‘Labyrinth of Lies’: One man’s hunt for forgotten Nazis

When the film “Labyrinth of Lies” opens, the year is 1958, Germany is rising from the ruins of the Nazi Reich, and its people are largely in a state of forgetfulness and denial about the recent past.

Millions of Jews exterminated in SS concentration camps? That’s Greuelpropaganda (horror propaganda) spread by the enemy.

Auschwitz? What’s that? Haven’t heard of it.

What about the Nuremberg trials of war criminals? Well, that’s just the winners judging the losers, as after every war.

Into this “Labyrinth of Silence”  — the original and superior title of the German film, which is based on a true story and was recently named Germany’s entry for next year’s Oscars — steps the young German lawyer Johann Radmann, who has just been hired as a junior prosecutor by the attorney general for Hesse, a state in the center of Germany.

Quickly tiring of dealing with traffic offenses, Radmann perks up when an investigative journalist tells him that a former SS concentration camp guard now works as a gym teacher in a local high school.

Such an appointment is against the law, but nobody wants to bother checking out the case. Radmann’s immediate superior, Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer, shrugs and wearily explains that the statute of limitations prevents prosecution of anyone except those personally convicted of actual murder during the Hitler era.

As a Jew and a socialist, Bauer spent some months in a concentration camp when the Nazis came to power, then went abroad and returned after the war.

He tells his naïve young colleague that the entire German civil service is permeated with former ardent Nazis, but that it’s an impossible job to bring them to justice.

However, Radmann won’t give up. He meets a Jewish survivor, whose twin daughters died during one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments, and who possesses an official list with the names of all of the SS guards who served in Auschwitz.

The survivor, though, doesn’t want to reopen old wounds by testifying. Radmann visits the U.S. Army Documentation Center in Wiesbaden, where the American major in charge points to a jumble of files on 600,000 Nazi suspects, including 8,000 who worked in Auschwitz, and invites the visitor to go through them. Besides, the American says, facing the new Soviet threat is more important than going after ex-Nazis.

Radmann appeals to his boss to provide some manpower for the enormous investigative undertaking, but finds little sympathy. He is told that every suspect insists he had no choice but to follow orders, and, in any case, does Radmann want every young man in Germany to wonder whether his father was a murderer?

The pressure keeps mounting on Radmann. His attempt, made against orders, to catch Mengele when he sneaks into Germany to attend his father’s funeral misfires. To his horror, the young prosecutor finds out that his own beloved father was also a member of the Nazi Party.

Radmann starts drinking and slowly falls apart. He takes to accosting pedestrians on the street, demanding to know whether they had been Nazis.

In the end, though, he buckles down and, after five years of preparation, the trial of 22 SS officers who helped run Auschwitz starts in Frankfurt in late 1963. Two years later, after 183 court sessions, German judges sentence six of the accused to life in prison; 13 to sentences of three to 14 years; and acquit three.

There is a short scene in the movie in which a Mossad agent, pretending to be a Jerusalem Post reporter, meets with Bauer and Radmann to learn what German authorities know about Adolf Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina.

According to Giulio Ricciarelli, 50, the movie’s director and co-writer, Bauer knew exactly where Eichmann was hiding, and passing on this information to Israel made the capture of the war criminal possible. Bauer wanted the Eichmann trial to be held in Germany rather than in Israel, but German authorities declined, Ricciarelli, who was born in Germany, said.

He believes that the Auschwitz trial was the initial catalyst in forcing the German people to confront their past, but it took, curiously enough, the visual and dramatic impact of movies and television to bring home to most Germans the full extent of the Holocaust.

For instance, according to German surveys, while 40 percent of Germans followed the Auschwitz trial, a full 95 percent were glued to their TV sets during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

In 1978, the NBC miniseries “Holocaust” was a must-see in Germany and throughout Europe, while in 1993 “Schindler’s List” powerfully impressed a rising new generation of Germans.

In “Labyrinth of Lies,” the role of prosecuting attorney Johann Radmann is played by popular German actor Alexander Fehling, best known in the United States as the Wehrmacht soldier Sgt. Wilhelm in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

“Radmann is a composite figure of three young prosecutors in the actual trial,” Ricciarelli said in a phone interview.

