By: Machla Abramovitz
Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past. Lately, a new wrinkle has emerged in the fabric: children of Nazi perpetrators, pained by their parents’ crimes, have begun working hand in hand with children of Holocaust victims and survivors to achieve a measure of justice as the candle of the Holocaust flickers low
In 2003, when Hans-Jurgen Brennecke was 57 years old, he discovered a cache of letters that shocked him to the core.
In those faded lines, there were indications that his father Hans, a Hamburg policeman, was not as innocent of war crimes as he had once thought. “What I was told was that my father was responsible for helping Germans build air raid shelters,” he says. That, though, was only partially true. The letters revealed that his father was a member of extreme right-wing groups and, by all indications, contributed heavily to the Nazi war effort. While he was not murdering innocents in the East, in his letters he admits to interrogating prisoners and learning how to use a machine gun — a skill that directly connected him to the SS. There was no question where his sympathies lay. “Tonight I heard their stories [soldiers who returned from the East]. They were great,” he wrote.
Brennecke will never know the ultimate extent of his father’s culpability: Those dark secrets died with his mother. And in not knowing he joins rank with the majority of children of perpetrators who discover the truth only after their parents are gone. But, unlike some, Brennecke refused to mitigate his father’s crimes. Instead, he began to research the role of the Hamburg police during the war to confront the sorry reality head-on. He came to understand that Nazism represented a worldview that was integral to his father’s very identity — and one that he never completely shed. This helped Hans-Jurgen understand why his father took his own life when his son was just eight years old. Shortly before his suicide, the elder Brennecke wrote: “The national man is no longer required.”
“Knowing this part of him saddens and angers me,” says Brennecke, a social worker in Lüneburg, near Hamburg in northern Germany. “What a waste of a very brilliant man. In every other way, he was a kind, intelligent, gifted person who wasted his life by dedicating it to absolute evil.” A contradiction? Not really. “People like my father saw the world in black and white terms. Germans were white, while Jews and everyone else were black, so they had to be annihilated. They saw themselves as crusaders out to save the world. Even today, there are others, not just in Germany, who say that Mr. Hitler was right.”
That cache of letters altered the trajectory of Brennecke’s life. He began connecting with other children of perpetrators through organizations like the History Workshop, a collective that facilitates the writing of local histories. “I wanted to understand those times and to work with people from other countries who also wanted to understand them, in order to help determine how we, as a society, should be dealing with this knowledge today. We must always remember what happened, so that we can learn.”
Reparations have been paid, speeches of “never again” have been delivered, pledges of friendship have been deposited. Yet, Brennecke and other children of former Nazis attest, something is amiss in German society. For all the chest-thumping and government-mandated classes on the Holocaust, for all the memorials that dot the modern German state, the fact remains that thousands of Nazi war criminals lived out their days in total peace never having to answer for their crimes. Brennecke and others like him, though, are making a valiant effort to keep Germany’s war conduct fresh by digging deep into Germany’s past and exposing inconvenient truths. They have become the unlikeliest of crusaders, the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators, working arm in arm with the sons and daughters of their Jewish victims, as the candle flickers low on the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.
Nobody Talked About It For most second-generation Germans, the truth about the Nazi era was long in coming. During the first two decades following the war, Germany’s war activities were shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Until he was 15 years old, Brennecke didn’t even know that Germany had been to war. “Nobody talked about it. Not in school. Not at home. Not the children. Not the neighbors. Nobody.” The issue of the Jews also never came up; still, an atmosphere lingered in the homes, in the schools and in communities that Jews were unique — a terrible people. “We didn’t know who the Jews were, as nobody gave us precise information.”
The Nazi war crimes trials that took place in Germany in the 1960s shattered Germans’ innocence. It was then that Brennecke and his friends began publicly confronting perpetrators who hid behind their ill-gained respectability and who refused, even then, to admit to any wrongdoing — either because they didn’t think they were guilty, or because they simply couldn’t deal with the psychological consequences. As the years advanced, more information became available.
Today, wandering through Lüneburg’s cobblestoned streets, one can’t help but notice tiny brass memorials engraved with the names of victims of the Holocaust, their deportation dates set into pavement stones outside their last known place of residence or workplace. (About 20 years ago, over 48,000 of these “stumbling stones” were shaped by Cologne artist Gunter Demnig and distributed across Europe.) About six years ago, the History Workshop began researching Lüneburg victims, fleshing out their personal stories and collecting them into books.
Brennecke and about 30 other children of Nazi perpetrators make up the local chapter. In fact, Lüneburg is but a microcosm of what is taking place throughout Germany, where thousands of volunteers work diligently to uncover the details of Nazi war crimes.
