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2011 Days of Remembrance Browse

Remarks by Sara J. Bloomfield


A few blocks from here, engraved on the walls of the Justice Department, is this important reminder: “Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as first resides in the hearts and souls of its citizens.”

Today, as we contemplate the meaning of justice, it is worth recalling that one of the first things the Nazis did was to redefine the nature of citizenship, excluding Jews and others from the protection of the law. And they did this through the law. In fact, in spite of their revolutionary and violent nature, the Nazis often used the law rather than skirt it.

And judges, who were highly respected in society, were among those inside Germany who could have effectively challenged the regime and its hundreds of laws that restricted basic rights and freedoms. And yet, the overwhelming majority of judges did not. For 12 long years, hearing countless cases, most interpreted the law in ways that facilitated the Nazis’ agenda. Their role was so instrumental that after the war, Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor, in commenting on the judges’ trial, said this: “The dagger of the assassin was concealed beneath the robe of the jurist.”

Now when we think about the power these judges had and the enormous consequences of their decisions, it is striking to compare their actions to those who were seemingly powerless—people like Otto and Elise Hampel, a simple, working class couple in Nazi Berlin. Elise was a domestic with only an elementary school education. Otto was a factory worker, known for his reticence. They had no history of political activity. And yet, in 1940, they decided to resist Nazism by secretly dropping postcards all over Berlin calling for civil disobedience and workplace sabotage. Because the Hampels were poorly educated, the post cards were written in terrible handwriting with many misspellings and grammatical errors. Otto had to write all the postcards because Elise could not print well.

These postcards said things like, “German people wake up!” or “Hitler’s Regime will bring us no peace.” Another said, “Hitler’s war is the workers death.” Germans who found them turned them into the police. But the Hampels persisted. For almost three years they dropped hundreds of these postcards throughout Berlin. An angry and confused Gestapo were convinced they were dealing with a large, sophisticated, well organized resistance movement. But it was just one ordinary couple. In 1943 the Hampels were caught and beheaded.

And there’s one more thing to say about the fate of the Hampels. Before they were executed, they were put on trial—in accordance with the law. Such was Nazi justice.

So today, as we reflect on the nature of true justice, we acknowledge our responsibility to do justice to the memory of millions of innocent men, women and children. And let us also remember and be inspired by those like the Hampels who paid with their life as they struggled to create a more just world.