The only historical figure whose real name and persona are retained in the film is Fritz Bauer, whose strong yet tortured personality is skillfully presented by Gert Voss, one of Germany’s leading classical actors, who died shortly after the film wrapped.

Ricciarelli said he saw photos of the Holocaust when he was 8, and “was destroyed. I still cannot understand how ‘normal people,’ who prided themselves in living in ‘the land of poets and thinkers,’ could do such things.”

The SS men of Auschwitz were brought to trial mainly through tedious paperwork, an activity hard to dramatize on film, so Ricciarelli somewhat lightens the mood by introducing a love story between Radmann and a fetching young woman.

Although he skirts dangerously close to hokeyness in one or two scenes, the director shows considerable sensitivity in portraying the victims of the Holocaust.

“Labyrinth of Lies” opens Sept. 30 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

When a Dutch Jewish woman taught SS officers how to dance

Even before Nazi racial laws turned her into a wanted person in her native Netherlands, Roosje Glaser had limited patience for rules.

A lighthearted and sometimes frivolous Jewish dance instructor who loved jazz music and the company of handsome men, Glaser ignored the 1940 Nazi takeover of Holland and the murderous anti-Semitism it brought. When she couldn’t ignore it, she mocked it.

An amateur photographer whose Aryan looks allowed her greater mobility than other Jews, Glaser not only flouted Nazi laws that forced Jews to wear yellow patches, but used to pose for photographs with unsuspecting German occupation soldiers next to cafe signs that read “no Jews allowed.”

Her flamboyant defiance eventually got Glaser sent to Auschwitz. But at the death camp, that same trait helped her survive as a dance instructor to the SS until she staged a clever escape. The remarkable life story of Roosje Glaser, who died in 2000, was only recently documented in a new biography about her written and published in Britain this year by her Dutch nephew.

“On the one hand, it seems that at times she didn’t understand the severity of her situation,” said Paul Glaser, the son of Roosje Glaser’s brother and author of “Dancing with the Enemy.” “On the other hand, she survived by seizing a series of opportunities that show she knew what she was doing.”

Roosje Glaser’s first act of defiance was to remove the letter J from her passport, which authorities stamped on the documents of Jews after the Nazi takeover, Paul Glaser said at a lecture he delivered about the biography at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference in Moscow earlier this year.

In violation of Nazi racial laws, Roosje Glaser continued to run her successful dance school. She even made it into the cinema reel in 1941, as part of a Nazi-era item that was meant to show that Amsterdam’s cultural scene was unhampered by the occupation. But her jealous ex-husband, who had turned into an ardent Nazi, informed the Nazis of her Jewish roots.

Summoned and marked by authorities, Glaser was unable to find a venue for the graduation ball of her dance class of 1942. So she had the graduation in a barn in the countryside. Pictures of her dancing with her students are the last taken of her as a free person before she was sent to Auschwitz.

Ignoring the summons, she stole another woman’s passport and moved to a different city, living under a false identity in a boarding house run by a German woman who was married to a Dutch Nazi. Then a former lover betrayed her to the authorities — this time for payment — and she was deported to Poland.

As a fluent speaker of German and accomplished administrator, Glaser landed a position as an assistant to a German officer at Auschwitz. But before she did, she underwent medical experiments that rendered her unable to bear children.

“She had charm and she spoke to the Germans like she was one of them, like a classmate. She lacked that victim mentality,” said Paul Glaser, who interviewed his aunt for the book close to her death and has spent the past 15 years gathering additional materials about her extraordinary life story.

Using what he called “natural charm,” Roosje Glaser began giving her German bosses dance lessons after hours, sometimes together with their girlfriends or the dreaded Aufsehrinnen – female guards. “By night she was giving dancing lessons to people whose day job it was to kill her and her people,” Glaser said.

In 1944, Roosje Glaser heard that the Swedish Red Cross was working out a deal to exchange Danish nationals at Auschwitz for three German prisoners of war captured by the allied forces. “So of course Roosje pretended to be Danish” to camp officials who didn’t know her to get on the list, Paul Glaser said.

At the refugee camp in Sweden, where she ended up after the exchange, Roosje Glaser began giving dancing lessons to other displaced persons like herself.

