Netflix docuseries probes life of Nazi guard John Demjanjuk

‘The Devil Next Door,’ set to be released November 4, examines the trials of the Ukrainian-born man mistaken for ‘Ivan the Terrible’ who had his death sentence overturned in Israel

A new Netflix docuseries examines the trials of convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, who was mistaken for the notoriously brutal guard “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination camp and had his death sentence overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1993.

“The Devil Next Door” will be released on November 4.

But in 1993, Israel’s top court unanimously ruled Demjanjuk was not “Ivan the Terrible,” overturning the 1988 verdict and returning him to the US after it received evidence that another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was that Nazi guard.

Demjanjuk later went on to be convicted in Germany of being a low-ranking guard at the Sobibor death camp, in a legal precedent that made him one of the best-known faces of Nazi prosecutions.

The conviction of the retired Ohio autoworker in a Munich court in May 2011 on 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder, which was still being appealed upon his death at 91 in 2012, broke new legal ground in Germany as the first time someone was convicted solely on the basis of serving as a camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.

John Demjanjuk in Israel's Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)

John Demjanjuk in Israel’s Supreme Court in 1991. Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court for serving as a Nazi death camp guard. (photo credit: Flash90)

It has opened the floodgates to hundreds of new investigations in Germany, though Demjanjuk’s death serves as a reminder that time is running out for prosecutors.

Demjanjuk steadfastly maintained that he had been mistaken for someone else — first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions.

When they overturned his conviction in Israel, the Supreme Court judges said they still believed Demjanjuk had served the Nazis, probably at the Trawniki SS training camp and Sobibor. But they declined to order a new trial, saying there was a risk of violating the law prohibiting trying someone twice on the same evidence.

After he was released in Israel, Demjanjuk returned to his suburban Cleveland home in 1993 and his US citizenship, which had been revoked in 1981, was reinstated in 1998.

Demjanjuk remained under investigation in the US, where a judge revoked his citizenship again in 2002 based on Justice Department evidence suggesting he concealed his service at Sobibor. Appeals failed, and the nation’s chief immigration judge ruled in 2005 that Demjanjuk could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine.

Signs in eight languages at the site of the Sobibor death camp in Poland. (Flickr/Sgvb)

Prosecutors in Germany filed charges in 2009, saying Demjanjuk’s link to Sobibor and Trawniki was clear, with evidence showing that after he was captured by the Germans he volunteered to serve with the fanatical SS and trained as a camp guard.

After his conviction in May 2011, Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison, but was appealing the case to Germany’s high court. He was released pending the appeal, and died a free man in his own room in a nursing home in the southern Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/netflix-docu-series-probes-life-of-nazi-guard-john-demjanjuk/

Ex-SS guard: I saw people led to gas chamber, didn’t know they were being gassed

‘I didn’t see anyone come out,’ says Bruno Dey, 93, being tried on 5,230 counts of accessory to murder for killings while he was at Stutthof camp

93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey in the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig, arrives at the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. The prosecution accuses the 93-year-old man of aiding and abetting the murder of 5,230 people. (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey in the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig, arrives at the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. The prosecution accuses the 93-year-old man of aiding and abetting the murder of 5,230 people. (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

BERLIN  — A 93-year-old former guard at the Nazis’ Stutthof concentration camp testified at his trial Friday that he once saw people being led into the gas chamber, followed by screaming and banging sounds behind the locked door.

Bruno Dey, a former SS private, went on trial Oct. 17 at the Hamburg state court. He faces 5,230 counts of accessory to murder for killings while he was at Stutthof from 1944 to 1945.

He said he heard screams and banging shortly after, but added: “I didn’t know that they were being gassed.”

Dey said that about 20 or 30 prisoners were led in, and that they didn’t resist. He said he couldn’t say whether they were men or women, because their heads were shaved, or whether they were Jews or other prisoners. And he also couldn’t say what happened afterward.

“I didn’t see anyone come out,” he said.

Gas chamber at Stutthof (Courtesy)

He testified that, on another occasion, he saw a group of 10 or 15 men being led into the gas chamber, but they then came out and were taken to the crematorium building by people in white overalls. He heard that the prisoners were supposed to work outside the camp and had to be checked first, he said.

