Category Archive: Nazis

The woman who carried Hitler’s teeth on V-Day

The memoir of a Jewish military translator who helped the Soviet army identify Adolf Hitler’s burned corpse is about to be published in English for the first time.

Elena Rzhevskaya, who died in April at the age of 97, was just 25 years old in May of 1945 when she carried a box of the Nazi dictator’s teeth around war-torn Berlin in search of an expert who could confirm that the teeth had belonged to the Fuhrer.

Eventually she found a dental assistant who had visited Hitler in his underground bunker just days before his death. The dental assistant was able to draw a sketch of Hitler’s teeth from memory, which matched with the drawing made by the Soviet pathologist who autopsied Hitler’s charred body.

Rzhevskaya’s memoir, entitled “Berlin, May 1945,” will be published in the United Kingdom and will also be sold in the United States, said Elena Rzhevskaya’s granddaughter Liubov Summ in a telephone interview from Moscow.

The book, which was first printed in 1965 in Russian and sold more than a million copies in the Soviet Union, has already been translated to German, Italian and Japanese. But there has been no English translation until now, nor has the book been translated to Hebrew, Summ said.

Explaining why her grandmother was trusted with the dictator’s teeth, Summ said, “She was an officer and a woman and everyone knew that [all the men] would get drunk on Victory Day.”

“She carried the box under her arm. It smelled lightly of perfume. She saw her own reflection in a big mirror and thought, ‘My God, am I standing here holding in my hands the only thing that is left of Hitler?’”

Hitler’s dental assistant Kathe Heusermann’s recollection and the letters of the Soviet pathologist who removed the teeth from Hitler’s jaws will also be included as appendices in the book. They are being published for the first time, said Summ.

It was possible to identify Hitler from his teeth because he had had extensive dental work. By the end of his life, Hitler had very few of his own teeth left, and most of them had crowns. The remaining teeth were prosthetic and were held together with bridges.

“His teeth were in such bad shape that his dentist was with him in the bunker,” Summ said. “There are photos that are very unpleasant to look at.”

When Heusermann was questioned, she talked not only about Hitler’s teeth, but also about what she saw and heard during his last days in the bunker, Summ said. Rzhevskaya listened and later included these stories in her book. For example, Heusermann said that she tried to talk Magda Goebbels out of murdering her six children, and shared the story about how Eva Braun, who got married to Hitler just before their suicide, wanted everyone in the bunker to call her “Frau Hitler.”

“Everything that Kathe said, was said with my grandmother’s lips — because my grandmother translated,” Summ said.

The two women bonded. Heusermann told Rzhevskaya about how she had twice been raped by Soviet soldiers. Rzhevskaya also found out that Heusermann had hidden a Jewish dentist, for whom she worked before the war, in her home.

“He returned to Berlin at the end of April, met her and asked her to hide him in her apartment, while she was going to Hitler’s bunker to work every day! You understand [what would have happened] if someone found out,” said Summ. “She is also one of the righteous in a way.”

Summ said that the last time the two women spoke, Heusermann promised that as soon as the Soviet interrogations stopped, she would bring Rzhevskaya to her hairdresser.

But that was not to be. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided that Hitler’s suicide and the story about how his body was discovered should be a military secret. Heusermann was sent to the gulag, where she spent 10 years, including six years in solitary confinement, Summ said. By the time she returned home, her fiancé had married someone else.

“They told her that by helping to fix Hitler’s teeth she contributed to the continuation of the war, and that she should have hit him on the head with a bottle,” Summ said. “But her actual fault was that she was a witness of Hitler’s death and that was a secret.”

After the war, Rzhevskaya — whose birth name was Kagan — returned to Moscow, studied literature in university and became a writer.

She changed her family name because she could not get a job with a name that sounded so obviously Jewish, said Summ.

“She would phone schools and libraries and they would tell her that there was a vacancy, but when she went there, and they saw her documents and her Jewish name, they would not hire her,” Summ said. “She couldn’t even get a job in a village school.”

When she became a writer, she also didn’t want to use her real name because she didn’t want to the impression that “the Jews are writing about the war again,” Summ said.

So her grandmother adopted the name “Rzhevskaya,” which means “From Rzhev,” the town where she was almost killed by shrapnel from a German bomb in 1942. It was also here that she was sent on her first translation assignment, questioning a German soldier who was taken prisoner.

Her first memoir, entitled “Memories of a Wartime Interpreter,” originally included a few pages in the end about what it was like to identify Hitler from his teeth, but the editor of the magazine that published the memories cut those pages, Summ said.

“No one wrote about this before, so why should we be first?” the editor reportedly said, according to Summ. “It was a funny comment for an editor of a magazine.”

But in the Soviet Union, editors had to be cautious.

It was not until after Stalin’s death that Rzhevskaya openly wrote about identifying Hitler, and it was not until 1996 that she found out what happened to Hitler’s dental assistant.

“It was a big blow for her,” Summ said. “Heusermann returned home when she was 45 years old. She ended up losing her [future] husband and never had children, and this really haunted my grandma.”

The Soviet pathologist was also upset that the story about the identification of Hitler’s teeth was kept secret.

“He was hurt that he did this work to identify Hitler, but he didn’t get any recognition,” Summ said.

To remember Rzhevskaya, a special evening in her honor will be organized in Moscow on her birthday, October 27, her granddaughter said.

The museum in the town of Rzhev is also planning a local history conference dedicated to her memory in the spring. A few handwritten pages from Rzhevskaya’s memoir and her World War II military uniform, which she kept all of her life, will be donated to the museum.

Source: The Times of Israel

The last Nazi hunters

The Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes is an austere, pale-yellow prison building nestled into the 18th-century city wall of Ludwigsburg in southwestern Germany. Once used by the Nazis to detain political prisoners, the building announces its contemporary tenants obliquely, with a small, silver sign. Entering the Central Office still feels like entering a jail; to gain access, one must pass through a white metal gate and then through a second secure doorway.