For example, because copies of letters sent by the Gestapo in Lüneburg were destroyed at the war’s end, volunteers tracked down the originals in archives located across Germany. The end result was an 80-page booklet naming the perpetrators and their victims. Other projects take volunteers, traveling at their own expense, to far-off archives such as those found in England. In these ways, these stalwart and determined scholars fill in the missing dots of their country’s dark history.
Margaret McQuillan, a former Connecticut school principal, can attest to the degree of detail uncovered by amateur history sleuths like Brennecke. When her booklet and study guide An Orange in Winter (based on her father Walter Less’s life in Lüneburg just prior to the onset of the war) came to the History Workshop’s attention, they invited her to Lüneburg to discuss its publication. She was amazed at the amount of personal information they were able to add. “[The History Workshop] even had a photograph of a coat hanger from my grandfather’s store as well as his report card.”
Not only could members of the workshop name the people whose stories she highlights in her book, they introduced her to others who personally knew her family and who shared significant anecdotes of their own. One was a classmate who related how the young Walter refused to give the Nazi salute after his brother was prohibited from practicing law and how he was expelled from school for taking that principled stand. “What a moment of extraordinary courage on my father’s part. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been able to discover so much about who he and my grandparents were.” During Margaret’s last visit, the History Workshop planted a tree in her family’s honor near where the sole synagogue once stood.
Antje Caic, a Lüneburg resident who’s been involved with the History Project for two years, worked with Brenneke on the layout and translation of Margaret’s book, which today is being used as a primer in elementary schools in Lüneburg. Besides publishing a book on Jewish life in prewar Germany from the Middle Ages until 1939, Caic routinely conducts walking tours of Jewish life in her city. Caic feels especially close to Jews and Judaism, she says, and respects Judaism’s emphasis on personal responsibility. During last year’s Gaza war, she and her friends — unlike many Germans — defended Israel’s actions.
For Caic, her research into the Jewish past is also personal. Her father, Karl-Ludwig Kröger, was five years old when he witnessed events that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The Kröger family lived in the town of Neustadt on the Baltic Sea. (Caic’s grandfather, Karl Julius, was injured in Russia while fighting for the Nazis.) Her father was playing by the bridge one day when he saw masses of people wearing “pajamas” being herded onto a German luxury steamer. His child’s mind couldn’t grasp why people would possibly be wearing pajamas in public. More disturbing, he watched “an old lady” being beaten to death and buried in a neighbor’s garden and later reburied in a graveyard. This was but a prelude of the horrors to come. Caic’s father, in fact, was witness to one of the Holocaust’s most tragic events. These Jewish prisoners — about 4,500 in all — had been force-marched from the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg and then herded into the waiting Cap Arcona in Neustadt Bay, which was to be used as a floating prison vessel. Later, more prisoners from other camps were similarly herded into this ship, and others, that were docked at the port. On May 3, 1945, just four days before Germany surrendered; the steamers were bombed by pilots from the British Royal Air Force, unaware that they were carrying innocent Jewish prisoners. In all, over 10,000 prisoners died.
The Krögers’ living room was turned into a makeshift hospital, where Jewish survivors were packed “like sardines” on the floor for two weeks before being airlifted to proper hospitals.
“When I was growing up, the events surrounding May 3 were constantly discussed in our home. Even now that he’s 75 years old, my father has major problems with anyone wearing a uniform,” Caic says. “He is extremely angry at what happened to the Jews.
How does her family feel about her efforts to commemorate the history of Germany’s Jews? “My husband, children, and father are all fully supportive. My sister, though, thinks we have our own problems and that we shouldn’t talk about this anymore. That it’s time to forget.” This dichotomy of opinion, she finds, reflects German society’s attitude toward the Holocaust and Jews in general.
Facing the Past According to Dr. Oliver von Wrochem, head of the Center for Historical Studies at the Concentration Camp Memorial at nearby Neuengamme, Germany today is confronting its Nazi past on a societal level to a greater degree than ever before. But conflicts within families of the descendants of perpetrators, for the large part, remain unresolved.
“There are few families who are willing to deal with the history of their own deeds within their own families,” he says, “let alone share this knowledge with outsiders.”
In July 2009, the Memorial established support groups and seminars for descendants of Nazi perpetrators to help them better understand what might have driven their parents and grandparents to commit their crimes. What children of perpetrators inevitably discover is that their experiences are not uniquely their own.