Feeling betrayed by the Dutch nation, she settled in Sweden until her death. She ignored Dutch officials’ requests that she report for inclusion in the post-war census and be repatriated to the Netherlands. Glaser fought to stay in Sweden, where she lived to her dying day.

Glaser’s brother, Paul Glaser’s father, who survived the Holocaust in hiding, never told his family about Roosje Glaser or about his Jewish roots. It was through a chance encounter with a person who turned out to be his second cousin that Paul Glaser learned the truth about his family and of his aunt’s existence.

“When I confronted my father about it, he admitted but asked me not to tell anyone about this story because sooner or later, he said, it would be used against all of us,” Glaser recalled.

It was a common reaction in a country where Nazis and their local collaborators killed 75 percent of the pre-Holocaust Jewish population of 140,000 – the highest death rate in occupied Western Europe.

Roosje Glaser and her brother had a tense relationship. Though they met a few times after the Holocaust, they fought each time. Her brother blamed her for the capture of their mother because of her flamboyant life style, which he thought drew attention to the rest of the family.

Glaser was at first reluctant to meet Paul Glaser when he tracked her down in Stockholm but eventually told him the whole story and shared a cache of photos from the war period.

“Thanks to her, I now feel Jewish, I took my place in the Jewish family, so to speak,” he said at Limmud FSU. “And though I was raised Christian, I now feel at home with you, or in Israel.”

In their talks, Roosje Glaser mentioned to Paul Glaser that she would like to be cremated and have her ashes scattered into the Northern Sea, which she had a view of from her Stockholm apartment.

After her death, Glaser fulfilled her last wish, even though doing so violated Swedish law on waste disposal.

“Unlike my aunt, I’m a pretty law-abiding guy,” he said. “But breaking the rules one last time with Roosje was too tempting.”

Survivor: Sol Liber

As soon as the train leaving the Warsaw Ghetto made its first stop, the 100 Jews packed into the cattle car with 19-year-old Sol Liber knew they were headed east to the Treblinka death camp. “Half the train was getting crazy,” said Sol, who recalls standing back from the tiny window in his car to let more air reach his older sisters, Tishel and Shayva, who were fainting. 

Hours later, the train pulled into the Treblinka station. “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”) the SS shouted, as dazed passengers exited the cars, lining up outside. “Give up your valuables,” other men ordered, holding an open blanket for the deposits. Amid what seemed to Sol utter chaos, the SS herded about 3,100 Jews toward the gas chambers. 

An SS tapped Sol on the shoulder, motioning for him to sit, cross-legged, with a group of men on nearby cement. From there, Sol watched his sisters walk with their arms around one another, unable to keep a straight line, until they disappeared behind a shrubbery-covered chain-link fence. “Ausziehen, ausziehen” (“Undress, undress”), he heard SS shouting from behind the fence. 

Sol and the remaining 500 men continued to wait while the cattle cars were cleaned. After two hours, Sol noticed everything was quiet. “Nothing. You could only hear the birds in the trees,” he said. It was late April 1943. 

Sol Liber was born on Dec. 3, 1923, in Grójec, Poland, to Sana and Shayndel Liber. He was the fifth of six children, and Sol’s father leased out orchards and sold the fruit in Warsaw. Their observant Orthodox family was poor; they lived in an apartment with just two small bedrooms and a kitchen. 

Sol fondly remembers Shabbat, and his mother lighting candles on Friday night and serving chicken soup and challah. The rest of the week, he said, “people were concentrating on putting food on the table.”

Sol attended a public school strictly for Jewish children, and also went to Hebrew school. At 13, he was apprenticed to a tailor, and he also attended night school for basic military training.

In early September 1939, Sol was standing in the family’s backyard when the Germans bombed the town’s flourmill. He escaped with his family to an orchard.

The next day, Nazi Einsatzgruppe soldiers picked up men ages 15 to 50, including Sol and his father. (Sol’s brothers had already been drafted into the Polish army.) They marched the 200 Jews and Poles from city to city, with little food and under harsh conditions. Finally, after Warsaw capitulated to the Germans, the prisoners were freed. Sol and his father returned home around Sukkot.