Since it was created by the West German government in 1958, the Central Office’s mission has been to deliver Nazis to justice. Every year, its six investigative “departments,” each of which consists of a single prosecutor, scour the globe looking for members of the Third Reich. Chief prosecutor Jens Rommel, who heads the operation, is a sturdy, jovial 44-year-old with frameless glasses and a triangular goatee. The German press calls him a Nazi hunter, but Rommel doesn’t like the term. “A hunter is looking for a trophy,” he told me. “He has a rifle in his hand. I’m a prosecutor looking for murderers and I have criminal code in my hand.”

Rommel and his staff visit the sites of former concentration camps across Germany and eastern Europe to sift through records and walk the grounds to determine what defendants might have witnessed from their posts. Over the past decade, the office, which has an annual budget of €1.2m, has also conducted more than 20 trips to archives in South America. The investigators spend most days under an avalanche of bureaucratic documents, checking and cross-checking names on German, Russian, British, French and Polish lists – everything from SS papers documenting quotidian affairs such as the issuing of new uniforms and marriage requests, to Allied inventories of prisoners of war. Their goal is to find the last living Nazis who have yet to be indicted and might still be able to stand trial.

When I visited Ludwigsburg in May, Rommel was preparing for a trip to Moscow, where he would search an archive for names of perpetrators from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which the Nazis operated near Berlin from 1936 to 1945. Another Central Office prosecutor, Manuela Zeller, was sorting through records from Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, looking for anyone whose name hadn’t been checked by her predecessors. Her colleague Michael Otte was doing the same for the Buchenwald and Stutthof concentration camps. Another colleague was about to travel to Mauthausen, in Austria, where at least 95,000 people were murdered during the war.

“This is a giant cold-case operation,” Devin Pendas, a historian of Nazi prosecutions at Boston College, said of the Central Office. “It’s looking at crimes that happened a long time ago, with only the sketchiest information about who the perpetrators might be.” Rommel, a former criminal prosecutor, approaches the work the same way he used to investigate homicide cases, treating the archives at his disposal as live crime scenes. “There are crimes behind these words, but there’s no blood here,” he said.

Central Office prosecutors unearth the names of about 30 living perpetrators per year. Their cases are then handed over to regional prosecutors, who usually spend another year conducting follow-up investigations and deciding whether to take the individuals to court. Since the start of the 21st century, this work has led to six prosecutions, but in the media, every case has been called “the last Nazi trial”, as if writers, editors and readers all hope the label will finally prove to be true.

Today, the youngest suspects are 90 years old, and most were low-level Nazi functionaries: guards, cooks, medics, telephone operators and the like. The defendants tend to die during the lengthy judicial process, so the odds of conviction are miniscule. Partly as a result, few Germans know the Central Office exists, and many of those who do tend to view it with ambivalence. “It is hard for people to see what exactly the point is of putting a 90-year-old in jail,” Pendas said. Others view the office with reverence, awed by what it has managed to achieve despite considerable odds.

Throughout its history, the condition of the Central Office has been one important measure of Germany’s evolving relationship to its Nazi past. After its founding in 1958, it enjoyed 10 years of robust activity before receding from public view, amid widespread opposition to further investigations of German war crimes. Now, every day that passes – separating the present from the atrocities in question – further imperils the Central Office’s cause.

In Rommel’s corner office, on the second floor of the old prison, 16 small flags, one for each German state, stand atop a wooden bureau. “My bosses,” he said. The 16 regional ministers of justice will soon determine when Rommel’s investigative operation will shut down, ending this global effort to bring Nazi perpetrators to justice. One regional minister told the press that 2025 is a possible deadline for the Central Office to complete its investigations – “‘deadline’ being almost literal,” Rommel told me. Others view that as an optimistic estimate, predicting that the end of the Central Office is much nearer.

The question of whether Nazi trials should continue in spite of the increasingly unrealistic odds of success – whether the work of the Central Office remains essential, or if it needlessly litigates crimes that belong to the past – lingers over the Ludwigsburg headquarters. “How much does Germany need to do to render justice on its own prior crimes?” Pendas said. “And how long does it need to make those kinds of efforts?” These questions have haunted Germany since the war’s end, but have gained renewed currency with the rise of rightwing populist movements such as Alternative for Germany, which may become the third-largest party in the German parliament after the country’s upcoming September election, though the party’s support has declined in recent months. Earlier this year, an AfD politician called for Germany to stop atoning for its Nazi crimes.

Yet the very fact of the Central Office’s continued existence is a testament to the gravity and extent of Nazi crimes, a reminder of just how much is threatened by the rise of reactionary nationalism both in Germany and abroad. In the US, parallel institutions are under threat of closure. The Trump administration has plans to close the State Department’s modest Office of Global Criminal Justice, which is tasked with supporting international prosecutions for perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; its director, Todd F Buchwald, has already been reassigned. As his predecessor, Stephen J Rapp, told the New York Times earlier this year, “The promise of ‘never again’ has proven hard to keep.”

Behind a vault door in the basement of Ludwigsburg’s old prison building lies the Central Office’s “treasure,” as Rommel calls it. In row upon row of beige file cabinets, an ever-expanding archive of 1.7m yellow and green index cards records the names of massacres, battles, concentration camps, victims, witnesses and perpetrators. It is the world’s most comprehensive repository of Nazi crimes and postwar attempts to bring the regime to justice. Anyone who has ever testified or even been mentioned during a Nazi trial has a card, filed in alphabetical order. But the record is not yet complete, and part of the Central Office’s job is to fill in the blanks. “Every day, we add new cards, we change cards,” Rommel said.

Only one copy of the Ludwigsburg archive exists, stored in microfilm at an undisclosed location. Protecting the index is paramount to ensuring war crimes can be tried, and that nothing is forgotten or undocumented – a relatively new undertaking in the history of warfare. For centuries, most peace treaties sought to obliterate the memory of war, a practice stretching back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which called for “perpetua oblivio et amnestia”, or “perpetual oblivion and amnesty” on both sides. It was only after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles assigned guilt to Germany for igniting the first world war, and demanded the arrest and trial of German officials, that the promise of oblivio et amnestia was abandoned.