Dey said he and around 400 other soldiers were brought to Stutthof in June or July 1944 and he didn’t know at the time what kind of people were incarcerated there. He said he heard only “rumors” that they included political prisoners and Jews.

Though there is no evidence that Dey was involved in a specific killing at the camp near Danzig, today the Polish city of Gdansk, prosecutors argue that as a guard he helped the camp function.

Despite his age, Dey is being tried in a juvenile court because he was 17 when he started serving at Stutthof.

He faces a possible six months to 10 years in prison if convicted. There are no consecutive sentences under German law.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-ss-guard-on-trial-i-saw-people-led-into-gas-chamber/

Seattle Holocaust center vandalized with white supremacist graffiti

‘Obscure’ symbols discovered on building as teachers’ seminar was taking place inside

Screen capture from video of alleged white supremacist graffiti discovered sprayed on The Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, October 2019. (YouTube)

Screen capture from video of alleged white supremacist graffiti discovered sprayed on The Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, October 2019. (YouTube)

The Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle was vandalized with what it said was white supremacist graffiti.

The graffiti was discovered on Wednesday, the center said in a letter released the following day.

It is the first time in the building’s 30-year history that it has been targeted, local news station KIRO Channel 7 reported.

The Seattle Police Bias Unit is investigating.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/seattle-holocaust-center-vandalized-with-white-supremacist-graffiti/

Pro-Palestinian student walks out on Holocaust survivor’s speech after accusing Israel of ‘ethnic cleansing’

(JTA) — A Palestinian student at Benedictine University called on a Holocaust survivor to condemn the establishment of Israel, and then walked out on his speech after he did not do so.

Following a speech last week by Professor Harold Kasimow, who survived the Holocaust as a child, Benedictine senior Ayah Ali asked a question which drew a parallel between Kasimow’s experiences and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Ali, according to her Twitter feed, is affiliated with the Chicago-area school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

“It honestly means the world that you were willing to share your story with us, but I wanted to bring your attention towards a similar story,” Ali said. “I’m sure you know about whats happening in Palestine and my question to you is, do you support or do you condemn the establishment of the Zionist Israeli state, and whether it’s OK to exile and completely — the complete ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, the way that the Jewish people were exiled and ethnically cleansed?”

Kasimow, an emeritus professor of religious studies at Grinnell University who is a visiting scholar at Benedictine this year, answered that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “not an area of my experience.” He added that though he is “not happy with the government in Israel,” he believes the state should exist. He said that both sides of the conflict bear responsibility for solving it.

“It’s such a complicated issue,” he said. “There are many Jews involved in interfaith centers who are working on this very issue, trying to help create peace, but it’s really both sides need to [be] open to each other and talk to each other. But if Israel should exist? Yes, I believe Israel should exist.”

Ali responded that she is “a result of experiences that you’ve been through. I am a survivor of the intifada.” She said “it’s disappointing to know that a Holocaust survivor would remain neutral in a situation of injustice.”

Kasimow said that “it’s not a matter of neutral, it’s not total guilt or innocence on either side.”

After reiterating her comments, Ali walked out of the speech. The school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted out videos of the exchange.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reached out to both Kasimow and Ali seeking comment.

https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/pro-palestinian-student-walks-out-on-holocaust-survivors-speech-after-accusing-israel-of-ethnic-cleansing

Court blocks sale of Holocaust letter by Yad Vashem board member

Ruling comes after prominent Haredi activist declined to give the letter by 16-year old victim Rachel Mintz to her family or to Yad Vashem archive

This letter, written by Rachel Mintz when she was 11, five years before she was murdered in the Holocaust, stands at the center of a court battle between a Haredi activist and the victim's relatives. (Courtesy of Adva Lotan)

This letter, written by Rachel Mintz when she was 11, five years before she was murdered in the Holocaust, stands at the center of a court battle between a Haredi activist and the victim’s relatives. (Courtesy of Adva Lotan)

The Tel Aviv District Court issued an injunction against the sale of a letter written by a young girl killed in the Holocaust after her surviving relatives sued to prevent a prominent Haredi activist from bringing it to auction.

The letter, one of several that was set to be auctioned off as a lot on Tuesday evening, was written by Rachel Mintz, a Jewish girl from Poland, when she was 11 years old. It described life in 1937 Poland and her desire to immigrate to Israel.

