To Look a Nazi in the Eye
By Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz
Second Story Press
Holocaust survivors are, as we know, a dwindling number. So are perpetrators. So, also, are those of us who were far enough away that we were not in immediate danger, but think back and are appalled that we lived at the historical moment when such a thing happened.
And there are the generations that have come since, and will come, and have this thing to learn about.
Jordana Lebowitz is a young adult from Toronto, a student at the University of Guelph, and a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. In April 2012, at age 16, she was on the March of the Living and met Hedy Blohm, an Auschwitz survivor. Three years later, in April 2015, she learned from Hedy of the forthcoming trial in Germany of Oskar Groening, known as “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” and Jordana made up her mind that she had to be there, to “be a witness to history in the making.”
Kathy Kacer is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She has a master’s degree in psychology, lives in Toronto with her family, and has written a number of widely distributed books about the Holocaust that are largely intended for young readers. She contacted Jordana after reading in the press about her plan to attend the trial. The resulting book, To Look a Nazi in the Eye, tells two stories: Jordana’s and Groening’s.
Hedy Blohm and two other Toronto residents were to be witnesses at the Groening trial. Through Hedy, Jordana was able to contact the German prosecuting lawyer, Thomas Walther, who arranged courtroom access for her, and ultimately paid for her hotel for five nights, telling her that since “your parents will not be here. I need to watch out for you.”
Jordana contacted Jewish organizations in Toronto and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies gave her a $1,000 grant on condition that she would write a blog about the trial. That covered her air fare.
Her greatest challenge was convincing her bubbie and parents who were horrified at the thought of Jordana going to Germany. She threw a tantrum at their Passover seder and they came around. The narrative will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to talk a teenaged daughter or son out of doing something.
Groening was an SS functionary who became well known in 2009 when he gave a BBC interview. He told how he was sent to Auschwitz, which he said he’d not heard of before, in 1942. Before the war he had worked as a bank clerk. He was given a job at Auschwitz for which he was considered qualified: to collect all valuables brought by Jews who arrived on transports, to keep accurate records, and to forward the valuables to Berlin for use in the war effort. He was also put in charge of clearing the ramp of luggage left behind when Jews were sent to the gas chamber, so that those arriving on the next transport would not be alarmed.
Groening has no crises of conscience. The Nazi propaganda had convinced him that Jews were the enemy of Germany. Asked about the Jewish children, Groening said, “My answer has been this: The children were not the enemy at the moment. The enemy was the blood inside them.”
Of the more than 8,000 SS men who worked at Auschwitz, only 43 were brought to trial in Germany. The German courts ruled early on that they needed eyewitness evidence of an accused taking part in a killing to convict. It was Thomas Walther, the prosecutor in this case, who in 2011 established, in the John Demjanjuk case, that being part of the extermination camp machinery was sufficient to establish that the accused was an accomplice to murder.
Kacer takes readers vividly into the courtroom. Jordana is a nervy protagonist, who even strikes up conversations with Groening and the presiding judge. She spends five days in Luneberg, where the trial takes place, and is relieved, sometime later, to learn that Groening has been convicted.
Jordana has continued her life as a student and Holocaust education activist.