Who The Folk?! Ben Cohen

What’s it like to watch the trial of a former Nazi guard? St. Louis Park native Ben Cohen is just back from Germany where he represented his family at the trial a guard at the concentration camp his grandmother, Judy Meisel, survived. Cohen talks about the experience of being in Germany for this momentous event, what it means to his family, and previews the event “Justice Delayed” a reception for the opening of the Transfer of Memory exhibit the St. Paul JCC on Nov. 17, on this week’s Who The Folk podcast.

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So, you believe last couple weeks or so, got back to the United States. You have been in Hamburg, Germany and representing your family in a pretty interesting trial. Why don’t you tell the listeners about what you were doing in Germany?

I just returned last week from Germany and currently, there’s a trial that’s taking place in which a former guard from Stutthof concentration camp is accused of accessory to mass murder. As a guard of the camp, the argument is that the camp could not run if the guards did not do their basic duties of preventing escape and making sure that the camp operated. My grandmother Judy Meisel, who lives in St. Louis Park, she survived the camp and her sister also survived the camp. But their mother was murdered there 75 years ago on November 21, 1944. The way Germany has approached these trials over the last decade, it allows for co-plaintiffs to participate in the trial. And in order to be a co-plaintiff, you have to have an immediate family member, which means a parent or a sibling, who has perished in the camp. And so my grandmother is a co-plaintiff in the trial. And she also has provided her eyewitness testimony, because she was also in the camp. She’s been able to provide a lot of really interesting information, important information to the investigators leading up to the trial which allowed them to bring their indictment against these guards.

Interestingly, this trial is being held in juvenile court.

Yes, that’s right. And it is an interesting thing because it really points to how late these trials are happening. The only people left that can be put on trial or questioned from the side of the perpetrators are the youngest of those of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. It’s a really very clear symbol of how late this justice comes. Bruno Dey was by no means an architect of the Holocaust or a mastermind of any kind. But he did have a role in what happened at the camp and so, you know, it’s a very bizarre and kind of strange thing that he was 17 years old when he arrived at the camp, he turned 18, a few weeks after he arrived at the camp. So he was 17 and 18 years old when he was a guard. And so there the questions that are being raised by the trial are very interesting about what his accountability is. And there’s a lot of scrutiny on what choice did he have, whether or not to be a guard. And so that’s, that’s been a large part of the conversation at the trial. And so, yeah, so I decided, my grandmother is 90-years old, and she’s been a very outspoken survivor. Her entire life, she’s really dedicated all of her time and energy to telling her story and trying to confront hatred in order to make sure that these things cannot happen again. But at 90, she’s unable to attend the trial in person. So while she’s been able to participate in some really interesting and meaningful ways when the trial opened – there was actually another trial a year ago, of another guard from Stutthof – I decided that someone from our family should be there. And I felt like it was an obligation and a duty of mine since I actually have the ability to go to be in that courtroom and to be able to witness the trial on behalf of my family.

What do you think is to be gained going after this person 76 years after the war ended?

Well, first of all, the primary hope or expectation is just on behalf of the survivors and the victims. I know for my grandmother and for our family, it has meant a whole lot for us to have Germany pursuing this. And I point to the experience that we had when German investigators came to my grandmother’s apartment in St. Louis Park two years ago and listen to her for four hours tell them in great detail what happened in the camp. And for her, just that experience alone was a really extraordinary thing to be a part of, and to have specifically to have German investigators asking her to tell them what happened. You can imagine for her have having gone through this and spent her whole life telling her story. It’s incredible that at this point in her life while she’s still alive, that she has had this opportunity to see that this is possible and that Germany, in particular, is interested in her story and what happened to her. So, for the survivors and the victims, I think that’s the number one thing that I point to in terms of Why are we doing this and what good can come from this still. It’s that you have people like my grandmother who have lived with this their entire lives, and they deserve to have this process happen regardless of how old the perpetrators are.

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