Versailles laid the groundwork for the prosecution of war criminals after the second world war, an effort that was well underway even before the Nazis surrendered to allied forces in Reims, France, on 7 May 1945. At the time of his death, a week before the surrender, Adolf Hitler was under indictment by the UN War Crimes Commission, whose members produced hundreds of files documenting his crimes. The commission, which was established in 1943 to investigate offences by the axis powers, also supported indictments against 36,000 German and Japanese personnel, of whom at least 10,000 were convicted in roughly 2,000 trials over the next five years.

These efforts were not universally applauded. Some international participants felt the year-long Nuremberg trials, which culminated in 1946, were a “shocking waste of time”, in the words of Sir Norman Birkett, a British judge who served at the trials. In Germany, the press portrayed the hearings as an attempt to humiliate the country. “If you want to understand why the Central Office was created in the first place, you can see this as a counter-project against Nuremberg,” says Annette Weinke, a historian of post-war prosecutions. “We wanted to take the past into our own hands.”

Between 1945 and 1949, West German courts issued 4,600 convictions for Nazi crimes, but after the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949, a desire for amnesty and oblivion prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic. The UN War Crimes Commission was shuttered and its records sealed, an erasure propelled by the cold war and a rising tide of pro-Nazi sentiment in the US and Germany. As Communists became the greater enemy, the public turned away from reckoning with the Holocaust. Many of the Nazis convicted in the trials that followed Nuremberg were released in the 1950s, when a series of amnesty laws passed by the newly minted West German parliament reinstated the pensions of Nazi soldiers and paroled 20,000 Nazis previously jailed for “deeds against life”. According to the German historian Norbert Frei, nearly 800,000 people benefited from amnesty laws. By the end of the decade, thousands of Nazis had been freed from German prisons and rehabilitated, taking up comfortable posts in the judiciary, police and state administration.

At the same time, however, new trials were gradually opening up the public’s eyes to the enormity of the crimes that had been committed, particularly in eastern Europe. In 1958, during what is now known as the Ulm trial, 10 former policemen from the same mobile killing unit were tried as accessories in the murder of more than 5,000 Lithuanian Jews. Ulm was the first major Nazi trial to take place under West German law, and it exploded “like a bomb” on the German psyche, says Hans-Christian Jasch, director of the memorial site and museum at Wannsee House, where the Nazi leadership discussed the “final solution to the Jewish question” in 1942. Süddeutsche Zeitung, the largest German daily newspaper, carried an opinion piece headlined “Noch sind die Mörder unter uns” (“Murderers are still among us”), calling for more trials. Eager to counter East German propaganda that claimed his government was crawling with former Nazis, chancellor Konrad Adenauer created the Central Office, which was to focus solely on bringing Nazis to justice.

The first index cards were logged at the Central Office when it opened in December 1958. Yet, in truth, the office was never really meant to revise the West German policy of amnesty and reintegration. Its function was intended to be largely symbolic – a kind of alibi for a West German state that wanted to appear as if it were pursuing postwar justice without actually indicting the former Nazis who were once again part of the country’s establishment. As such, the Central Office was denied the ability to prosecute criminals itself. Its work was also hampered by the fact that German law contained no special provision for war crimes, and by a statute of limitations that made certain crimes nearly impossible to prosecute after 1960.

When it became known that the office was delivering a spate of names to regional prosecutors, the West German leadership, and the public, was nonplussed. The Central Office’s work was “done against domestic opinion rather than going with it,” Pendas said. Its staffers contributed evidence to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which lasted from 1963 to 1965 and attracted unprecedented coverage in the domestic and international press, but were a “matter of indifference, if not open hostility, for much of the German public,” Pendas has written. When they concluded, pollsters asked the German public whether further Nazi trials should be held. Fifty-seven percent said no.

In 1969, the German high court dealt a blow to the Central Office, when it overturned the conviction of an Auschwitz dentist and former SS member on the grounds that working at the concentration camp was not a crime in itself. As a result, prosecutors were forced to drop an investigation into the Reich Security Main Office, the primary organisation responsible for implementing Hitler’s policy of mass murder. It was a “perpetrator-friendly approach,” Weinke said. “In a way, they were exonerating these crimes.” It also cast the Holocaust, legally and in the public imagination, as a sequence of ordinary murders, replacing the narrative of systematic, state-sponsored genocide with one of individually motivated killings.

After 1969, the work of the Central Office stalled, its prosecutors reduced to chasing the few former Nazi officials whose murderous acts had been recorded on paper. Even though a series of public debates in the 1960s and 70s led to the elimination of the statute of limitations for murder, thousands of men and women who served as cogs in the machine of genocide – as concentration camp guards, doctors, police, administrators and even radio operators – were never forced to reckon publicly with their culpability. For the next four decades, the Central Office largely receded from public view, and many forgot it existed entirely. Then, starting in 2007, a series of landmark cases changed everything.

In January 2007, Mounir el Motassadeq was sentenced by a German court to 15 years in prison. While studying in Hamburg, Motassadeq, a Moroccan national, had wired money to the 9/11 hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi. He was convicted of 246 counts of being an accessory to murder, one for every passenger aboard the four flights that were hijacked that day. The decision had momentous implications for prosecuting Nazis. If Motassadeq could be guilty of helping commit murder, so too could people like John Demjanjuk, a former guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Thomas Walther, a lawyer who was working with the Central Office at the time, came up with a strategy to use the same logic to challenge the precedent set in 1969.

Walther’s revelation came just in time for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Central Office, which was teetering on the brink of irrelevance, as victims, witnesses and perpetrators began to die of old age. Pursuing Demjanjuk helped justify the office’s continued existence, and Kurt Schrimm, the head of the Central Office at the time, used the case and the anniversary to try to recast the office as a success of the postwar West German government.

