In 2015, Jordana Lebowitz was a 19-year-old freshman at Canada’s University of Guelph when she heard about the trial of Oskar Groening. Three weeks later, she was wearing translation headphones in a German courtroom, sneaking in forbidden paper and pens, and blogging for the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Kathy Kacer, a well-known Canadian children’s author, heard about Lebowitz’s experience and together they wrote a highly readable and very important young-adult book that is one of the first to re-examine Holocaust education aimed at the current “third-generation.”
Kacer is the daughter of survivors; Lebowitz is the granddaughter of survivors. Who will be left to serve as witnesses after the survivors are gone? The remarkable tale recounted in the book “To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial” answers that question and leaves readers inspired and hopeful.
When Lebowitz sat in that courtroom, 94-year-old Groening was known as the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” a former SS agent on trial for aiding and abetting the murder of 300,000 Jews. In his opening statement, he expressed remorse at what he had witnessed on the concentration camp train platforms (he was responsible for removing and organizing all valuables from the belongings of new arrivals) but felt he was simply a “cog in the machine,” and because he personally didn’t kill anyone, he should not be convicted. Lebowitz knew that this was possibly the last trial of its kind in Germany, because of the advanced ages of the perpetrators. But since the time three years earlier when she had visited Poland with the March of the Living, she knew in her gut that she needed to serve as a witness for her generation.
The page-turning narrative follows Lebowitz to Germany, where she meets Canadian survivors intent on the brave act of testifying about their horrifying experiences to the packed German courtroom and a multitude of reporters in the room. She also meets a Holocaust denier and even the grandson of Rudolf Hoess. The relationships she develops with the survivors, whom she eventually views as surrogate grandparents, are quite touching. Kacer includes much of the survivors’ wrenching testimonies in alternating chapters and, because of this, the book is recommended for grades seven and up. Readers will read parts of testimonies about being separated from family members at the platform, fears of the gas chambers and experiments with twins supervised by Josef Mengele. However, to counter these difficult parts of the book, the author relates Lebowitz’s surprise and relief at meeting present-day Germans and finding out that they are actively attempting to atone for their forefathers’ sins and taking responsibility for what happened in their country.
Teens reading this account of Groening’s trial through the eyes of Lebowitz will probably identify with her very human reaction when she sees the aged and bent-over German prisoner; she feels conflicted.
“Suddenly the door at the front of the courtroom opened. Jordana sat straighter in her chair. This is it, she thought with a sudden quickening of her breath. She was about to stare into the eyes of a Nazi. … She grasped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. And then she gasped, as an elderly man shuffled in. At ninety-four, Oskar Groening was frail, small, and hunched over. He didn’t look evil. He didn’t look like the murdering Nazi that he was accused of being. With a complete exhalation of breath, Jordana thought, he looks like my grandfather.”
“This trial was not merely addressing history, it was very much applicable to the present.” — Jordana Lebowitz
An additional hero of the story is Thomas Walther, the German prosecuting attorney and Nazi hunter, who is seen as a sort of heir to Simon Wiesenthal. In his retirement, he had taken on subsequent life’s work — bringing Nazis to justice. Because Lebowitz had sent him a rather brazen email request to allow her to attend the trial, he realized the importance of her presence and facilitated the entire thing.
Although Lebowitz spent only the first week at Groening’s trial, the authors’ epilogue reveals it lasted a few months and eventually he was declared guilty and sentenced to four years in prison. When Lebowitz contacted Hedy Bohm, one of the survivors she had befriended, to ask about her thoughts on the light sentence, Bohm replied, “I’ve said all along that it’s not about the sentence. It’s about all of us speaking and being heard around the world. It’s an acknowledgement of what went on in that terrible place.”
Now Groening is 96 years old. He had appealed the verdict and requested he not serve jail time because of his deteriorating health. But a quick Google search revealed that, as of this month, he had run out of options. A CBS News headline of Jan. 17 read, “Ex-Nazi Death Camp Guard’s Final Bid to Avoid Prison Reportedly Rejected.”
An authors’ note at the end of the book explains that Lebowitz, now 22 years old, has become an advocate for Holocaust remembrance and human rights.
When asked what was the most important lesson she learned in regard to her experience at the trial, Lebowitz replied, “It’s that time exists on a continuum. That is to say that every period is connected: past, present and future. … This trial was not merely addressing history, it was very much applicable to the present and set a precedent for the future. From this trial, I gained the knowledge and sense of responsibility rooted in past tragedy to combat human rights violations in the present and help create a better future.”
Lebowitz and Kacer will appear at 3 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. They also will appear at several local private schools. Their Los Angeles authors’ tour is sponsored by the Canadian Consulate of Los Angeles. Information is available at wcce.aju.edu.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.