The letter was found along with other letters sent by Jewish children from Poland and were intended to be delivered to children at a school in Haifa. The school principal took the letters home, and after his death, they ended up into the hands of a merchant who sold them.

From there they came to Dudi Zilbershlag, a Haredi businessman, activist and journalist who is a member of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum council. He in turn offered them to the Dynasty auction house.

Dudi Zilbershlag, an ultra-Orthodox advertiser, journalist, publisher, activist public, on January 16, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

When Mintz’s remaining family found out about the sale, they say they asked it instead be placed in a public institution such as Yad Vashem, but the auction house denied their request. The family sued for custody of the letter but at an initial hearing, representatives of the auction house offered to sell it to them for $10,000. They declined the family and judge’s request to transfer the letter to Yad Vashem.

During an initial hearing, the judge, Erez Yakuel, asked Zilbershlag: “Is it because you are part of Yad Vashem that I should teach you to do a mitzvah and present Yad Vashem the letter instead of selling it?”

“I want you to understand that this letter is not just a collectible item. It’s a personal, family memory, maybe the last one ever of our family member who perished in the Holocaust,” Edva Lotan, Mintz’s niece, wrote on Facebook.

“I sincerely ask to stop the sale of this letter and help us ensure that it does not go into private hands, but will be kept in a place that honors my aunt’s memory.”

In response, Zilbershlag stated that stopping the sale would cause him “irreparable” financial damage. This, however, did not stop the judge from calling a halt to the sale and ruling that Zilbershlag must negotiate with the family to find a solution.

“It is morally unacceptable and highly distasteful that anyone should trade in personal items, artifacts or documents of Holocaust victims or from the Holocaust era,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.

“The appropriate place for these historical and delicate pieces is in reputable and professional institutions such as Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, where they can be thoroughly researched, expertly preserved and ultimately utilized as historical testimony for the purposes of research, education and commemoration,” it said. “Yad Vashem has contacted the person holding the letters, and explained that their proper place is in the Yad Vashem Archives.”

Yad Vashem emphasized that Zilbershlag was not an employee of the institution.

“He serves in the directorate and council committees,” a spokesman said. “These positions are via political appointment and on a volunteer basis.”

https://www.timesofisrael.com/court-blocks-sale-of-holocaust-letter-by-yad-vashem-board-member/

Nazi flag seen hanging in state building in Sacramento

(Screenshot from video uploaded to Imgur by California Department of Corrections)

The state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has launched an investigation to find out.

An anonymous video uploaded Saturday on Imgur, a video and photo sharing website similar to Instagram, shows a red Nazi flag with a black swastika in the center visible through the window of a CDCR office in downtown Sacramento. The video also shows what appears to be a second flag, black with SS bolts, hanging below it.

“This is a trashy way to represent this beautiful city, especially in a state building,” a caption on the online post read.

By Tuesday, the video had been viewed more than 23,000 times.

A CDCR spokesperson confirmed that the flag had been hung in its state parole office at 1608 T St. In a statement emailed to J. on Tuesday, press secretary Dana Simas said the office deals with high-level offenders and often comes into contact with “objectionable” items.

“While CDCR has a zero tolerance policy for the display of objects that are derogatory in nature, in an office that covers gang members and high-risk sex offenders we will come into contact with items that may be considered objectionable,” the statement read. “However, we take this issue seriously and have removed the item and are looking into the circumstances for why the flag was displayed in potential view of the public.”

Some of the items confiscated from offenders are “used as training tools,” Simas wrote. She did not say whether the flag was among them.

The Nazi flag was not the only wall decoration seen in the video. Also visible was a “Thin Blue Line” flag — a black-and-white version of the American flag with a blue line that represents law enforcement. Its popularity grew around the time of prominent demonstrations against police brutality in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere. The flag is often associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement.

The Anti-Defamation League calls the Nazi flag, which has been adopted by white supremacists across the globe, “one of the most potent hate symbols worldwide.” It is banned in Germany.

https://www.jta.org/2019/10/30/united-states/nazi-flag-seen-hanging-in-state-building-in-sacramento

Board fires Florida principal who said couldn’t confirm Holocaust was ‘factual’

Official reason for William Latson’s termination is his failure to return messages from district officials in the days after his comments became public

Palm Beach County School principal William Latson, October 31, 2019 (WPTV Screen grab via CNN)

Palm Beach County School principal William Latson, October 31, 2019 (WPTV Screen grab via CNN)

(JTA) — The high school principal in Boca Raton, Florida, who told a parent that “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened” was fired.