Die Zeit called the Demjanjuk trial a “premiere”, because it promised to be the first of many attempts to hold former Nazis accountable for serving in death camps, and the process was avidly covered in the international and domestic media. In 2011, 91-year-old Demjanjuk was convicted of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder – the number of people slaughtered at Sobibor during the four months he served there in 1943 – but the case was still under appeal when Demjanjuk died in a Bavarian nursing home a year later, still a free man. (In Germany, a conviction does not legally hold if an appeal is pending.)

In 2013, a year after Demjanjuk’s death, the Central Office prepared the “Auschwitz list”, consisting of 30 living former Auschwitz personnel who could be immediately tried according to the logic of the Motassadeq ruling. Of these, only five cases made it to court. (The others died, or were deemed unfit to stand trial.) Ernst Tremmel, a former Auschwitz guard, died in 2016, days before he was due to make his first court appearance for 1,000 counts of accessory to murder. His fellow former guard, 95-year-old Reinhold Hanning, was convicted in June 2016 of facilitating more than 170,000 murders, but died on 30 May of this year, days before Germany’s highest court was expected to deny his final appeal. One trial, that of the 96-year-old former Auschwitz medic Hubert Zafke, is still ongoing, but the proceedings have been so poorly handled that the head judge has become the first jurist in history to be dismissed from an Auschwitz trial because of accusations of bias.

Rommel arrived somewhat reluctantly at the Central Office in 2015, in the midst of these cases. He was leaving a comfortable position as a public prosecutor in his hometown of Ravensburg, a stone’s throw from the Alps, where he liked to ski on weekends. But the allure of approaching the past not as history, but as crime, swayed Rommel to take the Central Office helm (that, and the fact that the age of the average defendant meant the job would hardly last for ever). According to Rommel, the government also wanted someone relatively young to head the organisation, “to avoid the impression that they were terminating the work”.

In 2016, Rommel sent 30 cases to prosecutors. That same year, Oskar Groening became the first person on the Auschwitz list to be successfully convicted using the precedent set by the Motassadeq case. The long story of Groening’s belated sentencing captured something of the agonising history of trying to bring Nazis to justice. Groening’s name was on the final 1948 UN War Crimes Commission list of Polish indictments concerning Auschwitz. But after the commission was dissolved, none of the allied powers provided the Central Office with a copy of the 36,000 indictments the commission processed. (It received a digital copy sometime in the 1980s.)

For the rest of the 20th century, Groening’s guilt was not widely known. Then, in 2005, the former “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” agreed to be interviewed by Der Spiegel. Groening spoke at length about how he sorted through Jewish inmates’ belongings, confiscated their money, and heard their screams emanating from gas chambers. “I would describe my role as a ‘small cog in the gears’,” he said. “If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent.”

At the time, the Central Office passed along the article to local prosecutors, but neither law enforcement nor the courts were ready to take on what appeared to be an improbable, and perhaps unpopular, battle. After Motassadeq, however, sentencing Groening seemed not just possible, but prudent.

The final judgment against Groening bought the Central Office a bit more time. Without Groening’s conviction, “our work would have stopped,” Rommel said. Instead, the threshold for guilt had been substantially lowered, and 70 years after the crimes in question, it was once again possible to hold cogs accountable. Groening was 20 when he joined the SS; he is now 96, and in August, prosecutors in Hanover, his home region, deemed him fit to serve his four-year-prison sentence.

In March, I followed Manuela Zeller and Michael Otte, the Central Office prosecutors, to Buenos Aires, where they were trying to complete a database of Nazis who escaped to Argentina after the war. They went with little hope of finding living suspects – no indictments have come out of more than 20 expeditions to archives in Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay. A few years ago, they identified a former concentration camp doctor who fled to Peru, but it turned out he was already dead. Given the dismal track record, Zeller and Otte’s trip was primed to be the organisation’s final mission to South America, the culmination of more than a decade of scouring the continent.

“The point of the work is not always to put someone in front of a judge, but also being able to close an archive and say, ‘OK, now we know,’” Otte, a trim, bald prosecutor, explained to me over dinner in Buenos Aires’s antique San Telmo district. “It’s for future generations to know what happened.” The record will never be complete, nor will the Central Office get the chance to check archives in every country where Nazis are known to have fled. “We tried to get into Paraguay, but they said: ‘We have no Nazis here,’” he told me.

The apparent fruitlessness of the Central Office’s expeditions has not escaped scrutiny in the German press. Before Rommel took over in 2015, Die Welt, a conservative broadsheet, ran an article criticising the organisation’s expenditures, under the headline “German Nazi Hunters on Holiday in South America?” It was accompanied by a stock photograph of beachgoers in Rio de Janeiro.

Another common refrain among detractors is that the Central Office’s work could have been completed decades ago. “What I started doing in 2008, they could have done 30 years before,” said Thomas Walther, the lawyer who pressed the Central Office to take up the Demjanjuk case. Law is open to constant reinterpretation and revision; someone could have challenged the high bar for Nazi prosecutions long before the Motassadeq verdict, but, astonishingly, no one thought of it, or dared to try. If they had, it might still have been possible to find and try living offenders around the world; these days, it’s almost certainly impossible.

Although the promise of prosecution has been virtually extinguished, naming every as-yet-unknown name is not futile. Rommel is all too aware of the belatedness of his efforts, and the fact that time is running out. But he is also driven by a sense of finality – the knowledge that if the Central Office does not complete its inventory of Nazi perpetrators, no one will. Collecting the evidence is physically strenuous, mentally exhausting work, but it is perhaps the only thing, short of a trial, that can approximate justice. “Even if we don’t get a lot of perpetrators now, it’s important both for the survivors and their relatives, and for German society as well,” he told me in Ludwigsburg. “I think that’s why all of my colleagues are here, to try to do what’s possible today.”

