Torah for Today: What does the Torah say about elderly war criminals?

Torah for Today: What does the Torah say about elderly war criminals?

By Rabbi Jonny Roodyn 

Torah For TodayThree years ago, the German government opened hundreds of dormant cases against alleged war criminals. This recently led to the arrest of Johann Breyer, an 89-year-old accused of aiding and abetting the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Breyer admits that he was an Auschwitz guard stationed in Birkenau, however he claims in his defence that he was stationed outside the camp and had nothing to do with the atrocities that took place inside.

Bringing Nazi war criminals to justice is a very emotive topic, especially as they are now elderly and frail and unable to serve a prison sentence. Of course, his guilt has to be determined by a court of law and not by popular sentiment.

However, there is another important element to be considered regarding his trial. Rabbi Lord Sacks points out the Torah does not have a word for history, such that Modern Hebrew uses borrowed word historia. Rather, the word the Torah uses is zikaron or memory.

History is ‘his story’, whereas memory is our story. The Chumash (Devarim 32:7) tells us to remember the days of old, and in so doing, learn from the lessons of history rather than let them fade away.

Perhaps one important reason to bring war criminals to trial many years after the event is because of this. We live in a generation where there are no shortage of Holocaust deniers.

These people deny the scope of the Holocaust for a variety of spurious academic, or anti-Semitic reasons. Not only are they dangerous in and of themselves, but as a result of this, the historical veracity of the murder of six million Jews is treated as a matter of faith or belief by an ever increasing proportion of the public.

A trial, with testimonies and evidence of atrocities weakens the hands of these deniers considerably. Putting an Auschwitz guard on trial keeps the events of the Holocaust in the news, so that people do not forget it or its important lessons.

• Rabbi Jonny Roodyn, Aish UK @rjroodyn

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