It was 30 years ago this Passover season that Morris Anchan wound up one of the most poignant experiences a Jewish lawyer could have-he was a deputy chief counsel for the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
Tonight he and fellow lawyer-members of Agudas Achim Synagogue in Alexandria will reenact one of those trials. Only this time, he will take the part of a Gestapo general whom Anchan helped send to the gallows 30 years ago.
For Anchan, the retelling is an obligation to history. "Anybody who is involved in public life, who has been a witness to such events, has an obligation to pass on what he saw," he explained.
Anchan, now a senior trial lawyer hadnling civilian litigation for the Department of the Navy, said he hit upon the idea of the trial reenactment a year ago "as an educational thing, to counteract that guy from Northwestern who claimed that concentration camps didn't exist."
Northwestern University faculty member Arthur Butz stirred widespread controversy last year with his book, contending there was no Nazi policy to exterminate Jews in World War II.
"We used the idea of the trials as an educational factor to show that it was the documentary evidence of the Germans themselves-the meticulously kept records of the numbers of Jews, Gypsies and others systematically slaughtered - "that convicted them," Anchan explained.
The lawyer chose for reenactment the case of Maj. Gen. Otto Olendorf, the commander of Einsatz Gruppe D, a special task force operating in Russia and the Baltic area to exterminate Jews and other groups deemed unwanted by the Nazi's Aryan super-race philosophy. The reenactment will be staged at 8:30 p.m. at 2908 Valley Dr.
"We take the actual documents of the trial, the testimony of Olendorf. . . and portray how a Nazi, an SS Nazi, a man who was educated, an economist, a lawyer-how he defended himself against the charge of the slaughter of innocent people," Anchan explained.
Olendorf's defense, according to Anchan, was that he was merely following orders and that in any event, the reports of large numbers killed were exaggerated.
"But by their [German army] own reports, Olendorf had to admit to the murder of 90,000," Anchan said. The attorney recalls that in the Olendorf trial, "The prosecution took only two court days; the defense 136. All the prosecutor did was say, 'here are the reports; you guys signed them. We rest our case.'"
Anchan and his associates at Agudas Achim did the first reenactment of the Olendorf trial a year ago, with Anchan taking the role of the Nazi general, Robert Weinberg as the prosecutor, and Ira Pollin as the defense attorney.
Only the part of the judge, who reads from the verdict recorded by the three American jurists who presided over the original trial is in the script. The other participants treat it like a real trial.
Last year Weinberg, Anchan recalls, "went at it professionally, like he was really trying a case." At one point, in fact, said Anchan, the prosecutor for the mock trial came up with a telling argument that the real prosecutors had overlooked.
"He dug up the German military code of 1872 which says that a soldier is not bound to follow an illegal order," Anchan said. In the role of the accused Olendorf, "I had to think fast, on my feet. I came up with the argument that Hitler's laws superseded any other law."
For the sake of education, tonight's trial will include a jury, which the real tribunals of 30 years ago did not have. The jury, which is permitted to ask questions, will be made up of the members of this year's confirmation class at the synagogue "as part of their study of history," Anchan said.
Anchan also will conduct what he calls a "pretrial seminar," in which he will set the stage and explain for the benefit of those who don't remember, "what the Nuremberg trials were all about."
Anchan anticipates the questions-that he has been answering for the last 30 years. "The question always comes up of the victor sitting in judgment of the vanquished-whether we were not setting the rules ex post facto [after the fact]," Anchan said.
"But the Hague rules of warfare have defined crimes against humanity-you're not supposed to enslave people, you're not supposed to kill noncombatants."
For a couple of hours tonight, Anchan, the observant Jew, the former prosecutor, will step into the role of the Nazi general, the storm trooper, the Jew-killer. Does the experience, Anchan is asked, offer any insight into how an educated man, a professional man, could slaughter 90,000 people?
"I've reflected on that many times," he answers thoughtfully. Then he culls from the legal records a portion of the reply that a German witness made to a similar question during the trial of Hermann Goering: "I am of the opinion that when for years, for decades, the doctrine is preached that the Slavic race is an inferior race and that Jews are not really human, such an outcome was inevitable.'"
"I have met a lot of people," Anchan continued, "who tell me I am the first Jew they ever met. So it's not very hard to understand-for anybody who was brought up in the Nazi era, where Jews were dismissed from their jobs, forbidden to hold property, denied all rights. . . when you get the barrage of Goebbels' [anti-Semitic] propaganda-I can understand."
It is because he understands that Anchan is determined to do what he can to see that what happened in Germany to the Jews will not happen again.
"I do have the feeling that unless you remember what happend [in Germany] it could happen again, it could happen here . . . Too many people today just close their eyes; they don't want to be involved, they don't want to be involved."
That is why, he continued, "in view of the current political situation, I feel obligated, as someone who was there, to let people know what really happened." CAPTION: Picture, ORTHODOX EASTER - The Rev. John Tavlarides, left, censes the icon of Christ during services at St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36th Street and Massachusetts Ave. NW. At right is Father Anastasios Diacovasilis. By Fred Sweets-The Washington Post