On my darker days, I struggle with the concept of justice. It’s an idea that pervades many Jewish, especially progressive, spaces, as epitomized by the verse, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Though one of the Hebrew Bible’s most quoted verses, it fails to specify what justice is, only that we should try to achieve it.
For me, justice lost some of its lofty abstraction when it became an experience, rather than an ideal, after surviving a right-extremist terror attack while attending Yom Kippur services in Halle, Germany in 2019. Amidst the bouts of confusion and clarity that followed, talks of a trial emerged to prosecute the perpetrator. I had a decision to make: join the trial and become a co-plaintiff, or remain uninvolved in the legal proceedings.
I didn’t know what to think about the involvement of the legal system. At the age of 22 and mere months out of undergrad, all I wanted to do was find a new normalcy in my post-attack life. Two questions bothered me whenever I thought of the inevitable trial: How could I concern myself with broader justice when I struggled to get through a day? And was any sort of justice possible in an imperfect, and potentially biased, legal system?
As a woman, as a Jew, and as someone perceived as “other” according to the assailant’s white supremacist ideology, I was attacked for multiple identities. Though I initially declared to friends that justice wouldn’t be found in German courts, I changed my mind and became a co-plaintiff. I was inspired by friends who were already co-plaintiffs as well as by my work in Holocaust research and education.
As a survivor, I had the luxury of self-agency; I did not need others to speak on my behalf. I spent my days telling the stories and struggles of those who had been killed by an earlier iterant of the ideology that almost claimed my life.
In Germany, a country whose history is deeply connected to my sense of self and my family’s history, I had the chance to advocate for change because of my experience. When so many Jews before me had been denied justice in German lands, who was I to say no?
I was reminded of the denial of justice when, as the High Holidays ended this year, German courts were once again in the news. See, in the last decade, there has been an increased effort to persecute former Nazis for crimes committed during WWII.
The latest iteration of this pursuit involved a woman named Irmgard Furchner. At the age of 18, she served as a secretary in the office of the head of Stutthof concentration camp. Now, at the age of 96, she is on trial for helping to commit 11,412 murders in the camp. That, however, wasn’t why she made the news. Furchner had tried to skip the proceedings.
While some laughed at that story, I was enraged. Politics and priorities had allowed this woman to evade trial for 78 years. While numerous victims of the Nazi regime didn’t survive, she not only survived, but had the chance to live a life denied to too many others.
Within hours of that story breaking, news of the life sentence given to the synagogue shooter in Poway, California broke.
While both perpetrators uphold antisemitic, white supremacist views, one is treated as laughable due to her age, while the other is treated as a threat due to his. Where is the justice in that?
The two accounts are similar yet they are by far from the same. Furchner acted as part of a broader, state-sanctioned genocide whilst the Poway shooter acted alone on behalf of antisemitic ideology. There is also the difference in scope, yet if, as Jewish texts teach, to save a life is to save an entire world, what does it mean that so many worlds have been, and continue to be, lost?
Underlying these three trials are legitimate questions about the goals and limitations of the modern legal system and the possibilities for justice. I cannot speak for survivors of these other events. Neither can I speak for the relatives and friends of those killed. I only speak for myself and my story.
The fact that my perpetrator, the man to whom I am not even a name, is in jail for the rest of his life is reassuring. Is it justice? I’m not sure. The lives he took cannot be restored. The pain and suffering he caused cannot be erased.
It is, however, a measure of accountability and the beginning of a discussion on how to address antisemitism and white supremacy and the violence that so many around the world continue to encounter due to their lived identities.
And so I will remain indignant when people laugh off the trials of old Nazis accused of war crimes. Because we haven’t held them accountable for their actions until now. Because the people who could have protested most loudly are unable to cry out.
I know what it’s like to anxiously await an outcome of a court case. In some ways, I’m one of the lucky ones. Not only did I survive, but so did the perpetrator. He had clear, ideological motives. The availability of information and testimony is part of why he was sentenced to life in prison, an uncommon sentence for German courts.
As we near the third anniversary of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, my heart goes out to those impacted, especially the survivors and the families of the 11 killed. That attack inspired the Halle perpetrator. Yet while my attacker has been sentenced, the Pittsburgh shooter has yet to be tried, leaving those impacted in a quasi judicial limbo.
A trial is an attempt at justice. Yet it isn’t the only possibility for it. Though there is ambiguity to what “Justice, justice you shall pursue” actually means, the medieval commentators teach that the repetition of justice is to teach that a person should pursue justice as long as they live.
My pursuit of it, like so many others, is only just beginning. I hope they, like me, can eventually achieve some form of it.