BOSTON — The role of judges in facilitating the Nazi regime’s march toward genocide was probed during a presentation hosted by justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week.
The gathering was tied to an exhibit currently on display in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse, called “Reflections on Law, Justice and the Holocaust.” Created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the installation is part of the museum’s outreach to legal professionals around the country.
“Indeed, law was part of the Holocaust,” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard University’s Law School, during the June 12 gathering attended by 50 legal professionals, including the court’s chief justice, Ralph Gants.
Illustrating the power of judges to erode or — conversely — green-light a genocidal regime’s policies, Minow referenced the courts in Nazi-occupied France. To please the Nazis, Vichy legal authorities implemented racial laws with unprecedented speed. As Minow put it, “judges raced to create even more onerous laws” than were practiced in Germany.
An expert on military justice, Minow spoke about serving on the Kosovo post-conflict peace commission 18 years ago. Time and again, said Minow, people in the region told her that “independent courts” were needed if the former Yugoslavia was to heal. In addition to restoring public confidence, courts can punish the perpetrators of atrocities, set up “truth commissions,” and ensure victims receive reparations, said Minow.
Apart from due process, Minow said that all societies need “upstanders” – people who resist injustice by attempting to correct it.
“The responsibility for justice is in the hands of the people, said Minow. “The willingness of bystanders let’s bad things happen. That permits something like the Holocaust to happen.”
Minow recommended focusing on “the banality of virtue” — a spin on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” assertion, wherein Nazi perpetrators were motivated not by ideology, but by ordinary social needs. Examples of wartime virtue are found in the Holocaust museum’s 13-panel exhibit, including some of the individuals, groups and countries that rescued Jews from Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution,” in which 6 million Jews were murdered.
Appearing in the courthouse until November 17, the exhibit frames German judges and courts as the key rubber-stamps for Hitler’s policies. Years before Germany’s descent to genocide, Third Reich citizens with dissenting opinions were sent to concentration camps. The legal framework for those camps, along with Nazi racial laws, was upheld by thousands of law professionals.
“Judges were among those inside Germany who might have changed the course of history by challenging the legitimacy of the Nazi regime and hundreds of laws that restricted political freedoms and civil rights,” according to the USHMM website.
‘Close communal ties’
Like Harvard’s Minow, Boston-based attorney Mike Ross believes in the power of upstanders to alter history — or at least the trajectory of a family.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Ross’s father, Steve Ross, was hidden by Polish farmers for several months. Despite being captured and surviving atrocious camps for the war’s duration, the now 90-year-old Ross has always framed the Holocaust in terms of people’s basic decency, his son told the courthouse gathering.
Recently, 45-year-old Mike Ross visited Poland to locate sites related to his father’s past. The former Boston City Council head was particularly curious about the Polish farmers who hid his father during the start of the Nazi occupation. By the end of 1943, most of Ross’s family had been murdered at the death camp Treblinka, where up to 900,000 Jews were killed in 15 months. In occupied Poland, the penalty for sheltering Jews was far harsher than in Germany, and sometimes included the murder of the rescuer’s entire family.
The other prominent example of upstanders changing Steve Ross’s life, explained his son, came at the end of the war, when Dachau was liberated by US forces. Emaciated but elated to have survived, Ross was greeted by a soldier who embraced him with a hug and food. The G.I. also handed Ross a piece of cloth to dry his tears, which turned out to be a 48-star American flag.
“That just changed his life,” said Mike Ross of his father’s first encounter with American freedom during the liberation of Dachau.
In recent months, a film about Steve Ross has been screening in New England. Titled, “Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross,” the documentary begins with the survivor’s seven-decade search for the soldier who embraced him that day in Dachau. Ross’s long career as a social worker with at-risk youth is probed, as is his campaign to erect the New England Holocaust Memorial, where quotes from Shoah victims are literally etched in glass.
In the assessment of Mike Ross, ordinary Americans could have made more of a difference during Nazi Germany’s lead-up to genocide. Specifically, Americans were widely opposed to allowing more Jewish refugees to enter the country, said Ross, who was appointed in 2014 to serve on the USHMM Council. Even after the harrowing “Kristallnacht” pogrom in Germany, explained Ross, most Americans were against letting a mere 10,000 Jewish children into the country.
From Polish farmers risking their lives to hide Jews, to Danish sailors ferrying Jews to safety, Holocaust research shows that most upstanders were motivated more by what Minow called “close communal ties,” than by ideology or religious beliefs. In other words, people stood up for Jews because they knew and interacted with them on a daily basis.
“[Jews] who were better integrated and had more contacts with non-Jews were more likely to pursue the evasion strategy and had a higher likelihood of survival than those who had no friends or spoke broken Polish,” wrote researcher Evgeny Finkel in his 2017 book, “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival During the Holocaust.”
Despite the presence of upstanders in occupied Poland, there were not enough of them to save 3 million Polish Jews. An additional 3 million ethnic Poles were murdered by the Nazis, beginning with the liquidation of Polish leaders. Under these circumstances, attempting to rescue Jews was not a snap decision for most people.
“The rescuers, even if guided by altruism, tended to help Jews they knew personally,” wrote Finkel. “It is unclear if they would have gone to the same lengths to help complete strangers.”