In Grójec, Sol was selected for forced labor, including spreading manure and clearing snow off the roads, both with his bare hands. By July 1940, the Germans had established a ghetto, where Sol lived in one room with his family. The was nothing to do, Sol said, except “just go to work and starve to death.” In February 1941 they were all transported in open trucks to the Warsaw ghetto. 

Sol was unable to find work. In the summer he escaped over an 8-foot fence — “[It] was a miracle,” Sol said — and walked to Bialobrzegi, another ghetto.

To survive, Sol sneaked out of the ghetto and begged food from farmers. One day he saw his father, who had also escaped from the Warsaw ghetto with Sol’s mother and younger sister Esther. They were renting a shack from a local Pole. 

In early 1942, Sol found a farmer who let him work in exchange for food. After three months, however, afraid of the consequences of harboring a Jew, the farmer released Sol, but gave him some money and food. 

Sol joined his brother Rafael, who was working on the railroad, but Rafael contracted typhoid fever and died two weeks later. Sol also came down with the disease, but he recovered and went to work in a nearby labor camp that served as an SS farm. Sol’s job was scrubbing four horses, which the Germans inspected with white gloves twice daily. They invariably found dust and beat him, he said, “more than once.”

One morning, when the stable head hit Sol with a rope for half-dozing, Sol grabbed his pitchfork and thrust it in the man’s stomach, killing him. 

Sol ran, and made his way to a farm in Praga, outside Warsaw, where his sisters worked. Then, in the summer of 1942, they were all transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Sol and his sisters stayed together, living on Szczesliwa Street and working in a factory. Sol repaired gunshot holes in soldiers’ uniforms.

Sol soon learned about a resistance organization within the ghetto and was blindfolded and taken to see Mordechai Anielewicz, then second in command of the ZOB or Jewish Combat Organization. He was given a gun and taught to make Molotov cocktails. 

Early on April 19, 1943, the night of first seder, SS entered the ghetto, intending to liquidate it in three days. Instead, the Jews resisted. Sol tossed Molotov cocktails at the soldiers in his area. A few fell, and the rest retreated. Sol escaped to a bunker on his street.

The next day, German tanks entered the ghetto. From a rooftop, Sol hit one with a Molotov cocktail. That night, Sol was ordered to blow up an airplane parts factory on Niska Street. He and four others left the bunker, and to avoid making noise on pavement littered with broken glass, they walked in their stocking feet to the factory, where they broke four windows and threw in cocktails. “The factory went up in flames,” Sol said. 

A few nights later, Sol and a few others took a small group of teenagers to a sewer entrance, to allow the young people to escape. But when they approached the manhole, they smelled gas. Someone had ratted on them, and the Germans opened fire. Sol hit the ground, but a bullet penetrated his shoulder. 

The group made it to the Szczesliwa Street bunker, where about 80 people were hiding. But the SS later opened the trap door and threatened to blow them up. Everyone exited with his hands up. “I thought it was over,” Sol recalled. But the SS instead shot the 13-year-old Jewish boy who had squealed.

The group was marched to the Umschlagplatz, the main train depot, and the next day transported to Treblinka. Sol also knew that his parents and sister Esther had earlier been taken from Bialobrzegi to Treblinka. 

In Treblinka, Sol and the other men had been selected to clean up the Warsaw Ghetto. But when the Germans learned that 500 Greek Jews had already been dispatched, they sent Sol’s group to Majdanek. 

There, in the mornings, Sol moved stones from one side of a field to the other. In the afternoons, he took the stones back. “Majdanek was a torture camp, not a work camp,” he said.

Fearing a particular kapo was going to kill him, Sol traded his bread for another prisoner’s job of “breaking boots” for German soldiers. He walked all day in new boots with no socks as his feet bled.

A friend then found him a job in the horse barracks, putting away prisoners’ straw sleeping sacks.

One Sunday, a drunk SS entered the barracks to break in a new whip — wire covered with leather. Sol was selected and received 25 lashes. He couldn’t sit down for weeks. 

A couple months later, in fall 1943, Sol volunteered to go to an ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna. There he worked hardening steel for machinery, one of the better jobs.

In August 1944, with the Russian front approaching, the prisoners were ordered to pack the machinery on flat cars and depart. 