The Palm Beach County School Board voted 5-2 to terminate William Latson’s employment, according to minutes of the meeting posted online. His firing will take effect on November 21.

The official reason for Latson’s termination was not the comments that appeared to justify denying the Holocaust but his failure to return messages from district officials in the days after his comments became public, according to the Palm Beach Post.

The church at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, former site of Nazi SS headquarters during the Holocaust, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

The school, which has about 2,500 students, is said to have one of the largest Jewish student populations in the county, according to the Palm Beach Post, which first reported the incident in July 2018, three months after it occurred.

Latson, in an email, told the mother of a student that “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened,” in response to an inquiry about the Holocaust not being taught at the school.

“I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in the position to do so as a school district employee,” he wrote. “You have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs.”

“The Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, which represents scores of individuals whose families were killed in the Holocaust, commends the move to fire” Latson, Matt Levin, Federation CEO told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We are grateful for Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s leadership and commitment to a thorough investigation resulting in this vote by the school board. Latson’s abhorrent denial of the Holocaust is unacceptable, and there is no place in our community, and certainly not in our education system, for such unethical ignorance.”

Latson’s attorney said he will appeal the firing in state administrative court, calling it arbitrary and driven by political expediency.

Latson has been with the school district for 26 years and had been principal of Spanish River since 2011.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/board-fires-florida-principal-who-said-couldnt-confirm-holocaust-was-factual/

On May 8, 1945, the Soviet military interpreter Elena Kagan was entrusted with a burgundy-colored box. Her superior in the SMERSH counterintelligence group had told her that it contained Adolf Hitler’s dentures and teeth and that she was answerable with her life for its safekeeping. On V-Day, Elena, a Jew who would have turned 100 this week, was holding a box with what remained of Hitler. “The situation in which I found myself was odd, unreal,” she later wrote in her book, Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter. “God Almighty, is this happening to me? Is this me standing here at the moment Germany surrenders, with a box in my hands containing the indisputable remnants of Adolf Hitler?!” It would take her a lifetime to fully grasp this moment, and its consequences.

The charred remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were unearthed in Berlin on May 4: A soldier found them in a bomb crater in the Reich Chancellery garden. The remains were unrecognizable and were reburied. On May 5, after a series of interrogations, which yielded testimony about Hitler’s suicide, the bodies were uncovered and an official document was drawn up. Elena was there to witness: “On a grey blanket, contorted by fire, lay black, hideous human remains, caked with lumps of mud.” The moment left her emotionally unaffected, unlike the recent sight of Goebbels’ dead children, which haunted her: The youngest girl, Heidrun, seemed to be the same age as her own daughter.

Kagan’s counterintelligence unit attached to the 3rd Shock Army was assigned to hunt for Hitler, a search conducted in deep secrecy. In late April, as the battle for Berlin was nearing the end, Elena interpreted prisoner interrogations in the basement of a house near the Potsdamer Platz. “We were interested in just one thing: where was Hitler?” Unknown to them at the time, on April 30, in the Führerbunker underneath the Chancellery, Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide. Elena would recall the center of Berlin ablaze, “the collapsing walls of burnt-out buildings,” and unbreathable air, “acrid and opaque from the fumes and stone dust.” It was her fourth year at the front where she volunteered at 21, leaving behind her baby daughter.

In 1941, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Red Army desperately needed interpreters. Elena had enrolled in a military translation course where her excellent command of German was noticed (Karl Liebknecht’s widow, Sophie, was among her teachers). Offered a posting in Moscow with the general staff, Elena refused, choosing the front lines. In January 1942 she was deployed to the environs of Rzhev, the ancient city 132 miles northwest of Moscow, and the site of ferocious battles. The Germans called Rzhev, standing at a junction of major railways and highways, “the springboard” for a leap to Moscow. In turn, Stalin demanded that the city be liberated “at any cost.”

Lasting 17 months, the battles for Rzhev and surrounding regions were some of the bloodiest in the war: The Red Army suffered incalculable losses. Yet, these battles did not even enter Soviet history books. After the war Elena campaigned for official recognition of Rzhev’s heroic and tragic role in defending Moscow and took the pen name Rzhevskaya.

