“The Trial of Herman Schmitt (Part 1)”
14 June 2005
Herman is half asleep in one corner of the day room when he hears his name being called and opening his eyes and looking up, he sees 2 police officers standing in front of him. “Herman Schmitt?” one officer asks, looking down on Herman. “Yes, I am Herman Schmitt”, says Herman in a dazed voice, his mind beginning to churn through the possibilities of the police being there. “Must be something has happen to one of my sons or my grandchildren”, thinks Herman. “What else could it be?” “Herman Schmitt, you are under arrest by the authority of the International Criminal Court (The Court) for crimes against humanity”, the younger of the 2 police officers says and then Herman is stood up and handcuffed. “What? What is this?” asks Herman. “There must be some mistake. I am 89 years old and have lived here, in this place, for the past 10 years. How could I have done anything to anyone? You have the wrong man”, Herman pleads but it is no good and the 2 policemen lead Herman out through the nursing home day room and then to their car, Herman shaking his head and yelling the whole way, “Get in touch with my sons.”
Although Herman has lived his whole life in Berlin, he has never been to the part of town the police are driving him through and he asks several times, where the police are taking him, but he gets no response from the front seats of the car. Finally, after about an hour in the car riding through heavy traffic and many stoplights with Herman’s arms and hands hurting the whole time from being behind his back, the car stops in front an old post-WWII government building.
Once inside, Herman is in-processed by first having the handcuffs removed, and him having to surrender all the items in his clothes which are then bagged and tagged. Then Herman is handed a prisoner uniform, which reminds Herman of something a doctor wears in a hospital and Herman is escorted to a small empty room and told to strip and put on the prison uniform.
At first, Herman finds the uniform much to large for his 5 foot 5 inch slender frame but when he looks at the size in back of the uniform shirt and pants, they both say “One size fits”, so Herman rolls up the cuffs of the pants and the long, long selves of the shirt and sits down to wait. It is not very long before a prison guard enters the room and with Herman now wearing a doctor’s outfit of a cotton long sleeve, pull over shirt, cotton pants which tie at the waist and cotton slip-on socks, Herman is escorted into one wing of the building, which has rows of one cot cells on either side of the central corridor. It is a dark, cold place, of concrete, metal bars and pipes and cinderblock and as Herman walks along, he notices that there are no prisoners in any of the cells.
Finally the guard stops at the very last cell on the right and unlocks the door and tells Herman to go in. Then the guard locks the door behind Herman and without saying another word, walks back down the corridor and out of the wing, leaving Herman completely alone.
Suddenly Herman is aware of a great silence and looking around, he finds his small, windowless cell has a wet floor, a toilet with no toilet seat, a washbasin sink, faucet dripping and a cot with a blanket made into a roll with a pillow on top. Overhead hangs a naked electric bulb and the head of a fire sprinkler system. Herman is in shock. From the light and cleanliness of a nursing home day room to a prison cell and he not even sure what he has done yet. “Crimes against humanity”, the one police officer had said when he was arrested. “It cannot be”, thinks Herman. “I have never been a soldier and have not been in any trouble my entire life.”
Herman finally tired from standing mule like frozen with disbelief, sits down on the cot and finds the mattress stinks of urine. “What a horrible place. What have I done?”
It took almost an hour for the nursing home to get in touch with one of Herman’s 2 sons and to explain about Herman’s arrest. Adolph, the older of the 2 sons, could not believe what he was hearing over the phone. His father, an old man, an old respected mechanical engineer arrested? Although it took some time, Adolph managed to contact his brother Henrick and then track down where their father was being held.
When Adolph and Henrick arrived at the prison, they immediately wanted to know what the criminal charges were, could they arrange bond and could they visit with their father? “No, no bail is available”, said the desk clerk sitting high up off the floor, so that anyone coming to the front desk at the prison would be looked down upon. “Crimes against humanity?” Henrick mutters. “No, cannot be! My father was never a soldier and has never been in trouble. What exactly are these charges related to?” Henrick again asks the desk clerk.