They came to the Hasag forced labor camp in Czestochowa. There Sol loaded items for the Russian front. Then, in mid-January 1945, as the Russians again advanced — Sol could hear “the terrible whistling noise of the Katyusha rockets” — the SS evacuated the camp, packing the prisoners onto cattle cars.

Sol reached Buchenwald on Jan. 20, 1945. The camp was overcrowded and bitter cold. “People were dying like flies,” Sol said. 

About seven weeks later, Sol, along with 125 or so prisoners, was transported to a labor camp near the Czechoslovakian border. “It was like Siberia,” Sol recalled. “Snow and barracks.” His job was to haul machinery down a small elevator into empty salt mine shafts, a difficult task. 

In mid-May 1945 the prisoners were evacuated and forced to march from sunrise to sunset, sleeping in fields. Sol walked in shoes with no socks and was also forced to carry a rucksack and an unloaded rifle for an SS. After three weeks, on June 6, 1945, they were liberated by the Russians in Annaberg, Germany. Sol was 21.

He eventually joined his brother Yitzhak at the Eggenfelden displaced persons camp in Germany, staying for three years. In June 1949, he sailed to Canada, settling in Montreal, where he met Bella Bezonsky. They married on June 14, 1953. Their son Sheldon was born in 1956, daughter Susan in 1957 and son Rodney in 1963.

Sol and his family moved to California on Dec. 25, 1957. Sol worked as a tailor and then bought his own factory, S&D Fashions in downtown Los Angeles. In 1980, he sold the factory and semi-retired. 

Sol, who turns 90 on Dec. 3, enjoys walking and spending time with his children and eight grandchildren. He considers himself a “Holocaust walking encyclopedia,” but still doesn’t know if any of the 500 men who survived Treblinka with him are still alive.

“The will to live. You’ll try everything,” he said.

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund

Everyone is familiar with Adolf Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Few remember that in the mid- to late-1930s the United States experienced a Nazi crusade of its own, one led by Fritz Julius Kuhn (1896-1951), a radical anti-Semite who dreamed of a fascist America led by a Nazi president. Kuhn never realized his dream, but he did develop a national Nazi movement–complete with propaganda wing, youth group, and its own version of the Schutzstaffel (SS)–that inspired a concerted effort (among politicians, law enforcement and media alike) to destroy him and his organization.

But on February 20, 1939–the day Kuhn's German-American Bund (Der Amerikadeutsche Volksbund) held a Nuremberg-style rally at New York's Madison Square Garden–Kuhn and his rabid followers seemed a very real threat to order. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the Garden while Bundesf hrer Kuhn addressed 17,000 enthusiastic supporters–men and women who demonstrated their support by extending their right arms straight out, palms down, in that instantly-recognizable salute, all the while shouting 'Free America! Free America! Free America!' Yet that night would mark the peak of the Bund's reach and influence, as the New York-based group was effectively marginalized later that year when Kuhn was convicted of larceny and forgery and sent to prison at Sing Sing, the state's infamous maximum-security prison.

In the new book 'Swastika Nation' (St. Martin's Press), author Arnie Bernstein deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the German-American Bund, which emerged from the remnants of a group known as the Friends of New Germany. 'Kuhn did a remarkable job of marshaling the movement,' says Bernstein. If Kuhn was running a corporation instead of a Nazi movement he would have been [considered] an astute businessman.'

The Bund maintained a diversified income stream derived from annual dues and various ancillary fees, as well as the mandatory purchase of uniforms, armbands, pins and badges. Uniforms for both the rank-and-file and the group's Ordnungsdienst ('well-dressed bodyguards who undertook their duties with brutal seriousness,' according to Bernstein) had to be purchased from Bund-approved tailors. In fact, the Bund strongly encouraged its membership to spend their hard-earned dollars at Aryan-owned businesses that were a part of the Deutscher Konsum Verband (D.K.V.), or German Business League.

Meanwhile, the organization's publishing arm (the AV Publishing Company, the name derived from the initials of the Bund's German name, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), pushed out books and propaganda materials, and also published a weekly newspaper, The German Wakeup Call and Observer (Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter). Members were obligated to subscribe to the newspaper, and to buy a copy of Hitler's autobiography/manifesto 'Mein Kampf,' among other propaganda materials.