Two days after our dinner in Buenos Aires, I found Otte and Zeller in an old dormitory on the top floor of the Hotel de Inmigrantes, a sprawling, spare complex that opened in 1911 to accommodate thousands of immigrants arriving from the Old World, and now also serves as a museum. The dormitory had been converted into an archive and working immigration office, its walls lined with 20th-century ship ledgers from around the world. Displayed on one side of the room were European ship manifests from between 1939 and 1968 – a record of every individual who arrived at the port seeking asylum, opportunity and, all too often, a place to hide.

Hugo Mouján, the museum’s press manager, laid out Adolf Eichmann’s landing record. The logistical mind behind the Holocaust had arrived at the Hotel de Inmigrantes in 1950, under the alias of Ricardo Klement. One year prior, the Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele, who performed deadly experiments on prisoners, had also passed through the hotel’s doors. Mouján laid out Mengele’s landing record, browned and frayed, documenting his arrival under the alias Helmut Gregor. The success of the Central Office’s current expedition relied on a single, simple assumption: unlike high-ranking Nazi officials such as Eichmann and Mengele, lower-ranking SS members did not expect to be held accountable for their sins, so they did not bother concealing their identities upon arriving in South America.

Zeller and Otte spent the next two weeks poring over passenger lists from between 1959 and 1962, recording the names of every German who could have served the Nazi regime and who could still be alive. Zeller, a former Bavarian judge who has a short black bob and triple ear piercings, had made herself a cheat sheet. The men and women she was looking for must have been born between 1918 and 1931 (14 is the German threshold for criminal culpability, and the Central Office will not open cases against anyone over 99), which means they would have been between 28 and 44 years old upon arriving in Buenos Aires between 1959 and 1962. Every time she and Otte came across a German name that fit those parameters, they wrote it down on a plain piece of A4 printer paper, noting the individual’s nationality, age and hometown.

Standing under a crucifix at the doorway to the archive, arms folded, Zeller reflected on the prevailing public criticism of the Central Office. “They say: ‘Why now, when we have only the little ones, and the others have never been charged?’ But I think that’s no reason to let them all go untouched.”

By the end of their trip, Otte and Zeller had collected more than 1,000 names of potential perpetrators. It will take about 12 months for the Central Office staff to cross-check them against the names in the basement archive. If a name from Buenos Aires happens to match that of an SS officer, Otte will open an investigation. But even if some suspects are alive today, they may not be a year from now.

On their last work night in Buenos Aires, Otte and Zeller seemed at peace with the limited nature of their mission. They said knowing that they’re probably the last ones to do their work – the clean-up crew for one of history’s darkest episodes – makes the job a little easier to bear; the march of time lends it renewed urgency, the impending conclusion endows it with heightened integrity.

“It’s all maybe for nothing – we know that,” Zeller said. “The point now is to say we’ve left nothing out.”

In an 18th-century gatehouse next to the old prison building in Ludwigsburg, a replica of the office of one of Rommel’s earliest predecessors is visible beneath a transparent floor. The exhibit conveys the slow, analogue nature of the postwar pursuit of justice. Stacks of files line the walls; the desk is littered with books, paper and stamps; a binder lies open to a page full of portraits of notable Nazi officers. Leather belts hang from pegs on the wall, ready to be used in binding thousands of pages of evidence. Today, boxes rather than belts are used to store files from the few cases that see the inside of a courtroom. Their slow accumulation has begun to transform the former prison into a labyrinthine memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Despite its imperfect mandate and modest findings, the Central Office provides a model for the expiation of national wrongs, acting as a precedent for countries that might be compelled to re-evaluate the past not as history, but as crime. A research institute and federal archive already share the building with Rommel and his team; when it becomes impossible to justify opening any further cases, they will likely subsume the investigative wing. “Criminal justice will hand the baton over to history,” says Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law and jurisprudence at Amherst College.

For the first time, the past will be past, the crime scene will be closed, and Germany’s effort to convict its own criminals will come to an end. Other nations, reckoning with their own wrongdoings, have been far hastier to arrive at this point. As Dan Plesch, author of a new history on the UN War Crimes Commission, put it, “Right now, you see a German chancellor and public who are ironically more alive to the dangers, more willing to share the past, than some of the countries that fought them.”

Rommel and his staff are keenly aware that some in Germany would like to see the Central Office’s closure expedited, including those who think the office’s efforts to prosecute Nazi telephone and radio operators, guards, chefs and medics strain the limits of propriety. The ambivalence with which much of the public views their trials is understandable, Plesch said, “until it becomes the thin end of the wedge for Holocaust denial, which it very often does, and very quickly”. In 2015, when the refugee crisis ignited a wave of xenophobic hate crimes against asylum seekers in Germany, the Central Office received emails and letters from Nazi sympathisers protesting its work.

For now, though, there’s still so much left to be done: “There are still documents which haven’t been put together, there are still matches that can be found,” Hans-Christian Jasch told me after a recent fact-finding trip to Auschwitz. For Rommel, continuing to scour the world for new evidence is “a question of personal guilt and responsibility”, he said. “A lot of my compatriots have preferred to look into the future instead of into the dark past.”

Source: theguardian.com

‘AUSCHWITZ ON THE BEACH’ EQUATES PLIGHT OF REFUGEES WITH DEATH CAMP

After a wave of criticism, including from the head of the Munich Jewish community, the “documenta 14” cultural center in the German city of Kassel canceled on Tuesday a performance exhibition likening the plight of refugees making their way to Europe by sea to Auschwitz.

In a statement on the exhibit titled “Auschwitz on the Beach,” the documenta 14 center wrote that in “reaction to the number of complaints and accusations which we received over the last weeks, we have decided to cancel the planned performance from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. We respect those who feel attacked by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s poem. We do not want to add pain to their sorrow.”

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, “It is a very problematic tendency to compare all sorts of tragedies and plights of different people to Auschwitz. And very rarely are these comparisons worthy and accurate. Despite whatever sympathy we feel for the plight of refugees, their plight is not reminiscent of the plight of the Jews ordered to death camps and should not be compared.”

