ROCKVILLE – Seventy years after the first guilty verdicts were handed down at the Nuremberg trials, some 500 people gathered at B’Nai Israel Congregation in Rockville on Sunday to remember those murdered during the Holocaust.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington commemorated this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began at sunset May 5th, by reviewing the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials.
Those trials, which were held to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, occurred from 1945 to 1949 and were the first time the charges of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity were used, said Peter Black, the former chief historian for the Office of Special Investigations in the criminal division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
It was impressive back in 1942 for Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and Free France to promise together that those responsible for the killings, illegal confinements, starvation, medical procedures and other crimes “would be held accountable,” Black told the audience, which consisted of about 30 Holocaust survivors.
During the first trial, 24 people were indicted and 19 convicted, Black said. Those trials and convictions of Nazi party officials, high ranking military officers and German businessmen, lawyers and doctors continued. Within a few years, 12 trials had been held, 177 people indicted and 97 convicted, he said.
But then the mood of the world changed as East and West Germany emerged and the Cold War emerged. This change “halted prosecutions,” said Black, who served as senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. from 1997 until his retirement this year.
By 1958, all those found guilty in connection with the Holocaust were no longer in prison. It took many years for the hunt to bring former Nazis to justice to begin again, he said.
Still, according to Black, those first trials set a course to hold war criminals responsible which continues to this day. It also brought about laws that outlaw medical professionals from experimenting on people without informed consent.
“The Nuremberg Trials were not a perfect solution, even at the time,” he said. “Roma, or gypsies, were hardly mentioned at the trials, and homosexuals not at all.” Nor was there any mention of those with disabilities, he said. Soviet civilians, of whom about seven million were killed by the Nazis, also weren’t mentioned “as a targeted group,” according to Black.
“The Nuremberg legacy remains a challenge for us today as we struggle with the establishment of an international criminal jurisdiction,” Black said. “Nuremberg offers us a vision, as yet unfulfilled, though we have taken major steps in the last few decades.”
It is important that anyone committing atrocities anywhere in the world “be called to account, we hope, regardless of whose flag they shame with their deeds,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Before Black spoke, a solemn ceremony was held in which those with relatives murdered during the Holocaust walked to the microphone to recite the names of their family members. Several politicians, including those from the Maryland State Assembly and Montgomery County Council, also read names of the victims.
“As the years go on, so many of the people are dying out and unable to come any more,” to Montgomery County’s annual commemoration, said Dr. Ronald Paul, chair of the Maryland Holocaust Commission. It is for them and the next generations that Sunday’s commemoration was held.
The biggest concern of Holocaust survivors today is that what happened to them will be forgotten, Paul said.
Earlier in the day, the synagogue was host to discussions for teenagers on what it takes to defy authority in the pursuit of justice. The young people also had the opportunity to interact with Holocaust survivors and display their art and research projects on the Holocaust.