“Herman Schmitt has been charged with crimes against humanity for his role in the design and implementation of poison gas death houses at various Nazi concentration camps”, says the desk clerk, looking down on the 2 brothers with some disdain. “Your father?” the clerk asks. Both brothers look at each other in stunned silence. Their father was involved in the concentration camps? He had never mentioned any such thing and they, of course, had never asked, what, if anything, he had done specifically during the war.
“Can we see our father?” asked Adolph. “Yes, show me some identification that your are related to Herman Schmitt and I will set you up in a visitor room. Just do not take anything from him or give him anything”, the desk clerk says still looking down on the 2 bothers but feeling some pity for them as he can see they are in shock about the charges against their father.
About half an hour later, Herman is lead out of his cell and out of the wing he is staying in and into a small room with a metal table and 3 chairs. A few minutes after that, Herman’s 2 sons come into the room and the 2 brothers take seats directly opposite of Herman.
Herman is happy to see his sons and even gives them one of his infrequent smiles. “Henrick, Adolph, get me out of this place! There has been some sort of mistake. The police arrested me at the retirement home and brought me here and when I was arrested I was so half asleep I did not hear the criminal charges!” Herman says putting his arms on the table and clinching his hands.
“Father,” Adolph says, “They say you designed the poison gas dispensing equipment used at the Nazi concentration camp to kill all those Jews. Is that really true? We knew you told us you were never a soldier but you never said what exactly you did during the war.”
Herman does not even pause, “Yes, I designed the equipment and made sure it was installed properly. So? I never murdered anyone or hurt anyone. I was just the engineer. How can they hold me responsible for anything the Nazi’s did with my designs?”
Henrick drops his head into his arms now on the table. “Oh, my God”, Henrick says to the floor, “I, my family, we are ruined. How could you father? How could you have done such a thing?”
Herman is shocked. “What? Ruined? You do not understand. Those were different times back then. Hitler said that the Jews had to be exterminated and I was given the job of coming up with a quick, efficient and cheap way to do the job. It was a design challenge, a job, actually an honor to be picked for such a job at such a young age. Surely you both can understand that, being engineers yourselves?”
Adolph places his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder and begins to rub gently to try to comfort him. “This is bad”, Adolph thinks but does not say it in front of his father. “Their father! He was strict with them growing up and most of the time, cold and distance but he never struck them or hurt them in anyway and he was a good man, or so Adolph thought until now.” Now Adolph did not know what to think. “His father, killed all those Jews?”
It has been silent too long for Herman and he speaks up, “You have to help me. You have to get me out of here.”
“There is no bond available in cases like yours Father, we have already checked”, Adolph speaking more to the wall behind Herman than to him.
Henrick, still with his head down on his arms and hands on the table starts mumbling again, “God, the kids. They will be tortured in school about this. Their grandfather: the poison gas killer of the Jews!”
Herman, hearing only “Killer of the Jews” feels anger swell up in him. “I did not kill anyone. You both know me. Yes, I designed the gas dispensing systems at the camps but I did not operate them, or kill anyone.”
Adolph, still in shock from the news his father has so nonchalantly given him and his bother, looks directly at his father. “We need to get you a lawyer Father and I would suggest you not say anything to anyone until we have you a lawyer.” Herman only shakes his head in agreement, disappointed that his 2 sons cannot get him out of this horrible place.
For a while, all sit in silence, lost in their own thoughts but after 5 minutes or so, the door of the visiting room opens and a policeman signals that it is time for Herman’s visitors to leave and Herman to return to his cell.
Henrick is slow to get up but eventually, he and Adolph, say goodbye to their father and head out while Herman is lead, once again, back though the empty wing to his empty cell.
Once outside the visitor room, Adolph and Henrick again approach the front desk. “Sir, how do my bother and I go about getting a lawyer for our father and when might the first court hearing be?” Adolph asks, straining his neck to look up into the eyes of the desk clerk. Feeling ashamed over what his father says he did during the war, Adolph finds himself defensive and not wanting to appear guilty by association in anyway, wants desperately to make eye contact.