Charlotte Knobloch, head of Munich’s Jewish community, said on Friday about the exhibit: “What is planned here is a grotesque production.” While it is important to highlight the fate of refugees and the partial failure of the EU and international community to address the current crisis, it is “unacceptable and intolerable” to use the interests of refugees to “relativize the Holocaust,” she said.

The installation was slated to run in Kassel – with a population of nearly 198,000 in the state of Hesse – beginning on Thursday for three days.

The documenta 14 center claims it is the world’s largest exhibitor of modern art, with 160 artists from across the globe currently represented there.

According to the “Auschwitz on the Beach” production text, the author wrote, “The Europeans build on their territory concentration camps and pay their gauleiter [head of a district annexed by Nazi Germany] in Turkey, Libya and Egypt to carry out the dirty work along the coast of the Mediterranean where salt water has replaced Zyklon B.”

Knobloch, who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Bavaria, termed the text “obscene” and “absolutely blind to history.”

Berardi, who was born in Bologna in 1949, is an Italian Marxist. His poem, a soundtrack and pictures make up the “Auschwitz on the Beach” installation.

Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle told the HNA news outlet on Monday the exhibit is “an outrageous provocation.”

The city’s cultural official Boris Rhein told hessenschau.de news outlet the same day: “Freedom of art is highly valued,” but slammed comparisons between the Shoah and the refugee crisis, saying “the crimes of the Nazis were unique.”

Martin Sehmisch, the head of an organization fighting Antisemitism (Informationsstelle Antisemitismus Kassel) in the city, called the announcement of the installation a “statement of political and moral bankruptcy from those in charge” at documenta 14.

Source: The Jerusalem Post

Auschwitz Memorial Sees Record Number of Visitors in 2016

World Youth Day was a large boost to attendance. But how about Pokémon Go?

The memorial and museum and Auschwitz-Birkenau announced on Monday that a record 2,053,000 people visited the former Nazi concentration camp in 2016. Tops among attendees are from Poland, the UK, the U.S., and Italy; 97,000 visitors came from Israel, a 59 percent increase from the year prior. Also boosting yearly attendance were the 155,000 people who visited for World Youth Day, including Pope Francis. Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the museum’s director, said eloquently, “In today’s world—torn by conflicts, increased feeling of insecurity and strengthening of populist tones in public discourse—it is necessary to re-listen to the darkest warnings from the past.”

A few weeks before the Pope visited Poland, there was hubbub about the fact that kids had begun playing Pokémon Go—a newly-released, augmented reality GPS-enabled videogame in which players try to catch, say, a Jigglypuff—at Auschwitz. The museum’s spokesman called it “disrespectful.” Tablet senior writer made the case otherwise, arguing that the forced emotion, the requisite sadness, that is struck upon young visitors is oppressive. “When urged to bow before death, life finds a way.”

Let these kids play their game, then, not even in Auschwitz, but especially there. Let them feel again that mad methectic magic Huizinga spoke about. They can’t make sense of Auschwitz, anyway; they can’t fathom what led to such brutality, can’t make sense of such hate. But they can catch a Jigglypuff and feel a burst of life whistling through the airless chambers of the factory of death. And that’s no small thing, no minor testament to the same resilience the Nazis eagerly and futilely tried to extinguish. Where better than Auschwitz to admit we’ll never have real knowledge, and where better to declare we’ll always have great games?

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The Auschwitz museum has a Twitter account, and this ex-journalist runs it

Whether he’s engaging the misguided (he prefers not to) or tweeting historical facts, Pawel Sawicki sees his job as shielding the memory of the victims

sawicki-1-965x543OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Long before he moved here to become the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and lead its social media effort, Pawel Sawicki’s life was intricately connected to this sleepy town near Krakow.

A Warsaw-area radio journalist, Sawicki used to visit Oswiecim as a boy on holidays to stay with his grandparents and play with his cousins, who had moved to the town shortly after World War II.

When he was 10, Sawicki learned that Auschwitz was an epicenter of the Nazi genocide against the Jews — he gleaned the details from a book about the camp that he found in his grandparents’ home.

“Most people visiting Oswiecim, especially from outside of Poland, are shocked to discover there’s a town next to the former German Nazi camp, the memorial which they come to visit. For me it was somehow the other way around,” Sawicki said.

That realization, he said, sparked an interest that led him here a decade ago as a reporter — and it consumes him to this day.

This initial connection to the history of Auschwitz was the beginning of a “constant presence in my life that kept sending me to look for more information,” said Sawicki, 36, who began working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2007. Sawicki has encyclopedic knowledge about Auschwitz, which he has shared in countless articles, guided tours, and several radio and video documentary productions.

But the advent of social media has highlighted another role fulfilled by his office: as “a shield protecting the memory of victims” against rampant abuse online, he said.

A case in point was Sawicki’s intervention last month on Twitter when he called out Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative news site Townhall, for writing that Jewish supporters of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz.”

After some deliberation, Sawicki decided to tweet Schlichter’s message on the Auschwitz memorial account, adding: “The tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz and their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

With 40,000 likes and retweets, it became the memorial’s most retweeted message ever, topping the one about Pope Francis’ visit in July and exposing Schlichter to withering criticism.

This reach and intense reaction demonstrate the reasons for Sawicki’s careful consideration on whether to intervene, he said.

“In some cases, such actions risk offering a platform to abuse, thereby amplifying it,” he said. “But exposing and correcting such behavior can have a positive effect that sometimes justifies this risk. But it’s always a fine balance.”

The overwhelming rejection by Twitter users shows that calling Schlichter on his words was the right move, said Sawicki, whose office once was the pharmacy of the SS troops serving in Auschwitz.

But he does not engage Holocaust mockers and deniers as a matter of policy.

Sawicki has also demanded corrections from journalists who apply the word “Polish” to death and concentration camps built by Nazi Germans on Polish soil; doing so is a felony in Poland. And the museum will seek apologies or corrections from those who note that the camps are in Poland without adding that they were built under Nazi occupation.

