On Aug. 3, 1942, SS Sgt. Ernst Heinrichsohn sent a telegram from Paris marked "Urgent, Top Secret" to Department IV-B4 in Berlin -- attention Adolf Eichmann. The four-line message confirmed that train No. 901/21 had left Le Bourget-Drancy with 1,000 Jews aboard. Its destination: Auschwitz.

Next Tuesday morning, 37 years later, Heinrichsohn and two others will stand trial in Cologne, West Germany, on charges of aiding and abetting in the murder of at least 75,000 French Jews between March 1942 and May 1944.

As the first major war crimes trial since "Holocaust" was televised in Europe, the case has aroused passions again in France and Germany over how German courts deal with those who were responsible for organizing "the final solution," Special TV programs have been scheduled, and one French critic of West Germany's handling of the case has had his car blown up and his family's life threatened by a neo-fascist group.

This case is not another tale of former Nazis in hiding who were finally ferreted out and dragged to the bar of justice. On the contrary, the accuused have been living quite openly and well despite their stained pasts. Heinrichsohn is now a lawyer and mayor of Miltenberg, a small town near Frankfurt. Kurt Lishka, a former SS lieutenant colonel and deputy Gestapo chief in Paris, is a retired businessman, and former SS Maj. Herbert Hagen is a lawyer in Arnsberg.

This is despite the fact that in the early 1950s, French courts condemned all three in absentia for murder -- Heinrichsohn to death, Lishka to life imprisonment, Hagen to hard labor for life.

The three men will not face anything like that kind of punishment, however, if they are convicted now by the Cologne court. None is expected to be sentenced to more than five years in prison if found guilty. That's because the Cologne prosecutor, who has been criticized repeatedly for taking 12 years to bring the case to court in the first place, now has not charged the men with murder, only with "aiding and abetting."

"We have documents showing that they participated in the deportations to Auschwitz, but none that show that they knew of the fate of the Jews when they got there," says Rudolph Gerling, who has supervised the investigation for years.

So there are still more Germans who "did not know" the fate of the Jews, this time the SS men who were loading the trains. The whole Heinrichsohn-Lishka-Hagen case, in fact, has the sound of a tragic parody, a faded film in which the old I-was-just-following-orders line is repeated over and over again.

That's what you find in the voice of Lishka, who remarks during an afternoon stroll in a park outside Cologne: "I was just doing my duty." It is in the words of Heinrichsohn, who says precisely that he was just obeying Lishka's orders: "My job was to supervise the loadings of the trains, send the telex off to Berlin and report back to Lishka at headquarters. I had no idea what was going to happen to these people, and I must confess I didn't give it much thought. It wasn't my job."

Hagen's defense is more sophisticated. Sitting in his law office in Arnsberg, he says that he thought the Jews were being transported for security reasons. "I saw them as foreigners, a threat to the German hinterland. I was convinced, even before the war, that one should aim for the creation of a Jewish state, and I believed that all these measures were indirectly part of that policy."

But Auschwitz, in Poland, was not exactly on the route to Palestine. "That's why I said 'indirectly,'" Hagen remarks. "We had to wait until the end of the war and an international agreement."

And how could children and old people pose a security threat? "Thirty years after the war everything seems different," Hagen says. "You simply can't imagine wartime conditions. Anyway, I didn't make the decisions. Everything was decided by those above me." Just following orders.

None of this, of course, satisfies critics like Frenchman Serge Klarsfeld, who has campaigned over the past 10 years to bring Heinrichsohn, Lishka and Hagen to trial. He is bitter about the West German decision not to prosecute for murder, and he does not view the three men as just taking orders but as giving them.

"It is wrong that those intelligent officials who sat behind their desks, giving out orders, the so-called Schreibtischtaeter , should not be punished as severely as those who actually worked in the camps. Those people should be charged with murder. Otherwise even Hitler and Eichmann could only be charged with 'aiding and abetting.'" A trial of governments

More broadly, Klarsfeld -- the man whose car was blown up and his family threatened -- sees the case as not only a trial of three men, but of the postwar governments in France, Britain, and the United States and West Germany that allowed the three to escape justice for 37 years.

Heinrichsohn, Lishka and Hagen had all been arrested by the Allies after the war. Yet, perplexingly, all three were released even though they appeared on war criminal lists as wanted by France for murder. While Heinrichsohn's 1946 discharge papers prove that he lied to U.S. authorities in Bavaria about his role in the SS, he did not lie about his identity. Lishka and Hagen were released by the British in 1948 and 1950, although their identities and ranks were known and despite requests by the French for their extradition from the British zone to stand trial. Hagen's passport even shows that he traveled frequently to France during the 1960s.

