audi­ence. This is the sin­gu­lar accom­plish­ment of his book. In live­ly and engag­ing prose he tells the hor­rif­ic sto­ry of the destruc­tion of Ukrain­ian Jew­ry, often through the lens of his mother’s ordeal and the mur­der of his grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents. With the keen, descrip­tive eye of an expe­ri­enced inves­tiga­tive reporter, he returns to the scene of the crime” to appre­ci­ate the land­scape of death, exam­ine archival mate­r­i­al, and inter­view sur­vivors and witnesses.

Anoth­er focal point of the book is the first tri­al — and con­vic­tion and exe­cu­tions of Nazis for their wartime crimes. It was held in Kharkov, more than two years before the cel­e­brat­ed tri­als in Nurem­berg, Ger­many. Although the tri­als and exe­cu­tions —wit­nessed by thou­sands of Kharkov res­i­dents — were report­ed in the West­ern press, few peo­ple are aware of them today. The tri­al last­ed four days and among the vic­tims of the pro­ce­dure were Jews as a cat­e­go­ry who were delib­er­ate­ly not men­tioned by the Sovi­et author­i­ties. Nowhere in the tri­al were the mur­dered Sovi­et cit­i­zens iden­ti­fied as Jews. Daw­son also pro­vides por­traits of the three Ger­man defen­dants, William Langheld, fifty-two, Hans Ritz, twen­ty-four, and Rein­hard Ret­zlaff, thir­ty-six, as well as trans­la­tions of their tes­ti­monies that are dis­turb­ing in their detail, with­out remorse expressed or the accep­tance of respon­si­bil­i­ty by the defendants. 

Daw­son, in this easy to read and engag­ing book, lifts the veil cov­er­ing a crit­i­cal and trag­ic moment of his­to­ry and crime still large­ly enclosed in darkness. 

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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