La publication d’une longue interview d’un ancien gardien d’Auschwitz, Jacob W., dans le magazine allemand Der Spiegel le 25 août 2014 ajoute une pierre à l’édifice intellectuel construit par Arendt. Il s’agit d’un nouveau témoignage sur l’énigme majeure du XXème siècle que fut la participation passive ou active du très grand nombre à la Solution finale. Comment l’homme est-il capable de renoncer à son humanité ? Comment l’homme peut-il se pardonner à lui-même son absence d’émotion et d’empathie pour ne « faire que son travail », ainsi que l’avait exprimé Eichmann ?
La réponse à ces questions tient-elle dans les explications que fournit Jacob W. (qui a souhaité garder l’anonymat ) aux trois journalistes qui l’interrogent ?
Jacob W. avait 19 ans lorsqu’il a reçu une lettre l’informant qu’il était enrôlé. D’étudiant en architecture en Tchécoslovaquie, il s’était retrouvé en 1942 gardien dans l’un des mirador d’Auschwitz. Son récit sur l’univers concentrationnaire -précieux car sans doute l’un des derniers témoignages directs- est celui d’un homme qui n’exprime aucune culpabilité,
«Non, je n’ai pas ce sentiment. […] Je n’ai jamais fait de mal à un juif. Mais je n’ai pas non plus été capable d’en aider un», dit-il.
Partant, il n’exprime aucune demande de pardon. Toute les justifications tiennent en une phrase, qui manifeste que sa vie vaut celle de millions d’autres :
«Si j’avais déserté, ils m’auraient tué»
La fracture entre les collaborateurs et les résistants se trouve là, dans la capacité de discernement entre le bien et le mal, et dans la capacité à risquer sa vie ou non. La question posée par les réponses du gardien d’Auschwitz est la suivante : comment un homme peut-il justifier que sa vie est au-dessus de certaines valeurs (la vie de milliers d’hommes -innocents-)?
De la tour d’observation, il retient les visions d’horreur du camp, l’odeur des fours crématoires et le remplissage incessant des fosses communes. Il lisait la Bible, dit-il, pendant que les prisonniers partaient travailler sur les routes. Et lorsque le journaliste le questionne plus précisément sur ce qu’il ressent à certains moments, lorsqu’il échange des propos avec des prisonniers juifs, il répond avec un langage stéréotypé comme le langage administratif (Amtssprache) d’Eichmann, un tel langage « parce qu’il était réellement incapable de prononcer une phrase qui ne fût pas un cliché. » (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann à Jérusalem, éd Folio p.117).
«Une fois nous devions surveiller ces deux femmes qui travaillaient, très jeunes. Alors je leur ai demandé: ‘Pourquoi êtes-vous là ?’. Et l’une d’entre elle m’a répondu: ‘Parce que je suis juive’. Qu’est-ce que vous êtes censé dire après ça?».
Interview Der Spiegel 24 août 2014 :
W.: When you see that so many trains are coming, people arriving, then nobody can say anything. Everyone knew about it.
SPIEGEL: Were you ever inside a gas chamber?
W.: Just once. It was with a surveyor team. I was charged with guarding them. That was in 1943 or 1944.
SPIEGEL: How big was the chamber?
W.: Maybe as big as my entire house, which is 90 square meters (970 square feet). I mean, when one of the trains arrived, with 200 or 300 people, then they, if there were too many, had to wait outside.
SPIEGEL: You could see that from above?
W.: They had to wait in front of the gas chamber for an hour. And then they were led inside. They also heard the screams, but they, the SS people, the … I mean, that’s how it was. That’s how it … happened.
SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when you were standing with the surveyors in the gas chamber?
W.: You can imagine it must have been a big room. It was pretty much a concrete bunker. There were pipes on the outside; I don’t know any more if there were four or six. Then they threw a can inside.
SPIEGEL: You saw SS troops throwing Zyklon B in from the outside?
W.: Yes, of course. Standing on the tower, you could see them coming. It was always a vehicle with two men inside. And then they drove directly there and did a little operation and then you knew: That is the death squad.
Jakob W. was in Auschwitz until January 1945. After that, his unit was sent to defend Breslau, the present-day Polish city of Wroclaw, where he lost his right eye and was wounded in the stomach. To this day, he can only hear out of his left ear. In addition to his wife, he also invited his neighbor to be present during the interview. He wants to show that he has no secrets, and never did.
Many knew that he was once a guard in Auschwitz, including his three sons, colleagues at work and the Protestant pastor from the local church. Even the Chancellery and the German president’s office knew. In 2011, Jakob W. wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-President Christian Wulff complaining that the state had docked his pension by €59 ($78) per month due to his violation of the « principles of humanity » during the Nazi period. A law passed by Helmut Kohl’s government made the decrease possible. His petition was politely rejected.