Many are angry and hurt. Many speak of parents who were cold and aloof and subjects that were constantly avoided. They feel lied to. They also cannot understand why their parents or grandparents never expressed remorse or regret for what they did. And even though they intellectually understand that they are not responsible for their parents’ actions, they still transfer this guilt onto themselves. Many harbor an inner fear that they’ve inherited a fatal character flaw; they often refer to the emotional baggage that they carry as “my inheritance.”
For some, confronting these truths leads to a sense of relief, but for others it results in carrying an even heavier emotional burden. Interestingly, it is often contact with descendants of Holocaust survivors that helps them work through their anger and pain.
Children of perpetrators, von Wrochem says, often express a desire to engage with descendants of victims of Nazi persecution to convey regret on their parents’ behalf. “What they tell me is that for them, this history is not over. That it is very much alive within the families of perpetrators who are still struggling with the fact that their families, whether directly or indirectly, participated in mass crimes.”
A Long Time Coming Baruch Emanuel took in the dense, lush greenery of the Lüneburg Tiergarten forest, a towering canopy of pine and spruce that belies a darker reality. Gazing down, he noted the simple stone marker acknowledging a horrible truth: Beneath these tangled grounds rest the anonymous remains of men and women for whom death struck all too soon and all too brutally.
Nearly 70 years after the war, Baruch was present to lay a second, equally simple marker that would dispel the anonymity of the dead. Scanning the plaque, he saw 12 engraved Jewish names, but his eyes rested on one in particular — that of his mother Marthe (Chana) Emanuel-Goldsmith. On this day, the day of her yahrtzeit, he finally had a grave at which to cry.
Finding the grave had not been easy. Working closely with Manfred Messer, head of research at the Tiergarten burial site, along with Hans-Jurgen Brennecke, it had taken the Emanuel family over a year of painstaking archival work to determine if Marthe had been buried at all His mother, together with three of her eight children, had been one of 2,500 Jews to board a train from Bergen-Belsen headed for Theresienstadt in April 1945. With an Allied victory assured, Nazi instructions were to clear the camps of all evidence of war crimes. This meant destroying records and killing prisoners; or transferring them out of the camps either via “death marches” or trains. This particular transport would come to be known as “The Lost Train” because Allied bombers prevented its arrival at the concentration camp. It would travel for two weeks before finally ending up in Tröbitz, a small town northwest of Dresden.
But ten days before — on Saturday, April 14, 1945 — the train filled with emaciated Holocaust victims stopped in the vicinity of Lüneburg. During the 22-hour stopover, Marthe’s body and those of 11 other Jews were left by the tracks. The fate of those bodies would remain unknown for 60-plus years.
Messer had turned to Brennecke for help in identifying the gravesite. Scrambling through dense underbrush, History Workshop volunteers pointed out all relevant locations to the Emanuel family, who in turn asked myriad questions. In this way a more complete picture of what happened to Marthe, from the moment she embarked on her final journey up until her final burial, began to emerge. “Our information came from documents; their information came from experience. It was very moving,” Brennecke says.
The ceremony was as solemn as it was revealing, attended by Lüneburg’s mayor Eduard Kolle, Manfred Messer, Hamburg Chief Rabbi Dov-Levy Barsilay, a slew of German journalists, and a small group of elementary school children. They watched as Marthe’s son Baruch and his wife Shifra, her grandchildren and their spouses lit yahrtzeit [memorial] candles, said Kaddish, recited Tehillim, and sprinkled earth gathered from around the Kosel [Wailing Wall] onto this hallowed ground. They also heard Manfred Messer acknowledge, with deep shame, the evils perpetrated by the Nazi government against Jews, actions carried out in the name of all Germans.
Despite his personal commitment to making sure that the horrors of the past are not repeated, Hans-Jurgen and others like him remain cognizant of the heritage they carry. That’s why he was deeply moved when he met the Emanuel family. “You never know how people will behave when they find out that you’re German. The Emanuels, though, were so warm and so kind. Despite the evils that were perpetrated against their mother and them, they were not angry or aggressive toward us. ‘You are not guilty,’ they told us. ‘Your fathers and mothers are guilty, but not you.’ ”
Taking Action Today, the German government is allocating considerable funds into researching the past, activities that include investigating its own ministries and secret services. Coincidentally, the legal time limit on confidential materials expired in 2015, which allowed for greater access to primary sources. Original documents confiscated by the Soviets and the US are now equally available.
The Oskar Groening trial that took place in Lüneburg from April to July of this year is a prime example of this seismic shift in attitude. The conviction of the 94-year-old “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” who was sentenced to four years in prison, also speaks to the profound changes that have taken place throughout Germany. “Groening could have been tried 40 years ago. We had the same laws then. But then nobody wanted to touch it.”