Hagen, in fact, has an unusual travel history. After joining the SS in 1933, he wrote anti-Semitic articles and books, including "World Jewry: Its Organizations, Its Power, Its Politics" and Britain, Hinterland of "World Jewry:" Then, astonishingly, he went in 1937 with his subordinate officer, Adolf Eichmann, to Palestine, though British intelligence prevented them from disembarking. According to Hagen, their plan was to meet Zionist leaders to see if there was a chance of "getting nearer the solution suggested by Zionists like [Chaim] Weizmann, whose books I had read." (In his Jerusalem trial, Eichmann described Hagen as "a sensible man, broad-minded, sophisticated. He could easily grasp the essence of the problem.")

Hagen's first wartime assignment was in Brittany and Bordeaux, in what he describes as a purely intelligence mission. In fact it was to round up the Jews in these areas. In May 1942 he moved to Paris to negotiate with Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police officials on the arrests and deportations of French Jews. Hagen, Heinrichsohn and Lishka in reality all went to Paris after the French surrender as members of a hand-picked team to begin organizing the intended "final solution" of France's quarter of a million Jews.

Hagen claims that his role was purely as an interpreter in the negotiations with Laval and police officials, but the minutes of those meetings, which were discovered after the war in a Gestapo building and which form the basis of the case against all three, reveal a different story.

The documents are a depressing account of initial French resistance to the German demands, of dramatic telephone calls and personal visits to France by both Eichmann and the SD chief Reinhard Heydrich to order faster progress, and, on July 4, 1942, of an ultimatum at a showdown meeting between Hagen, Lishka and French officials. The Germans smothered all opposition by explaining that Hitler personally had ordered the deportations to start.

As a compromise, the French agreed that only non-French Jews should be deported. According to the documents, four days later Heinrichsohn met eight French police and railway officials and agreed that an operation to arrest 25,000 Jews was to start at 4 a.m. on July 16. A written memorandum dated July 18 from Heinrichsohn to Lishka reported that 12,884 Jews had been arrested. By May 1944, at least 75,000 had been arrested and deported. "I am still haunted"

Heinrichsohn's role in supervising the shipments from Drancy was witnessed by Odette Beaticle, one of the few survivors. Every night for over 30 years, she says, she has dreamed of Heinrichsohn supervising the dispatch of two trainloads of 2,000 children, aged 2 to 12 years, for Auschwitz. Their parents had been sent some weeks before. "I am still haunted by him," she says. "I just want to understand why he did it."

Heinrichsohn's answer: "I was told that the children were being reunited with their families. And I must confess I was so naive, I was very young at the time [22], and I believed it. I was completely lackilng in awareness that I might possibly be doing wrong."

The electorate of Miltenberg has not been unduly disturbed by the revelations about their mayor. His vote has only fallen marginally from the 83 percent majority he won in 1974. Many cite his youth to excuse his activities in 1942, contending that he had been the victim of Nazi propaganda since the age of 13.

Discovering defenders of Kurt Lishka is not as easy. According to his SS file, Lishka, born in 1909, joined the Gestapo in 1936. By 1938 he had organized the infamous SS Department IV-B4, the Department of Jewish Affairs. As one of its senior officials, he coordinated arrrests and deportations throughout that year.

According to one document submitted to the Nuremberg trial, Lishka gave lectures to the police on his favorite method of interrogations, counseling patience and politeness. But when he arrived in Paris in November 1940 as deputy Gestapo chief, he seems to have discarded his own teachings. Responsible for security, he organized executions of captured members of the resistance and the shooting of hostages as reprisals.

Despite all this, during the 1950s all three were safe from prosecution. According to a Franco-German agreement signed in October 1954, only French courts could prosecute Germans for offenses in France, because the French feared German leniency toward war criminals. But the German constitution forbids the extradition of German citizens from Germany.

This Catch-22 was removed by a new Franco-German treaty signed in 1971. But for four years the treaty remained unratified by the relevant committee in the Bonn Parliament.

Chairing that committee was Ernst Achenbach, a member of the Free Democratic party. During the war Achenbach was the number two man at the German embassy in Paris. One of his priority duties: to work on behalf of the German Foreign Ministry with Hagen, negotiating with the French on transporting the Jews to Auschwitz.

Achenbach himself has so far avoided all prosecution, again apparently because of lack of American and British interest. In 1945, with the help of his American wife, Achenbach was given quick political clearance by U.S. military authorities and was allowed to appear as a defense llawyer at the Nuremberg trials.

French pressure in 1947 forced the Americans to issue a warrant for Achenbach's arrest. But he fled to the British zone where, despite some attempts to get him extradited to France, he was allowed to practice law in Essen.

So 37 years later, a belated attempt at something resembling justice will begin in Cologne when Heinrichsohn, Lishka and Hagen go on trial on charges of "aiding and abetting" in the murder of 75,000 French Jews. They just loaded the trains.