Shmuel Krakowski on Eyewitesses

Published: 1996-05-16

The Jerusalem Post (17 August 1986) article about Krakowski and the Yad Vashem Archives was by the reporter Barbara Amouyal, who wrote that the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem hold 20,000 such testimonies of "Holocaust survivors". Its director at the time, Shmuel Krakowski, is quoted by Amouyal as declaring that over half are "unreliableā€¦ Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on second-hand information given them by friends or passing strangersā€¦ A large number of testimonies on file were later proved inaccurate when locations and dates could not pass an expert historian's appraisal."

Jamie McCarthy has pointed out to me a subsequent development I overlooked. Krakowski wrote a letter in reply, published on 21 August (p. 10), in which he complained "I said there are some – fortunately very few – testimonies, which proved to be inaccurate. Why did Amouyal make them out to be a large number?" Krakowski did not indicate what changes should be made in the quoted remarks; e.g. he did not write that he said there were "very few", only that there were very few.

It seems unlikely that the problem of fanciful testimonies in the Archives would have come up at all, during the interview, unless it was somehow a pressing practical problem, quite apart from numbers ("some" vs. "a large number"). Indeed the context of the Amouyal article shows that it was.

At the time, Amouyal was covering the forthcoming Demjanjuk trial. Retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian immigrant, had been extradited from the USA in 1986 to stand trial in Israel, accused of being "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka, who had allegedly gassed hundreds of thousands of Jews there. The trial was held in 1987-1988 in Jerusalem.

The Amouyal report was written in the context of preparations for the Demjanjuk trial. She mentioned specific testimonies in the Archives of three people who had testified in Demjanjuk's denaturalization hearing in the USA, of whom two, Eliyahu Rosenberg and Pinhas Epstein, were to testify in the Jerusalem trial. Krakowski, for his part, mentioned in the interview one specific class of "not entirely credible" testimony (a quote not contradicted in his August 21 letter): "survivor testimony claiming that Ivan the Terrible was killed in the Treblinka uprising of August 2, 1943".

Both Epstein and Rosenberg identified Demjanjuk as "Ivan" in the Jerusalem trial. Epstein claimed that he recognized Ivan's "familiar gait as television showed Demjanjuk walking down the gangway from his plane" (London weekly Jewish Chronicle, 26 Feb. 1988, p 3), and testified to various gory atrocities by Demjanjuk that he had allegedly witnessed (NY Times, 24 Feb. 1987).

Eliyahu Rosenberg was the star witness against Demjanjuk in the Jerusalem trial, and also identified him as "Ivan". Rather early, it was revealed that in 1947 Rosenberg had given a deposition in which he claimed that "Ivan" had been killed by inmates in August 1943 (NY Times, 26 Feb. 1987). He attempted to explain this by claiming that his 1947 statement had actually been based on hearsay, and was erroneous. Late in the trial, however, defense lawyers produced a document, handwritten in Yiddish by Rosenberg for a Warsaw historical institute in 1945, declaring that he had personally participated in the killing of Ivan in August 1943, and identifying the immediate killer as one "Gustav" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 23 & 28 Jan. 1988,Chicago Tribune, 28 Jan. 1988).

With some circumlocution of these and other matters the court found Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced him to death. However it subsequently became obvious to the whole world that Demjanjuk could not have been a guard at Treblinka. Consequently in 1993, despite all the lying testimonies of 1987-1988, he was acquitted and released. He then returned to the USA.

The relevant observation for us is that when the Israeli prosecution attempted to use witnesses who had supplied testimonies for the Yad Vashem Archives, the results were those predictable from the Amouyal article, and worse. The sense of the original article was completely confirmed by subsequent events. That sense is that the testimonies in the Archives are essentially "unreliable" for practical purposes. In one way or another, regardless of whether he said "some" or "many", Krakowski transmitted that idea to the reporter. If Krakowski does not want to take credit for being right, that is his problem, not ours. In journalism it is commonplace for a subject to regret the candor with which he gave an earlier interview.

When Demjanjuk's acquittal as "Ivan" was confirmed, one Esther Raab, who had been silent when Demjanjuk was alleged to have been at Treblinka, popped up to offer her testimony that she recalled Demjanjuk from her stay at Sobibor. The New York Times commented (25 August 1993) that "It is unclear why Mrs. Raab did not speak out until now." On the contrary, it is completely clear. I assume her testimony also reposed at Yad Vashem; if not, her role as a technical advisor for the 1987 TV movie Escape from Sobibor establishes her testimony as being of equal ostensible worth.

These matters are "historiographically important".

Last modification: 16 May 1996.

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Author(s): Arthur R. Butz
Title: Shmuel Krakowski on Eyewitesses
Published: 1996-05-16
First posted on CODOH: May 14, 1996, 7 p.m.
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