In Poland Elena’s superior in the counterintelligence unit, Major Boris Bystrov, had proclaimed: “When we enter Germany I am going to capture Goebbels.” On May 2, 1945, she was astounded to see Major Bystrov and two other officers in Berlin discovering Goebbels’ remains. Goebbels’ charred body was put on display in front of the Reich Chancellery. Recognizable for its metal prosthesis and orthopedic boot, Goebbels’ body “symbolized the collapse of the Third Reich,” Elena writes. His yellow tie, which somehow survived the fire, seemed emblematic of the yellow star Goebbels invented to identify Jews.

Stalin was displeased that the discovery of Goebbels’ remains was publicized. The search for Hitler, he decreed, would proceed in strict secrecy. Elena’s counterintelligence unit was downsized to three: Colonel Vasily Gorbushin (in charge of the search), Major Bystrov, and the translator. They were prohibited all contact with the press and photographers.

Elena (second from left) at the front, May 30, 1943 (Photo courtesy Lyuba Summ)

On May 2 the Russian assault detachments of the 5th Shock Army broke into the Reich Chancellery. Elena’s group was ordered to inspect the Chancellery and the Führerbunker. During heavy bombardment artillery shells had been hitting the Chancellery, some landing on the bunker’s roof and cutting its electricity; the place was dark and stuffy. Elena recalls: “There were overturned tables, broken typewriters, glass and paper underfoot.” Working by the light of oil lamps, she sorted through documents, hoping to find clues about Hitler. There was Bormann’s correspondence, Hitler’s personal papers, and Goebbels’ diary—the notebooks dated from 1932 to July 8, 1941. She read the papers in the halls of the Chancellery. Focused on her immediate task, Elena could only skim through Goebbels’ diary before dispatching it to the front headquarters with her notes. In 1964, while researching her memoir, she would read this diary at the Council of Ministers Archive.

After the liberation of the Reich Chancellery Soviet war correspondents streamed into the Führerbunker, emerging with souvenirs. By May 5 Colonel General Nikolay Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army that liberated the Chancellery, put the place under guard. Elena’s counterintelligence group of the rival 3rd Shock Army had to smuggle out the presumed remains of Hitler and Eva Braun. On May 6, at the crack of dawn, the bodies were carried over the fence of the Chancellery garden and loaded onto a waiting truck. In Buch, on Berlin’s outskirts, a commission of medical experts and pathologists, headed by the principal forensic medical specialist of the 1st Belorussian Front, Lieutenant Colonel Faust Shkaravsky, conducted a series of autopsies. In 1936, in Buch, the first racial evaluations had been performed on Hitler’s orders. On May 8, 1945, Soviet forensic experts examined Hitler’s remains.

A Jewish female doctor, Anna Marants, a medical service major, performed the dissection. (A native of Kyiv, Marants was acting principal pathologist of the 1st Belorussian Front; after the war she worked in Kyiv’s hospitals.) The Soviet forensic pathologists were forbidden to take photographs, but on May 9, during the autopsy on Goebbels’ body, Doctor Shkaravsky photographed the medical experts in the examining room.

Because Hitler’s remains were badly burned, the teeth, with abundant bridgework, crowns, and fillings, presented the most important anatomic means of identification. Hitler’s gold bridge and lower jaw were placed in a box and handed over to Colonel Gorbushin who gave it to Elena, deemed the most reliable in their group of three. (Earlier, in Poznań, “a bulky, reinforced coffer” with gold items was brought from a bank to Elena’s bedroom. The gold was to be dispatched in sealed bags to Moscow; in the meantime it was emptied into a compartment underneath her sofa. “I was trusted. So in Poznań I slept on a hoard of gold,” she remarks.)

On May 8, driving through a devastated Berlin, they located Hitler’s laryngologist, Dr. Carl von Eicken, the head of the Charité university clinic. The professor had last treated Hitler in 1944; he said Lev Trotsky also had been his patient. A dentistry student in this clinic helped in the search for Hitler’s dentist, Dr. Hugo Blaschke, who by then had fled Berlin; working in his clinic was Dr. Bruck, a Jewish dentist recently emerged from hiding. His former student, Käthe Heusermann, had been Dr. Blaschke’s dental assistant. She had attended Hitler—and helped hide her Jewish teacher from the Nazis. Heusermann received her rations at the Reich Chancellery, sharing them with Dr. Bruck.

