Tuesday, October 1, 1946,
Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice
A little after three o’clock in the afternoon, the wooden door behind the defendant’s dock slid open and Hans Frank entered court- room 600. He wore a gray suit, a shade that was offset by the white helmets worn by the two somber-faced military guards, his escorts. The hearings had taken a toll on the man who had been Adolf Hitler’s personal lawyer and then personal representative in German-occupied Poland, with his pink cheeks, sharp little nose, and sleeked-back hair. Frank was no longer the slender and swank minister celebrated by his friend Richard Strauss. Indeed, he was in a considerable state of perturbation, so much so that as he entered the room, he turned and faced the wrong direction, showing his back to the judges.
Sitting in the packed courtroom that day was the professor of international law at Cambridge University. Balding and bespectacled, Hersch Lauterpacht perched at the end of a long wooden table, round as an owl, flanked by distinguished colleagues on the British prosecution team. Seated no more than a few feet from Frank, in a trademark black suit, Lauterpacht was the one who came up with the idea of putting the term “crimes against humanity” into the Nuremberg statute, three words to describe the murder of four million Jews and Poles on the territory of Poland. Lauterpacht would come to be recognized as the finest international legal mind of the twen- tieth century and a father of the modern human rights movement, yet his interest in Frank was not just professional. For five years, Frank had been governor of a territory that included the city of Lemberg, where Lauterpacht had a large family, including his parents, a brother and sister, their children. When the trial had opened a year earlier, their fate in the kingdom of Hans Frank was unknown.
Another man with an interest in the trial was not there that day. Rafael Lemkin listened to the judgment on a wireless, from a bed in an American military hospital in Paris. A public prosecutor and then a lawyer in Warsaw, he fled Poland in 1939, when the war broke out, and eventually reached America. There he worked with the trial’s American prosecution team, alongside the British. On that long journey, he carried a number of valises, each crammed with documents, among them many decrees signed by Frank. In studying these materials, Lemkin found a pattern of behavior, to which he gave a label, to describe the crime with which Frank could be charged. He called it “genocide.” Unlike Lauterpacht, with his focus on crimes against humanity, which aimed at the protection of individuals, he was more concerned with the protection of groups. He had worked tirelessly to get the crime of genocide into Frank’s trial, but on this last day of the trial he was too unwell to attend. He too had a personal interest in Frank: he had spent years in Lwów, and his parents and brother were caught up in the crimes said to have been committed on Frank’s territory.
“Defendant Hans Frank,” the president of the tribunal announced. Frank was about to learn whether he would still be alive at Christmas, in a position to honor the promise he had recently made to his seven-year-old son, that all was fine and he would be home for the holiday.
Thursday, October 16, 2014,
Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice
Sixty-eight years later I visited courtroom 600 in the company of Hans Frank’s son Niklas, who was a small boy when that promise was made.
Niklas and I began our visit in the desolate, empty wing of the disused prison at the rear of the Palace of Justice, the only one of the four wings that still stood. We sat together in a small cell, like the one in which his father spent the better part of a year. The last time Niklas had been in this part of the building was in September 1946. “It’s the only room in the world where I am a little bit nearer to my father,” he told me, “sitting here and thinking of being him, for about a year being in here, with an open toilet and a small table and a small bed and nothing else.” The cell was unforgiving, and so was Niklas on the subject of his father’s actions. “My father was a lawyer; he knew what he did.”
Courtroom 600, still a working courtroom, was not greatly changed since the time of the trial. Back in 1946, the route from the cells required each of the twenty-one defendants to travel up a small elevator that led directly to the courtroom, a contraption that Niklas and I were keen to see. It remained, behind the dock at which the defendants sat, entered through the same wooden door, which slid open as noiselessly as ever. “Open, shut, open, shut,” wrote R. W. Cooper of The Times
of London, the former lawn tennis correspondent who reported each day on the trial. Niklas slid the door open and entered the small space, then closed the door behind him.
When he came back out, he made his way to the place where his father sat during the trial, charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. Niklas sat down and leaned forward on the wooden rail. He looked at me, then around the room, and then he sighed. I had often wondered about the last time his father passed through the elevator’s sliding door and made his way to the defendant’s dock. It was something to be imagined and not seen, because cameras were not allowed to film the last afternoon of the trial, on Tuesday, October 1, 1946. This was done to protect the dignity of the defendants.
Niklas interrupted my thoughts. He spoke gently and firmly. “This is a happy room, for me, and for the world.” From the book EAST WEST STREET by Philippe Sands, copyright © 2016 by Philippe Sands. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Copyright © 2016 by Philippe Sands. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.