But much of the online activity of the museum is to highlight positive examples of online engagement with Auschwitz, in Polish, German, English and other languages. There are regular “this day in history” tweets, links to articles and comments from recent visitors (“Where was man?” asks one), and news articles referring to Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration. Earlier this week there were photos of the camp under a blanket of snow with the message: “New year brought snow which changes the landscape of the historical site.”

On the ground, the museum’s task is to safeguard the buildings and environs and to gather, study and publish evidence on German atrocities. But online, “our main goal is to provide education on the scale of the crime and what made it possible,” Sawicki said.

The Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million Jews at Auschwitz as well as 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, 25,000 Roma, and some 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

“Our social media policy is an extension of our guidelines as an institution, but it is developing week by week because we’ve never had such direct interaction with so many people,” Sawicki said. It’s both a chance to “educate people from all corners of the world, many of whom will never be able to visit the memorial.”

But abuse online is also a growing problem.

Amid a renewed wave of interest in the Holocaust in recent years in films, books and other media, as well as in visits to the museum — it registered a record of more than 2 million entries last year — the “instrumentalization,” trivialization and denial of the Holocaust has been growing as well, Sawicki said.

“It’s a daily, fast-changing challenge,” he said.

At the museum, Sawicki navigates the institution’s 470 acres with certainty, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of almost all aspects of life — and death — here. Unlike some visiting guides who resort to pathos or sanctimony, Sawicki, wearing a colorful scarf that his mother-in-law made for him, shares in an informal but precise manner illustrative facts and anecdotes that he has spent a decade collecting.

At the Death Wall, an execution site that is located in the yard adjacent to Block 11 in Auschwitz I, Sawicki dryly explains to a group of journalists that around the wall there was sand mixed with sawdust designed to drain blood.

“Some testimonies mentioned that an adult male bleeds about two liters [67 ounces] when shot, so on days with dozens of executions this place was quite literally soaked in blood,” he said.

Sawicki once interviewed a survivor who recalled laughing at the sight of a fellow prisoner wrestling free from under cadavers that had collapsed on him from a cart. SS guards also laughed. Such testimony illustrated to Sawicki the complexities of surviving at Auschwitz, “but also the amazing human personal strength” doing so required, he said.

While most of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Oswiecim annually likely associate it with death and horror rather than a town with 900 years of history, for Sawicki it is also the place where he started a family after moving in 2007 with his wife, Agnieszka, whom he married while living here. His son, Wojtech, attends kindergarten near here.

For Sawicki, the town’s dark history is no impediment to loving it.

“It has always been a second home to me, and now it is even more so,” said Sawicki, who grew up in the quiet Warsaw suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. “We have to accept these aspects of history in Poland and strive to make a better future.”

Agnieszka, however, has had a tougher time acclimating “because she’s a real city person, a Warsaw girl who needed some time to get used to the different pace,” Sawicki said.

The couple have told their son neither about the Holocaust nor about his father’s workplace except to say that it’s a museum.

“We don’t want to introduce it before he’s ready to take it in,” Sawicki said. “So we’re kind of waiting for him to ask the questions.”

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Croatian president poses with pro-Nazi regime symbol

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic photographed with coat-of-arms of Ustasha, which persecuted and killed vast numbers of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists

15110261_10209507936608588_4074372119233309036_o-e1480201423583-635x357ZAGREB — Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic sparked online debate Saturday as it emerged she posed for a photo during her recent Canada trip with a flag carrying a symbol of her country’s wartime pro-Nazi regime.

Her office shrugged off the incident, insisting there was “nothing questionable” about it.

The photo, posted on Facebook by a Croatian man living in Canada, shows Grabar-Kitarovic posing with him and others in front of a flag bearing the coat of arms used by Croatia’s World War II-era Ustasha regime, which persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists.

The checkerboard-patterned shield in the middle of Croatia’s current national flag has 25 red and white squares, starting with a red one in the top-left corner.

A different version with a white square in that corner has been used at other points in Croatia’s history — notably by the Ustasha. It was replaced by the current shield after World War II when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia.

Both versions were briefly in use in 1990 ahead of Croatia’s declaration of independence, but under a December 1990 law the national flag bears the red-first version of the shield.

The presidency batted off the row over the photo of Grabar-Kitarovic, telling N1 television, “We see nothing questionable in it.” It noted that such a flag was displayed in front of the Croatian parliament in 1990.

The president’s view on the wartime regime is “clear and she voiced it on several occasions,” it added. Grabar-Kitarovic has condemned the Ustasha in the past.

The row sparked mixed responses online.

“This issue involving our president is more than shameful,” Visnja Skreblin, a woman from Zagreb, commented on online portal Index.

But reader Mario Babic defended the president, saying it was “Croatia’s historic shield, created far before the darkest chapter of Croatia’s history.”

Grabar-Kitarovic took over the presidency — a role with limited powers — in 2015 as the candidate of the ruling conservative HDZ party.

The previous HDZ-led government, which fell in June, was accused by critics of turning a blind eye to a far-right surge in the country, including nostalgia for the pro-Nazi past.

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Holocaust hero or villain who collaborated with Nazis?

Paul Bogdanor digs deep into the contentious legacy of Rudolf Kasztner, and his attempts to save Jews from the Holocaust.

showimage-1Paul Bogdanor has penned a well-researched book on the contentious Kasztner affair – a controversy that commenced in wartime Hungary and has continued until the present day.

In the summer of 1944, a minor Jewish figure, Rudolf Kasztner, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in the hope of saving hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews as the Third Reich was rapidly shrinking.

While he was doing so, 437,402 Jews from rural provinces were deported to Auschwitz over an eight-week period.

The affair was characterized as the “goods for blood” proposition, an exchange of trucks for Jews, the “freedom” train to Switzerland carrying 1,684 selected Jews, and Kasztner’s refusal to warn Hungarian Jewry of their impending doom.

The incident is one mired in the megaphone war between the Zionist Right and the Zionist Left. Despite a Supreme Court ruling which overturned most of the accusations of collaboration during the Kasztner trial, a 1955 election poster for Menachem Begin’s party read: “Kasztner votes for Mapai, you vote for Herut.”