One of the ways Brennecke keeps the memory of the Holocaust front and center is by holding institutions accountable. He recently pressured the Museum Lüneburg to abide by Germany’s international commitments to return stolen Jewish assets to their owners. Items not claimed by owners had been placed in museums for safekeeping. When the museum publicly insisted that it housed none of these, Brennecke found a document in the Hannover archives at the Ministry of Finance that blatantly contradicted that assertion. It took a year, but the museum finally hired a historian whose job it was to reunite stolen Jewish objects with their rightful owners. In July, 40 members of the Heinemann family came to Lüneburg from around the world to retrieve their ancestors’ personal belongings, long held by the museum.
Brennecke is similarly pressuring the Lüneburg Chamber of Commerce to publicly acknowledge its complicity in having forced Lüneburg’s Jewish community to demolish its synagogue, a valuable historic property, in order to confiscate the land. “The Chamber of Commerce should contribute its own funds toward the erection of a memorial planned by the city at the site of the synagogue. They are morally obligated to do so.”
But, above all, he says, Germany must continue prosecuting Nazis. He is now helping to put together a case against the 93-year-old Hilde Michnia, an alleged SS guard at both Gross-Rosen and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps who also allegedly participated on a forced death march during which about 1,400 women died. Her story was highlighted in the Irish film Close to Evil that documents BergenBelsen survivor Tomi Reichental’s attempts to meet Mrs. Michnia. German prosecutors have just initiated preliminary proceedings against Michnia after Brennecke filed a complaint. As in the Groening trial, prosecutors are seeking co-plaintiffs prepared to testify against her. (See sidebar.)
“Even though I know I’m not responsible for my father’s crimes,” Brennecke says, “I feel personally responsible for what we do with the information that we uncover. We must not only make certain that Nazis pay for their crimes, even at this late date, but we must fight the neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers who are out there today. In every country there are those who still believe that Nazism was good. We must tell them openly that they are wrong. That is our duty.” —
Survived by Her Wits
One of the History Workshop’s greatest resources, Brennecke says, is 98-year-old Sonja Barthel, a Jewish woman whose immediate family remained in Germany or in German employ throughout the war years, all of whom miraculously survived. A charming lady with a sharp sense of humor, she speaks to students about her life in Germany during “Nazi times.” She relates an amazing story.
“I was 22 years old when the war started. My mother was Jewish, but my father was Protestant. My father’s work moved us from Berlin to Auerbach, Germany, where nobody knew about our Jewish connection. Being blonde and blue-eyed, I didn’t arouse any suspicions.
“My lack of fear speaks to my naïveté. I later found a job in Brussels working as an interpreter to a German firm. When the Nazis found out that my relatives were Jewish, my boss, Dr. von Schelling, offered to protect me. My brother Witold (Meyer), who had been recruited into the German army and who also worked as an interpreter, was similarly protected by his senior officers. My sister Helga wasn’t as fortunate. For helping a Jewish family hide out in her flat, she was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, a labor camp for women. [Unlike Auschwitz, it was not a death camp, although over 40,000 prisoners died there from overwork and malnutrition.] She later told me that she survived by her wits. I was so innocent that I asked an SS officer if I could visit my sister in Ravensbruck. When he told me I could go, but would not come back, I simply didn’t go. My maternal grandmother, Rosa Hepner, died in Theresienstadt. I can’t speak to whether Germans knew about the camps or not. There was no one with whom I could speak freely about such things. After the war, we all just wanted to get on with our lives.”
Seeking Co-Plaintiffs to testify against Hilde Michnia
Hilde Michnia was a member of the SS in Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp between 1943 and January 1945. Her job was to guard female prisoners.
Starting on January 29, 1945, she accompanied a death march from Gruenberg, a subcamp of concentration camp Gross-Rosen. Hamburg’s prosecutor, which initiated preliminary proceedings against her in January 2015, is investigating the exact details of her duties during the death march.
Co-plaintiffs can include parents, siblings, children, and spouses of victims who were murdered while Michnia was on duty in Gruenberg and on the death march. Co-plaintiffs can file motions, question witnesses, and give statements. They are not required to attend the trial in person and they are not obliged to give testimony. Thomas Walther and Cornelius Nestler, who represented co-plaintiffs at the Oskar Groening trial, are the court-assigned counsels in the Michnia case. They will require a power of attorney to represent each co-plaintiff. Once the court admits these powers of attorney, Walther and Nestler will visit their clients in order to hear their stories and those of their murdered relatives. Co-plaintiffs will not pay any fees or incur expenses. To contact the attorneys, please call Thomas Walther at 0831-960 887 or e-mail t.walther@ dorn-rae.de