Nuremberg trials: 75 years on – Ivor Perl BEM

After the end of the Second World War, members of the Nazi leadership were tried in Nuremberg, Germany. Now, 75 years on, Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl BEM reflects on the tribunals.

Film transcript:

Ivor, when the Nuremberg trials took place in 1945 you were a 14-year-old boy; I suppose the first question for me is: at what age, at what stage of your life did it finally dawn on you that the leaders of the Nazi killing machine had been brought to account?

I think I was so young and so inexperienced in life that I wanted to build up a life myself, so I did not concentrate too much about what actually what happened in the past, obviously you can’t forget something like that, I knew about all that but I can't say I gave it too much thought other than yes, I mean I'm interested in that because I was involved in it.

Do you think justice was served at Nuremberg?

I think that's a very, very hard question to answer because even if you say justice has been served, you've either taken each one of those Germans or the people that were put on trial, if each one would have been cut in pieces would that have given me any pleasure? No, definitely not. When you say justice obviously you feel as though there had to be an answer somewhere along the line, but the crime was so huge and so unusual that you can never justify something like that. I mean, you can try to dress it up with any overcoat or paint that you want but you cannot justify it.

So, for a crime as horrific as genocide what does justice then look like for you?

Justice to me would be if people would have learned a lesson from that history and proof to show that people have learned, but I'm afraid looking around the world today I wonder if there has been much learned about that; all I can think about is revenge but not so much justice, about taking revenge, no, I don't think so.

It's interesting you mentioned the word ‘revenge’ because for some people what others call justice looks like revenge on the other side.

Exactly. Exactly. But can I just jump forward; I was interviewed about four years ago in Germany, would I be a witness, there was an SS guard being put on trial, who was prepared to stand trial to do with atrocities with Hungarian Jewry and the judge who was dealing with the case phoned me up and asked would you mind coming to Germany and be a witness. I said I'd be happy to be a witness but I cannot come to Germany; he said, well it's a shame that considering it might be the last time for there’d be a trial with a witness; somebody there who actually lived through it would make such a big difference. I said as hard as it can be, no, I can't go. When I said that to my children later on, they said ‘dad, as much as it hurts you must go along, it’s such an important occasion. Anyway, to bring the story forward when the trial was on I was I was asked to come stand as a witness and the accused, the German officer, was wielding literally two nurses, one on their side of him and two lawyers, and as I looked at him I kid you not, I could feel my hatred just leaving my body; I think to myself, look at this, just a poor old man and I was actually rather disgusted with myself to feel not pity but my hatred disappear and yet what I saw him, he was just an ordinary human being; I don't know my hatred just went.

So, the Nuremberg trials happened in 1945 and that's been 75 years; how often would you say you reflect on what happened in Nuremberg?

Obviously, now being history, I do watch it with a different perspective than I did at the time when I was young. Thinking back, as I mentioned before that I've never been asked the question, thinking back, when trying to think back 70 odd years, nothing particular other than I was pleased that something is being done, that the world has acknowledged the Holocaust has happened but other than that I can't say that I was overjoyed or I was feeling any sort of revenge against it, no. Maybe quite often you know something, you say that question, quite often I feel ashamed of myself because I don't feel more hatred; I think to myself, Ivor, what's wrong with, you look what you went through, you've lost all your family and everything never mind about millions of people, it's your family, surely you've got some anger in you and I say you know what, no, I haven't.

Maybe that speaks about your ability to forgive people that have done wrong to you.

Forgive, never. Forget, possible, not forgive, no. Never, never, never, never. I come from Hungary in a town nobody's ever heard of; if I mentioned to you Mako, nobody has heard of it, and I thought to myself how is it possible that somebody from Germany came over there to hunt me out, to kill my family, take them into the camps and how can one logically even think about it; I mean, atrocities happen, wars happen, I'm not saying I agree with it, but it’s human nature but to do something like that and I think, well, how can you forgive someone like? No, forgive never.

So, final question then, Ivor. If a young person came to you today and said ‘what does justice look like in the 21st century’ what answer would you give them?

What is justice? Justice depends who gives out the justice. Supposing Germany would have won the war, who would have been put on trial? So, justice depends who gives out justice. To have brought the Nazis on trial, but then what? Once they’re found guilty, then what? Cut them up in pieces, burn them or what? I mean what would justice do there?

So, for you the most important thing is education, to make sure that the same thing doesn't happen again.

Yes, education, but also what you do with education because mind you mind that, sorry to be contradictory here as well, who was the most educated country in the world in the 1930s? Germany. So, what did he do with the education? So, education on its own is very, very, has to be challenged in the right way.

Click here for the life story of Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl BEM. You can get more details about the Nuremberg trials here.