But what really drew the ire of the American public were the Bund's camps and retreats–Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, andCamp Nordland in Andover Township, New Jersey, for example–where thousands of Bund members gathered en masse to picnic and swim. Think summer camp, with a Nazi twist.

The retreats were a key component of the Bund's youth initiative, which was loosely modeled after Germany's Hitler Youth and female counterpart, the League of German Girls. As in Germany, youth group retreats were sexually charged gatherings. 'They encouraged the boys and girls to sleep with each other to produce good Aryan children for the day that they would take over,' notes Bernstein.

Predictably, neighbors didn't take kindly to the idea of Bund members goose-stepping the streets of Yaphank or Andover Township in Nazi-styled uniforms, and the pushback against the camps attracted media coverage coast-to-coast. Syndicated newspaper columnistWalter Winchell painted Kuhn and his followers in a particularly unflattering light, the former taking delight in referring to the Bund leader as Phffftz Kuhn, Fritz Kuhnfucious, or simply Fat Fritz Kuhn. In fact, Winchell became Kuhn's chief antagonist, so much so that The German Wakeup Call and Observer declared Winchell 'Kuhn's worst enemy.' Worse yet, Kuhn promised to 'blacken Walter Winchell's eyes' (promise kept, courtesy of two thugs) and to piss on his grave (promise not kept).

Hitler and the rest of Germany's Nazi leadership didn't think much of Kuhn, either. In the summer of 1936, the Bundesf hrer and his lieutenants visited Germany and, via a mutual connection, managed to gain an audience with the F hrer. 'It was basically one of those grip-and-grin photo ops. Hitler shook Kuhn's hand and said, 'Go over there and continue the fight,'' recalls Bernstein, a statement that Kuhn viewed as an official endorsement. 'Of course, Hitler meant nothing by it,' continues the author. In fact, Hitler was embarrassed by Kuhn, and Nazi officials wanted nothing to do with the German-American Bund, viewing the 'stupid and noisy' group as damaging to the Third Reich's image in America.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., powerful forces began amassing against the Bund. In August 1937 United States Attorney General Homer Cummings launched an FBI probe of Bund camps, and five months later issued his findings in a fourteen-volume report, Nazi Camps in the United States.

But the campaign to bring down Kuhn went into high gear shortly after the Madison Square Garden rally, when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and prosecutor Thomas Dewey seized the Bund's financial records, hoping to put Kuhn away on tax evasion charges. The plan worked: Kuhn was charged with grand larceny and forgery for embezzling from the Bund's bank accounts. After being found guilty he was sent to prison, first to Sing Sing, then to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where he was incarcerated until being paroled on June 18, 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the federal internment camp system for wartime enemy aliens, and was subsequently deported to Germany, where he spent the next several years in and out of prison.

Though the Bund attempted to soldier on under the leadership of Bund F hrer Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, 'the movement flopped around like a fish on a deck for a couple more years,' quips Bernstein. 'Then Pearl Harbor happened and that was that.'

As for Kuhn, his death attracted little notice; the news didn't reach the United States until two years later. 'Hitler's U.S. Bund Chief Fritz Kuhn Died Friendless in Germany,' announced Winchell in his February 6, 1953, column for the Daily Mirror. Kuhn had fallen so far, so fast that the columnist had little to say about the disgraced Bundesf hrer. Winchell's final words about Kuhn and his dream of a Nazi America were: '(End of shrug).'

Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of failuremag.com.

A unique resource, German Holocaust archive reaches out

George Jaunzemis was three and a half years old when, in the chaotic weeks at the end of World War Two, he was separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium.

He grew up in New Zealand with no memory of his early years, unaware the Latvian woman who had emigrated with him was not his real mother.

Then in 2010, a letter from the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen changed his life. He discovered his real name was Peter Thomas and that he had a nephew and cousins in Germany.

“I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle,” Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters. “You don't know what it's like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person.”

Yet it took Jaunzemis over three decades of tenacious searching to find the vast archive in this remote corner of Germany where his past was buried.

Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced labourers and displaced persons. It rivals Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value.

However, many people are not even aware it exists. It was only opened to researchers in 2007 after criticism that it was being too protective of its material. Despite sitting on a mountain of original evidence, it is still struggling to get the attention academics say it deserves.