“First of all”, says the desk clerk, “Your father will only be here for 2 days before he is flown to The Hague where the court where he will be tried is located. So I suggest you find a lawyer there somewhere. As for when the trial might be, you best contact the court at The Hague as we do not know such things here.”
Adolph and Henrick turn and head out of the building. Neither speaks to the other and when they reach the sidewalk, one goes East and the other West while Herman, back in his damp, cold, dark cell, has begun to analyze various surface mounted system piping in the prison and critique it.
That night, it takes almost an hour after supper before either of Herman’s 2 sons can muster the courage to tell their wives the news of the day. Immediately, both wives begin wailing Henrick’s earlier refrain that “They are ruined” and crying into their hands. Trying to console, both Herman and Adolph find themselves telling their wives that it will be ok and that no court will ever find their father guilty of war crimes, as he was only the designer and as they spoke to their wives, they begin to believe what they were saying. “How could anyone hold engineers responsible for what some government might do with an engineer’s design.”
Later, after Henrick and Adolph’s wives had gone to bed, Henrick telephoned Adolph and they agreed that the next day, they needed to contact a local attorney who could learn some additional details about the charges brought against their father and perhaps prepare them for finding a lawyer or legal team in The Hague.
The next day, Adolph did contact a Berlin-based attorney who made some phone calls and then got Henrick and Adolph on a conference call to tell them that the charges against Herman had been brought by the Israeli government on the behalf of several holocaust survivors who had lost relatives or friends in the gas chamber death houses of the Nazi concentration champs. As to the timing of the charge now, the attorney could not seem to get a straight answer out of the German police but the rumor was that Herman was the last surviving engineer of the concentration camps and one last holocaust trial was in order.
As to the trial itself, it was to be held in The Hague and would begin in exactly one month. As to a lawyer for their father, Herman would be provided one by the court if he wished or Herman or his sons could find their own legal staff and that is what the Berlin lawyer suggested.
Immediately after the phone call from the Berlin attorney, both Adolph and Henrick made plans to be in The Hague in 2 weeks and stay the duration of the trial, no matter how long it might take.
The day after Herman was arrested, the charges against Herman were published in the pending caseload of The Court and fed to news media outlets all over the world. In Israel, Herman’s arrest was front-page news although only a very small column and in other newspapers around the world, Herman’s arrest only warranted a single sentence on the foreign news page. Herman’s trial was not going to get much media attention or so it seemed initially, but in New York, Jack Luby, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal was watching the news wire when the news of Herman’s arrest and pending trial came across and instantly recognizing the potential any decision in this case might have on all member nations of The Court went to his boss to see if he could run with the story for a while and maybe make a larger story out of it.
Jack Luby was an experienced reporter and the first thing he did was begin phone calling various engineering professional organizations to see if they knew about Schmitt’s arrest and what they thought about it? Hardly surprised, Jack found out that none of the organizations he called knew of Schmitt or The Court charges and all dismissed the charges as crazy until Luby told them the circumstances.
In San Francisco, California, the Society for Electrical and Electronic Engineers were having their annual board meeting when the phone call from Jack Luby came in and they were the first to act. Although it would not be good publicity defending Schmitt in court, they decided they had little choice as so many of their members worked for various defense contractors making defense systems, as the Department of Defense liked to call them.
And so a committee was formed to determine the best way to approach the situation. After several days and contacts with many other professional engineering associations and Schmitt’s 2 sons, it was decided the Society would provide Herman a legal defense team with the cost of the team shared by all professional engineering societies in the United States although, only the Electrical Society would have their name on the team as the sponsor as most organizations did not want to be known supporting Schmitt.
Given that Herman’s trial was to start in only a month, the society quickly formed a team of lawyers from those they had worked with in the past on various other criminal or civil issues. Lead council and interestingly enough a Jew, Isaac Shapiro had jumped at the chance to work in front of The Court and all the associated publicity. To help with communicating with Schmitt who only spoke German, Julies Jones was recruited although he was an international trade lawyer and had no criminal law experience and finally, a woman, Linda Hines. Hines was on the team to cross exam any and all witnesses the prosecution might present. With a woman attorney, witnesses were always more at ease in cross-examination and Hines was a master of making a witness like her and then setting a trap and catching the witness in it.