W.: In Auschwitz, I would have a week of daytime shifts and a week of nighttime shifts on the towers and then a week with the labor squads outside the camp.
SPIEGEL: Were you alone in the tower during your shifts?
W.: Yes, but at night there were two of us for the 12-hour shift, swapping out every three hours. In between, you could get some sleep. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, there is that famous gate through which the trains drove into the camp. Up above in the building was our break room for night shifts.
SPIEGEL: What do you remember about your service on the towers?
W.: Twelve hours is a long time. When it was hot, you had to stand the whole day in the sun. When it was cold, you had to constantly hop from one foot to the other. There you are, six meters (19 feet) up and you aren’t allowed to go down, not even to pee.
SPIEGEL: What did you think about when you were up there?
W.: In the morning, all the prisoners had to go to work, somewhere to build roads. In the evenings, they came back in. In between times, there was nobody to be seen in the camp. During those times, we would read. I had a Bible with me, or a newspaper. That wasn’t forbidden.
SPIEGEL: You read the Bible on the guard towers?
W.: I am an Protestant Christian. And I believe it was God’s will that I was just a guard. And not in a firing squad.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever shoot a prisoner in Auschwitz?
W.: I never shot anybody.
SPIEGEL: From the towers, you had a view of the entire camp. Did you ever see another SS soldier shoot a prisoner?
SPIEGEL: Did you ever see a prisoner trying to escape?
W.: No, but it happened. They were mostly acting out of desperation. They jumped onto the fence and were shot to death.
SPIEGEL: But you never saw such a thing?
W.: I never shot anybody.
SPIEGEL: Did you have any contact with the prisoners?
W.: Yes, but it was mostly the German ones.
SPIEGEL: And you talked with them?
SPIEGEL: Did you see the corpses being burned?
W.: The crematorium chimneys weren’t very tall. Depending on the wind direction, it stunk badly. And starting in 1944, the crematoria weren’t able to keep up. Next to them was a ditch, perhaps three or four meters across. A fire was burning in the trench day and night. Two men were always carrying straps that they used to pull them (Eds. note: the corpses) out of the gas chamber, removed the straps and threw them into the fire. If you were standing in the area, it was impossible to look away.
SPIEGEL: So you were on a tower near the gas chambers?
W.: We always changed. The fence was right behind the gas chambers and the towers were behind that. You could see it. A huge fire was burning.
SPIEGEL: A huge fire of corpses?
W.: It never went out. Day and night. You get used to everything. Nobody could leave. And you couldn’t complain, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
SPIEGEL: How did you get to Auschwitz?
W.: We were told that the train would leave from Indija, a village next door to Beška, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1942. SS people there received us. They told us that we weren’t allowed to get off the train anywhere. We traveled in a passenger train to Vienna, where the last car was separated from the train. It went to Auschwitz.
SPIEGEL: You were sitting in the last car, in other words?
W.: Yes. We were seated according to last name. « S » to « Z » were sitting in the last car and had to go to Auschwitz. It was by chance. When a train arrived in Vienna, the SS divided up the passengers. Names were called out alphabetically. And when one car filled up, they started with the next one.
SPIEGEL: How did the journey continue?
W.: When we arrived in the Auschwitz train station, we immediately marched the two kilometers to the Birkenau camp. First, they cut our hair short, vaccinated us and gave us tattoos. Mine was an upside-down « A, » which stood for my blood type. We initially received three months of training, including on a firing range. Lying down, standing, everything you can imagine.
SPIEGEL: Where were the others from?
W.: Our group was mostly made up of Germans from abroad, from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Jakob W. insists that he had no choice. Research conducted by the historian Jan Erik Schulte indicates that conscriptions into the Waffen SS in 1942 Yugoslavia were « essentially predominantly compulsory affairs. » As such, W.’s case began with a violation of the Hague Conventions, which expressly prohibits drafting foreign citizens to bear arms.
When W. arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was officially designated as a prisoner of war camp. Originally, SS head Heinrich Himmler had wanted to use prisoners of war to establish a network of defensive forts and barricades to protect German settlers in Eastern Europe. But then he had the site expanded into the largest death camp in the Nazi’s machinery of destruction.
W.: If you had a daytime shift, it ended at six in the evening. Then we went to the canteen. Afterwards you could request to leave the camp and you could go as far as the Auschwitz train station. The girls from Katowice, the nearest larger city, would always go there.
SPIEGEL: So you would leave the camp during the evenings?
W.: Yes, yes, of course. There were many bars. Most played skat and drank beer.
SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?
W.: People weren’t enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn’t end well, that it couldn’t been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you’re a soldier …
W.: My brother visited me once. He began serving as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1941. I didn’t get any vacation at the time. He wrote to me that he had been given five days of special leave to visit me.
SPIEGEL: When was that?