Last year just 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared with the 900,000 who went to Yad Vashem.

Rebecca Boehling, a 57-year old historian who arrived from the United States in January, wants to change that.

“We have a new agenda,” said Boehling, who came from the Dresher Center for the Humanities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“We're sitting on a treasure trove of documents. We want people to know what we have. Our material can change our perspective on big topics related to the war and the Holocaust.”

Boehling is the first archive director who is not affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had managed Bad Arolsen since 1955 with a narrow remit to trace people.

The ICRC handed over the reins to an international commission of 11 countries in January, a step that could help unleash the full potential of the archive for academic study.

Boehling plans to hold international conferences, get foreign students to use the ITS, publish more research and host national teachers' workshops, although she doubts the 14 million euro budget from the German government will stretch that far.

Personal stories about victims, which the ITS can provide in abundance, are a powerful tool in educating young generations, she said. Currently, events hosted by the archive are attended only by townspeople and groups of pupils from nearby.


Located next to a site where Hitler's SS officers once had barracks, Bad Arolsen was chosen for the archive after the war because of its central location between Germany's four occupation zones.

But now its location is a disadvantage. There are no big cities nearby and connections to Berlin and Frankfurt are slow. The town itself, on the northern edge of the state of Hesse, has a population of just 16,000.

The archive is housed in an inconspicuous white building containing clues to the fates of 17.5 million people.

The 25 kilometres of yellowing papers include typed lists of Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted groups, files on children born in the Nazi Lebensborn programme to breed a master race, and registers of arrivals and departures from concentration camps.

It even has a carbon copy of Schindler's List, the 1,000 Jewish workers saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

The Nazis' meticulous record-keeping stopped only when Jews and other victims were herded into gas chambers.

“At death camps like Sobibor or Auschwitz, only natural causes of death are recorded – heart failure or pneumonia,” said spokeswoman, Kathrin Flor. “There's no mention of gassing. The last evidence of many lives is the transport to the camp.”

The ITS, which employs 295 people, still receives 12,000 enquiries a month and reunites up to 50 families a year, even though the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. This tracing work will continue.

Most enquiries come from Russia and Eastern Europe and Boehling welcomes the new phenomenon of grandchildren and great grandchildren, who have more emotional distance from the war, wanting to find out the fates of their relatives.

One major ongoing task is the digitalisation of records which will make it easier for outsiders to carry out keyword searches which had previously been impossible as everything was done in-house with a filing system based on name cards.

Despite its remote location Boehling says the archive won't be moved. It has become a something of a memorial for Holocaust survivors, like former Auschwitz inmate Thomas Buergenthal who visited the centre in 2012 after getting new information on where his father had perished.

Buergenthal, who escaped Nazi shooting squads, Auschwitz gas chambers and a death march before he was 12, was found by his mother in a Polish orphanage in 1947 through the Red Cross.

“This is my hallowed ground,” Buergenthal, 78, told Reuters from his U.S. home, referring to the archive.

“My mother died without knowing my father died at Buchenwald. I'm mad about that. It is extremely important to me,” said Buergenthal, who became an expert in human rights law and a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“These documents are more important for the future than for the past. They will be the common heritage of mankind of what really happened during that period. (They are) what we need to prevent it happening elsewhere in the world.”

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff

‘Lore’ sees Holocaust through German teen’s eyes

To help us grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, we have the testimonies of survivors, of liberators, even of bystanders, but what about the perpetrators and, even more, their children, who grew up worshipping Adolf Hitler?

“Lore,” the movie, grapples with that complex question from the perspective of the title character, a 14-year-old girl (impressively played by Saskia Rosendahl), daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his equally fanatical wife.

As Germany collapses in the spring of 1945, the Allies arrest Lore’s father as a war criminal, as well as her mother. Before her mother departs, she charges Lore to take her four younger siblings, the youngest one little more than a baby, across the rubble-strewn fatherland to her grandmother’s farm in Bavaria.

Along the way, Lore and her charges get a lift from American soldiers; she is almost raped by a German farmer; she sees a brother shot dead by a Red Army guard and trades the family jewels for a loaf of bread.