Heusermann was a tall, blond, attractive woman of 35. As part of Hitler’s entourage she had much to fear; however, she had refused Dr. Blaschke’s offer to evacuate. As she explained to Elena, her fiancé was in Norway and she was afraid to lose touch with him if she left Berlin. She had been working for Dr. Blaschke since 1937 and had assisted in extracting Hitler’s teeth.

Heusermann was interrogated several times and at great length. She was the only person on hand who knew the distinctive features of Hitler’s teeth. Elena writes, “I asked her not to give the teeth their specialist names—incisor, canine, and so on, for fear I might not correlate the German and Russian terms correctly. Instead she simply gave them numbers.” Heusermann’s account coincided with the autopsy report. She also helped locate Hitler’s dental records and X-rays, having guessed correctly that they were kept at the Führerbunker. Hitler’s dental records were found in the box room, surprisingly intact, given the general chaos of the bunker where Russian soldiers were partying.

On May 11 Dr. Shkaravsky, who had been in charge of the autopsies, interviewed Heusermann in Buch. This time she drew a diagram of Hitler’s teeth, commenting on every detail. She said Dr. Blaschke’s dental technician, Fritz Echtmann, could confirm her report. Echtmann examined Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s dentures. He recognized his work and said that Braun’s bridge was his invention: “I did not make such a bridge for anyone else …”

The investigation was nearing the end when a member of Hitler’s bodyguard, Harry Mengershausen, was captured. He had observed Hitler’s and Braun’s cremation and burial. Mengershausen and his interrogators sat on logs in the Chancellery garden while Elena translated. When Mengershausen pointed out the burial site, irrefutable evidence of Hitler’s death was obtained.

“I was confident,” Elena writes in her memoir, “that within another day or two the whole world would know we had found Hitler’s body.” But Pravda, the major Soviet publication, printed accounts of Hitler’s escape, and the Red Army was urged to hunt for Hitler. “It was a deceitful charade, a weird attempt to disguise the fact that his body had been found,” Elena remarks.

Stalin, informed of the investigation results, sent his representative to Berlin to personally verify the reports. Around May 23 Lieutenant General Alexander Vadis, head of counterintelligence SMERSH of the 1st Belorussian Front, launched a new round of interrogations. Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann, free until then, were detained. Elena, as a translator, was warned of her potential liability: Everything concerning the investigation of Hitler’s death was a Soviet state secret and the punishment for disclosing it was up to 15 years in the gulag. Lieutenant General Vadis compiled a dossier for Stalin, which was sent to Moscow along with material evidence: Hitler’s dentures and teeth. From Berlin, Vadis’ reports went to Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD.

Elena’s superior, Colonel Gorbushin, was summoned to Moscow where Victor Abakumov, the head of SMERSH of the USSR Commissariat of Defense, told him: “Comrade Stalin has familiarized himself with the entire course of events and the documents relating to the discovery of Hitler. …  He considers the matter closed. At the same time, Comrade Stalin said, ‘But we shall not make this public.’”

***

On Nov. 1, 1965, Kagan, now Elena Rzhevskaya, received a phone call from Marshal Georgy Zhukov. During World War II the distance between Zhukov, the commander in chief of the Soviet army and Stalin’s deputy, and Elena, then a rank-and-file translator, was immense. Now aged 69, demoted after the war by Stalin and later by Nikita Khrushchev, Marshal Zhukov lived in obscurity, receiving no one.

His meeting with Elena was an exception. Despite his proximity to Stalin Zhukov had not been informed about Hitler’s death, obtaining the first definite confirmation from Elena’s book. Unfathomable to her, even the glorious marshal who had accepted Germany’s surrender in Berlin was kept unaware that Hitler’s body had been found and identified. After the war Stalin had pressed Marshal Zhukov, “Where is Hitler?”

By then, Stalin had received ample factual evidence of Hitler’s death, yet  he denied this knowledge to the world. So, it fell to Elena to disclose the secret of the century. First published in Moscow in 1965, her memoir became widely translated (although not into English) and sold 1.5 million copies. The English translation of an expanded version of her book appeared in 2018.

Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann (sitting on the ground) with Soviet officers  (Photo courtesy Lyuba Summ)

Elena struggled for answers as to why Stalin suppressed information about Hitler’s death. Stalin’s “inscrutable personality” and his “ambiguous attitude towards Hitler” were some of her best clues. In 1965, Marshal Zhukov would tell her the obvious: “Stalin had no sense of responsibility to the historical record …”

Before returning to her army unit stationed in the German town of Stendal, Elena had visited Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann at the front headquarters and was allowed to take Heusermann for a walk. They chatted about things they would do together upon her release. “I liked everything about her. … Käthe was just somebody people liked.” She would not see Heusermann again. Two decades later, from an archival document, Elena would learn her fate and that of Echtmann.

When in October 1945 Elena was leaving Germany, Major Bystrov told her: “There were three of us at every stage of this Hitler saga. Of those three, you are the only one who can write about it.” Elena was a future writer, having studied literature before the war; two others were intelligence officers. She left Germany on board Zhukov’s Douglas cargo plane, which was returning to Moscow.

During the postwar decade, when Stalin launched his campaign against the Jews, Elena witnessed arrests in the Jewish community. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was killed on Stalin’s orders. Elena was in the stream of mourners going past the great actor’s coffin in the Jewish State Theater. Mikhoels’ theater, which she had frequented, was shut down the following year. Like other Soviet Jews at the time Elena was denied employment. She also faced an additional fear—she was one of the three witnesses of Adolf Hitler’s postmortem. Nonetheless, she recorded information about the search for Hitler.

In 1954, one year after Stalin’s death, she took her memoir to Znamya literary magazine, which published war journalism and prose. The editor, afraid to be the first to publish an account about the discovery and identification of Hitler’s remains, printed her memoir, but without this vital part. In 1961 Elena outwitted her editors and included the story establishing Hitler’s death in her book Spring in a Greatcoat, a collection of her previously published novellas. Her editors failed to spot the new material.

In September 1964, after years of trying, she received access to the documents she had been translating in Berlin two decades earlier. Some bore her signature as a military translator; others were new to her. Thus, she came upon a folder containing the 1945 “delivery notes for items the staff at front headquarters were sending to the SMERSH directory in Moscow.” Two of Hitler’s tunics and a cap were being forwarded to Moscow along with two other “items”—K. Heusermann and F. Echtmann. This brief inhumane reference spelled out their fate. “I just sat there dejected, switched off,” Elena writes. “I just had to live with it, another secret.”

Much later, Elena read Heusermann’s unpublished memoir about her imprisonment in Russia, which she received from Lev Bezymensky, a fellow wartime interpreter and writer who had interviewed Heusermann in Düsseldorf. Before being charged she spent six months in the Lubyanka Prison, then six years in solitary confinement in Lefortovo. In November 1951 Heusermann and Echtmann (among others) were condemned by resolution of the Special Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs “as witnesses of Hitler’s death.”

In December Heusermann was dispatched in a cattle car to a labor camp in Taishet, southeastern Siberia, where, unable to fulfil her labor quota and put on a penal ration, she became emaciated. She was saved by a woman, a Carpathian Jew, who shared her food parcels with her.

The end of Heusermann’s term, in 1955, coincided with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s visit to the USSR; he agreed with Khrushchev about the return of German prisoners. Flown to Moscow, placed in a well-furnished cottage in the countryside, Heusermann was taken on a sightseeing tour of Moscow—before being dispatched to Berlin in a first-class sleeping compartment. She was 45 when she returned. Her fiancé was long married and raising a family. Heusermann settled in Düsseldorf and worked for a while in dental practice. In the mid-1960s she and Echtmann testified in Germany that they had identified Hitler’s body from his teeth. Elena learned this from articles in Shtern and Die Welt.

After publication of her book Berlin, May 1945 Elena repeatedly traveled to Germany. When offered to meet Heusermann, she refused. “What could I say to her?” she writes. “I had been spared, but had evidently myself come within a whisker of her fate.” Heusermann had paid a terrible price for helping the Soviet investigation. In Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter where she first included Heusermann’s story, Elena writes: “That burden of guilt will never leave me.”

A brief afterword: In 1986 my father, the writer Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), published Elena Rzhevskaya’s account of her meeting with Marshal Zhukov in the literary magazine Znamya, which he edited. He was able to prevail over censors who wanted to suppress Zhukov’s negative remarks about Stalin.

https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/293400/elena-rzhevskaya-hitlers-teeth