Within 2 days of Herman’s arrest in Berlin, the American defense team was on its way to The Hague and their first meeting with court officials and with Herman.
In Berlin, Herman’s 2 sons came to see Herman each day and gave him the news of the American defense team and that they would be in The Hague with Herman. At first, Herman was not all that comfortable having an American defense team but after Adolph told him that he would not have to pay for the team’s services and that one member of the team spoke German, Herman accepted what his son’s had set up for him.
As the desk clerk had told Adolph and Henrick the first day they had been at the Berlin prison, on day three of his imprisonment, Herman was handed his street clothes and told to change into them and then taken to a car outside the prison and then to the airport for the flight to The Hague.
Herman did not like to fly and told the 2 policemen which escort him so, but they only snickered in response. On the plane, Herman for the first time actually felt like a criminal. He was seated between the 2 policemen and had handcuffs on and more than once, someone would walk down the aisle of the plane and stare at Herman. Herman could tell by the looks he was getting, everyone was wondering what awful thing Herman had done.
When Herman and his escorts arrive in The Hague, 2 Court officials were at the airport to meet Herman and they quickly signed various prisoner transfer forms and then headed outside of town in a black, extra large American made Suburban.
As the Court was only established as a permanent United Nations Court to specifically hear war crimes and crimes against humanity cases in 2000, a permanent facility for the court was not yet complete and thus it was somewhat of a shock to Herman when the Suburban finally came to a stop in front of what appeared and in fact was, an old, elegant hotel. Inside, what had been ballrooms had been converted into court rooms and although there was a long, large judge’s bench in the from of each ballroom, the ornate carpet and chandeliers and folding chairs did not give the feel of a real court room at all.
Once inside, Herman was lead across an expansive lobby to a set of elevators and then to the 10th floor where room 1010 was opened, Herman escorted inside, the handcuffs removed and then he was locked in. Compared to the prison cell in Berlin, Herman’s cell here was a palace. Along the outer wall of the room where floor to ceiling windows and Herman had a bedroom, a living room and a separate bath. Herman was not sure he had ever stayed in such an elegant hotel before and begins to feel a little better about his situation.
Sitting down on the bed, the mattress was soft and smelled clean and Herman laid back and almost immediately falls asleep. It had been along day and Herman was tired.
Shapiro, Hines and Jones arrived at The Hague the same day that Herman did and after a short taxi ride, checked into the Court as Herman’s official defense team with accommodations in the same old elegant hotel where Herman was now fast asleep in his 10th floor room and where the actual trial was to take place, a most unusual situation but very convenient for both the prosecution and defense.
After settling into their separate rooms, Shapiro, Hines and Jones met with Court officials to get an overview of the workings of the Court and to set up a meeting with the prosecution from which, they hoped they would get a copy of all materials to be presented in the prosecution of Schmitt.
Shapiro, always known for always being well prepared for any trial he was involved in and especially if he was lead council, the trial of Herman Schmitt was to be no different. When selected to represent Herman, Shapiro had immediately requested and gotten from the UN various charter documents about the Court, so that when the American defense team actually met with Court officials to discuss various trial procedures, Shapiro was well prepared to ask more in-depth questions.
18 permanent judges make up the Court, divided into 4, 3 judge teams with 6 judges held in reserve at any one time in case a judge has to excuse him or her self from a specific case for any reason. The judges come from member nations of the UN and in Herman’s case, the judges assigned from nations, which had no vested interest in the outcome, to include Brazil, South Africa and China.
The official languages of the Court are English and French and in Herman’s case, English would be the language of the Court. As in all UN functions, translators provide dialogue in multiple languages as needed by the judges, the prosecution, the defense, the defendant and any and all witnesses.
Only 2 of 3 judges voting for conviction can convict and there is no court of appeals of the Court’s decision. Additionally, the punishment, if any, handed down by the judges is completely up to the judges as no sentencing or punishment guidelines have yet been established for the Court, a bone of contention between various UN members.