W.: He arrived at the train station in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. There was a home for visitors and he called me from there. I picked him up and we walked around the entire camp. He wore a Wehrmacht uniform, but that didn’t draw any attention in Birkenau.
SPIEGEL: And what did your brother say about the concentration camp?
W.: What did he say? He knew about it. Half of our village was in the SS and everyone had said something about it at home.
SPIEGEL: How did you feel about your brother’s visit?
W.: I was glad. My cousin, who was also a guard in Auschwitz, got a day off as well. The three of us walked around the camp. You have to imagine it being like a large village. The prisoners weren’t there, they were at work.
SPIEGEL: Do you show him the crematoriums where the gas chambers were located?
W.: He saw it, of course. That evening we went back the train station and into the bar.
SPIEGEL: What was it like when you received the train full of prisoners ?
W.: There would be a whistle to duty and they would call « step up ». Then you would move into position, about 20 meters from the train, which had already arrived. They would open the doors from the outside and we had to encircle the train until the people had been unloaded. They would then be taken into the camp by the guards responsible for internal camp supervision.
SPIEGEL: Did the people arriving attempt to flee?
W.: They were so intimidated. Before their departure, they were told they were being taken to a labor camp and that nothing would happen to anyone unless they tried to run away. In the gas chambers, they saw the nozzles and thought they were going to take a shower. Before entering, they had to stack their clothing in neat piles.
SPIEGEL: Do you bear any guilt for what happened?
W.: No, I don’t have that feeling. We gave the Jews what was left of our bread, which otherwise would have been thrown away. We set it on their toolboxes near the place where they got water. I never did harm to any Jew. But I also wasn’t able to help any of them.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel a something like a sense of moral guilt?
W.: No. I spoke to them in a friendly manner; I never hit, kicked or killed any. I do not feel like a criminal just because I had to guard them. Germany had invaded Yugoslavia and that was a crime against humanity and international law. Then the Nazis conscripted me and brought me to Auschwitz. And how was I supposed to get away from there? If I had deserted, they would have shot me.
The German justice system tried once before, in the late 1970s, to serve justice on Jakob W. But the case was ultimately closed. Back then, he told investigators that he hadn’t known what « was happening inside the camp. » He also didn’t mention anything about being part of the selection on the unloading ramp. He only said: « My insight wasn’t that extensive. » Was it just a self-serving assertion to avoid incriminating himself? Today, Jakob W. says he can no longer remember the questioning. What he does say is that it would be absurd to claim that people didn’t know what was happening inside Auschwitz. « When the crematorium is constantly burning, then everyone knows that something is going on. »
SPIEGEL: What happened to you once the war ended?
W.: As an SS member, I was placed in an American camp for prisoners of war. At the end of 1946, I was in Dachau along with perhaps 6,000 prisoners. We were housed in three-story barracks and wore our old uniforms. My great coat was still torn up from the injury. Then, one morning, we were told that the Jews from Auschwitz would be coming today as witnesses.
SPIEGEL: They were supposed to identify you?
W.: There were around 20 men. They were from a special unit that led their own people to the gas chambers and they had to take them from there to the crematorium in wagons. They were all young people.
SPIEGEL: How was the encounter?
W.: They all had the right to spit on and denounce us. Instead they went past us, looked at us and said: « You poor pigs. Where are your officers and Blockführer? »
Cette interview de Jacob W. est publiée alors que le procureur de Stuttgart a annoncé avoir avandonné les poursuites engagées contre lui, pour complicité dans les crimes de guerre.
Auschwitz : revirement de la justice allemande ?
Cette décision s’appuie sur le fait qu’il a déjà été condamné en 1948 par une cour polonaise.Ce motif n’avait pourtant pas été retenu par les juges pour un autre ancien nazi, Heinz Barth. Ce dernier avait été condamné à mort par contumace une première fois le 12 février 1953 lors du procès d’Oradour-sur-glane à Bordeaux. Puis la justice allemande l’avait ensuite condamné en 1983 à la prison à vie. Alors pourquoi ne pas tenir compte de ce précédent ? Le parquet de Stuttgart pourra-t-il répondre à cela ? Peut-être exprimera-t-il qu’il s’agissait pour Heinz Barth d’un procès politique que l’ex-RDA avait voulu faire à titre exemplaire ? Réponse dont personne ne serait dupe.
De plus, cette décision marque un revirement de la justice allemande qui en 2011, avait condamné l’ancien garde du camp de Sobibor John Demjanjuk à cinq ans de prison. C’était la première fois qu’un garde était alors condamné «pour crime de guerre sans pour autant pouvoir prouver qu’il a participé à une tuerie». J’avais fait le commentaire de cette décision sur mon blog dans un post de novembre 2013.
D’autres nonagénaires suspects (le plus vieux a 97 ans) font encore l’objet de poursuites par la cour de Stuttgart pour leurs responsabilité dans les camps.