The longest trial in West German history is at last drawing toward an end -- more than five years after it opened on Nov. 26, 1975. A prime defendant is a former overseer at the Maidanek concentration camp near Lublin in German-occupied Poland -- Hildegard Lachert. She and eight others including Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who was arrested in New York, are accused of participating in the death of some of 250,000 identified Maidanek victims.
Altogether, an estimated 1 million people died at this Nazi extermination camp, according to expert witnesses. But the protracted Maidanek trial sitrs deep emotions for reasons beyond the horrific numbers:
* It embodies almost every aspect, good and bad, of West Germany's initial turning of a blind eye to leftover Nazi murderers, then belatedly attempting to punish them.
* It eiptomizes the difficulty of finding conclusive evidence of murder almost 40 years after the crimes.
* It symbolizes the impossibility of ever making judicil recompense for Hitler's mass murder of 5.5 million Jews, half a million Gypsies, and 6 million other civilians.
Critics, both inside and outside West Germany, charge this country with failing to fully renounce Hitler's heritage. They point out that West Germany didn't begin to prosecute Nazi concentration murderers seriously until the 1960s , two decades after the Holocaust.
These critics also find the record since then a dismal one: 6,446 convictions out of 86,498 trials or investigations (official figures from the war's end to Jan. 1, 1980), out of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Nazi, SS, police, and Army officials directly involved in mass murders.
(By way of comparison, some 14,000 Germans were convicted of murder in Soviet courts after the war; 13,000 in East Germany; 5,000 in Poland; 4,000 in American , British, and French post-war occupation courts. An additional 14,000 got rather lighter sentences in Austria.)
No judge from the Nazi courts that decreed notoriously political executions is among those convicted. Dismissals of charges against concentration camp staff for lack of conclusive evidence -- four of the 13 remaining Maidanek defendants were acquitted in 1979 -- are becoming ever move frequent as the years go on and more witnesses and defendants die.
Critics go in to accuse some present-day West German citizens of cold cynicism about the concentration-camp murders. For instance, Hildegard Lachert was put up as a candidate for the European Parliament by a right-wing group last year. One of Lachert's lawyers, Ludwig Bock -- a young man born during World War II -- has raised all the old arguments that there is no proof that more than 100,000 Jews ever died in the Nazi period. He ahs suggested that Hitler did not have a policy of Jewish extermination, and that gas chambers found in the camps could have been simple laundries, or possibly even built by occupation forces after the German surrender.
(Contrary evidence presented in the court-room showed the import into Maidanek of tons of the death gas Zyklon B, export of three-quarters of a ton of human hair, and the existence of piles of human skeletons and skulls, supporting the estimate of at least 1 million murders).
In the Maidanek trial there was repeated testimony that Lachert, who was known to prisoners as "Bloody Brigida" -- the name survivors still refer to her by -- personally reveled in beating prisoners, offered children candy to lure them into trucks to take them to the gas chambers, and participated in the "selection" of those prisoners who would be killed immediately.
Mr. Bock, however, has further contended that Lachert never saw any deaths in Maidanek. She took her job as an overseer in the camp, he argued, just as one might become a cook in a prison.
Besides employing every possible delayv ing tactic, Bock and colleagues defending the nine accused have conducted a cross-examination of witnesses so severe as to approach intimidation. In the most extreme case, defense lawyers called for the arrest of one witness because she testified that she carried a cannister of poison gas at Maidanek when ordered to do so by the murderers. Defense lawyers also tried to brand a leading historian who was testifying as "prejudiced" on the grounds that he had earned his degree under a Jewish professor.
From all of this the critics conclude, as writer Bernt Engelmann told a BBC interviewer, that "There has never been wholehearted condemnation by the whole German public of German Nazism."
Other observers, however, make a less damning evaluation of the attempt West Germany finally made to prosecute Nazi murderers. Brooklyn College Jewish scholar Henry Friedlander, a specialist in the grim history of the Holocaust, concludes that West Germany "has shown good faith" in the trials. He calls the record "acceptable -- not good, but acceptable."
Friedlander notes that the US got West Germany off to a bad start when it embraced former Nazi-era officials (and soon released all the Nazi murderers American occupation courts had convicted) in the rush to rearm West Germany in the 1950s cold war period. It may be, Friedlander has commented, that West Germany began trials in earnest in the 1960s primarily as a public-relations move. But the fact remains that it did prosecute and has continued to do so. And in 1979 the West German Parliament removed the statute of limitations that would have blocked any new prosecutions for Nazi-era murders after the end of 1979.
The low proportion of convictions to investigations, in Frielander's view, reflects no evasion of justice by West German authorities. It results instead from the sheer difficulty of producing legal proof that particular defendants killed particular victims three or four decades after the fact.
Many of the details have been forgotten in the intervening years. But enough remains in memory for one witness, facing "Bloody Brigida" for the first time since the '40s, to have exclaimed: "She's the one! You never forget those eyes."