The prosecution team consisted of 2 Jewish lawyers of some note in Israeli and one German attorney. In the case of a German citizen, Germany always insisted on one of their own be on the prosecution to confirm to all, that Germany was truly sorry for any and all war crimes committed against the Jews, Poles and Russians in World War II.
Lead council for the prosecution was Isaak Metzmann, a quiet man until you got him into a court room and then, he could be a terror. Always well prepared and incredibly quick of mind, Metzmann had lost several relatives in the holocaust and the trial of Herman Schmitt was his first and probably his last shot at exacting revenge for all the suffering the Nazi’s had put on his family and many other families. Balding and portly, Metzmann loved to eat and could always be found at some café in Tel Aviv. Asked once if he was afraid of terrorists blowing themselves and him up in some attack, Metzmann had responded, “A good meal is always worth the price!”
The other Jewish prosecution attorney was Uri Portnoy, an immigrant to Israel from the United States in the 1990’s with non-too disguised political aspirations. To him, Herman’s case was headlines, his name in the newspapers. One could not buy coverage like he was going to receive, if Metzmann did not hog all the courtroom time.
The one German attorney on the prosecution team and odd man out is Karl Braun. Karl really did not want the Herman Schmitt case but his boss said he had too and so he went along with it. From everything he has ever read or heard, he will never get to say anything to anyone about anything and has decided to just make the entire trial a paid vacation. Single, Braun is hoping to meet someone in The Hague who can help fill the empty time. Braun has an image as a “ladies man” and certainly does not want to lose that image while witling his thumbs over the prosecution of some old man.
The prosecution and defense teams, met for the first time, 5 days after Herman was arrested. The meeting went cordial enough with neither side wanting to start something so early in the game.
The prosecutions case was pretty concise and clear and of some concern for Shapiro, Hines and Jones once they heard it. Metzmann did all the talking in the initial meeting and laid it all out for the defense. The prosecution had original German documents, design plans for the gas chamber death houses at various Nazi concentration camps and all such documents were signed by Herman Schmitt as lead designer. Additionally, several holocaust survivors had come forward and could positively identify Herman has supervising the installation of his designed poison gas dispensing equipment. Shapiro did not say a word as Metzmann showed the defense team the documents and the witness list. “Going to be tough to argue on the merits of the case”, thinks Shapiro and glances at Hines and then Jones. They seem attentive but not on the edge of their chairs like he is.
Shapiro turns his attention to the other members of the prosecution. “The German, what exactly is he supposed to do? Get coffee for the other attorneys?” And why 3 attorney’s when just one Israeli and the German would have been more than enough, given the evidence they have?”
Braun listens as Metzmann drones on and turns his attention to Hines’ legs, which really are not bad. In fact, she is not bad in her nicely tailored business suit and skirt just above that stocking knee of hers. “Nice lipstick”, thinks Braun and wonders how hard it is going to be to get Hines into bed.
When Jack Luby heard about the Schmitt’s American defense team, he knew he had a story and after some additional research on the charges, he prepared and the Wall Street Journal published a long article about Schmitt, condemning the charges. The Journal’s view was that historically, engineers and scientists where never held liable for the devices they had designed. Perhaps a company or Government could and would be held liable for monetary damages for a defective product but the design team involved was never criminally charged and although what Schmitt was alleged to have done, was horiffic, he should not be found guilty. If Schmitt were found guilty, it would send a chill through the engineering community everywhere as who was to say, when someone would bring criminal charges against the designers of smart bombs, napalm or even the atomic bomb!
Immediately, after the Journal’s article hit the wire service, there was a fire storm of news print from around the world. Those countries hostile to the United States condemned the Americans for defending Schmitt and in Israel, angry mobs filled the streets of major cities chanting anti-American slogans. In other countries, the press was either silent or only reported the facts without comment as to the charges or the defense team.
In the United States and in Israel, Metzmann particularly came in for some sharp condemnation. How could a Jew defend what Schmitt had done?
Interestingly enough, the United States government officially commented that it considered The Court to be a legal world entity in this case but reserved it’s judgment if an American citizen were ever charged by The Court.