Moreover, his prime accuser, Malkiel Gruenwald, had a long criminal career back in Hungary and was reputedly a police informer in Israel.

In 1957, Kasztner was murdered by a far-right group, Malchut Yisrael, becoming in death either a martyr who did not deserve his fate, or a villain who got his just deserts.

In Kasztner’s Crime, Bogdanor has assiduously attempted to dispel the fog of these distractions and to analyze Kasztner’s actions in 1944. He develops the arguments put forward by Ben Hecht and Uri Avnery decades ago, presenting not only evidence, but also presumption and interpretation. It is a convincing case and he demands a guilty verdict.

The Nazis wanted to avoid – at all cost – another Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but were ideologically committed to the extermination of all Jews. Bogdanor argues that the tortuous negotiations with the Jews were designed to dangle the hope of rescue and to drag them out for an eternity while the deportations continued apace. It served the Nazi desire for a total absence of resistance.

When Eichmann arrived in Hungary in the spring of 1944, he was accompanied by 150 to 200 staff who were expected to deport 750,000 people. The Hungarian Interior Ministry offered 20,000 gendarmes to support Eichmann in the belief that the Jews were merely being sent to “work” camps.

In this lethal card game, the Nazis held the aces while the Jews looked for any scintilla of salvation. Kasztner promised to pay the Nazis $200,000 per month in the hope of postponing the deportations and prolonging the negotiations as the end of the war approached. Based on examples from Slovakia, the possibility of bribery from funds raised by free Jewry was considered. Everything came to naught, and such proposals were buried in the cemetery of wishful thinking – a cemetery guarded by Eichmann’s SS.

Kasztner appears to have become entrapped in a delusion of self-importance and a belief that eventually his many compromises would pay off. He even wrote that the deported Jews were alive in ‘Waldsee’ – a Nazi euphemism for the reality of Auschwitz.

Kasztner had met Oscar Schindler in November 1943, and was well aware of the extermination of European Jewry in the camps to the East. Yet he did not warn the Jews of Cluj, his home town, and other nearby locations, to escape across the nearby Romanian border. Did he wish to avert widespread panic – which would serve German aims? Did he refuse to call for an armed revolt because so few arms had been secured from Tito’s partisans? Did he believe that the few had to be sacrificed so that the many should live? The mother of Hannah Szenes did not entertain such ideas during the trial, and accused Kasztner of betraying her daughter and sending her to her death. Yet the Hungarian Service of the BBC was broadcasting dire warnings of what was happening.

Did this fall on deaf ears? Did no one spread such information in Hungary? Bogdanor demonstrates that Kasztner’s story after 1945 constantly changed, peppered by omissions and contradictions.

The author argues that Kasztner testified on behalf of Nazis whom he had worked with, in order to construct a common protective alibi during a time when survivors were looking for retribution. Utilizing new evidence, Bogdanor is critical of eminent historians such as Yehuda Bauer for their interpretation of the Kasztner affair.

David Ben-Gurion commented in 1955 that the final verdict in this saga should be left to future generations. Bogdanor believes that time has now arrived, and he has written a highly detailed work. Yet at the back of the reader’s mind, there will still lurk the question of what he or she would have done in Kasztner’s position. A course of action which resides in the grayness of immoral choice – the difference between bad and worse. Bogdanor’s book provides uncomfortable food for thought in this personal arena as well.

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Himmler diaries reveal chilling details of Nazi wartime life

Journals illustrate how the SS chief kept tabs on even the banal minutiae of his daily routine, even as he oversaw the systematic slaughter of European Jewry

himmler-desk-afp-635x357BERLIN, Germany — Wartime diaries kept by top Nazi henchman Heinrich Himmler, serialized this week in Germany’s daily Bild, offer chilling insights into the life of one of the principal architects of the Holocaust.

Himmler, the head of the Nazi paramilitary SS, kept tabs on even the banal minutiae of his daily comings and goings, even as he oversaw the systematic slaughter of six million European Jews.

The journals, unearthed in Russia in 2013 and currently being studied at the German Historical Institute in Moscow, reveal a confidant of Adolf Hitler as a micromanager marked by deep contradictions.

They also “help to better make sense of key events and understand who took part in decision making for the regime,” researcher Matthias Uhl of the German Historical Institute told AFP.

“Now we can say exactly whom Himmler met each day, where he was, and who his closest advisers were.”

The documents, found in the archives of the Russia defense ministry, cover the years 1938, 1943 and 1944. The German institute plans to published an annotated version by 2018.

The journals for 1941 and 1942 were already discovered in 1991 in Russia, which holds 2.5 million documents from the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era German military.

The image that emerges is of a caring family man who nevertheless kept mistresses and had secret children as part of one illicit love affair.

Himmler is shown to be a passionate stargazer and avid card player even as he ordered massacres and oversaw the death camps.

“The man who planned the Holocaust was obsessive about organizing his personal life,” Bild said.

“Between [poison] gas, execution orders and thousands of rendezvous, he took care of his family, his mistress and his hobbies.”

On January 3, 1943, for example, Himmler received one of many “therapeutic massages” from his doctor, took part in meetings, called his wife and daughter and then ordered, after midnight, the killing of several Polish families.

According to Bild, Himmler was an ambitious careerist who met with more than 1,600 people between 1943 and his suicide in British custody in May 1945.

“The number of contacts, as well as attempts by Himmler to gain influence through the SS on important institutions of the party, state and army, are impressive,” Uhl said.

“He tried, during the course of the war, to consolidate his power.”

Himmler’s secretaries, one of whom, Hedwig Potthast, bore him two children, noted down regular inspection tours to the concentration camps including Sachsenhausen, with Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, on March 10, 1938, and the Sobibor extermination camp on February 12, 1943.

“Himmler wanted to have a demonstration of the ‘effectiveness’ of killing by gas,” Bild said.

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