She also encounters a cross section of her countrymen and women, barely able to comprehend what has happened to their fatherland and fuehrer, and confronted for the first time with the crimes of the Nazi regime.

As one who has lived through and participated in a good part of this history, I can attest that the reactions of many of these solid burghers ring absolutely true.

Shown the first photos of a death camp, an elderly woman averts her eyes and moans, “If the fuehrer had known what was going on, he would have put a stop to it.”

A man looking admiringly at a framed photo of Hitler blames the German people for letting the fuehrer down and admonishes the volk for “breaking his heart.” Still another patriot informs bystanders that the emaciated prisoners in an Auschwitz photo are actually actors hired by the Americans.

Lore angrily tears down the American “propaganda” poster but soon faces a more personal problem.

Thomas, a strange young man, attaches himself to the young refugees and becomes their self-appointed protector and food scavenger. Lore is drawn to Thomas (Kai Malina) emotionally and physically, until he produces his ID papers at a checkpoint.

The documents, and the tattooed numbers on his arm, identify him as a Jewish concentration camp survivor, a member of that race Lore has been taught to despise from infancy.

She threatens Thomas that her father, the imprisoned SS officer, “will deal” with him and lashes out that “all you filthy Jews are liars.” But is the young man actually a Jew or only impersonating one?

Toward the end of the film, Lore is still confused and torn, but gradually begins to question the deeds of a father and fuehrer she once adored and trusted unquestioningly.

In some respects, the film is a curious one. Young Saskia Rosendahl in the title role gives an impressive performance, and the portrayal of the average German confronting the collapse of his world is spot on.

At the same time, director Cate Shortland depicts the wandering of the five kids in a nightmare world at an oddly slow, at times static, pace.

Oddest, however, is that “Lore” was submitted into this year’s Oscar competition for best foreign-language film by Australia.

The Aussies can hardly be considered “foreign” (meaning non-English) under the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Actually, the movie is entirely in German, with a cast of German actors. What makes it “Australian” is that director Shortland was born and bred Down Under.

During Shortland’s visit to Los Angeles to boost her film’s Oscar chances (it didn’t make the cut), the Journal asked her how she came to make a movie in a language she hardly speaks, and her answers were quite intriguing.

 “I have always been interested in the effects of living in a totalitarian society, and especially what that does to children,” she said.

Shortland also has given considerable thought to the issue of national guilt, noting that “Australians are still in denial [over] what their ancestors did to the Aborigines in settling my country.”

Her interests became even more personal when she married a Jewish man whose family had left Berlin in 1936 and settled in Sydney. Four years ago, she converted to Judaism, observing, “I am no longer Cate the shiksa.” The couple has added more diversity to their family by adopting two black children.

All these factors fused when she read “The Dark Room,” a novella written by Rachel Seiffert, whose protagonist’s experiences closely resemble those of the film’s Lore.

“I was terrified when I started out to make this film,” Shortland confessed, partly because of the language problem in interacting with the cast and crew, but also her fear that the film could be taken as an apology for the Nazi regime. 

The fear is unfounded. The Nazi indoctrination of German youth was intense beyond belief, and an acknowledgment that the German people — guilty or not — suffered greatly during the war in no way diminishes the unspeakable crimes committed by them and in their name.

“Lore” opens Feb. 8 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino, as well as at Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.

Descendants of Nazi SS to take part in March of Life

Fifty descendants of officers of the Nazi SS, Wehrmacht and World War II-era German police officers will be among the participants in the March of Life, which will start on Sunday at Auschwitz.

Several hundred people from Poland, Israel and Germany will take part in the program, which will commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and oppose anti-Semitism.

The participants will visit Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, Warsaw and Kielce.

Among them will be 50 people from Germany who are descendants of the officers of the Nazi SS, the Wehrmacht and the World War II-era German police. At the sites of the former death camps there will be ceremonies during which both the descendants of the victims and perpetrators will speak.

The main ceremony will be on August 23 in Warsaw. Special guest of the March will be Lia Shemtov, a deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and a member of the Yisrael Beitenu party.

March of the Living is an initiative of Jobst and Charlotte Bittner, and TOS Ministries of Germany, a non-denominational church founded by the couple.

The program was prepared in cooperation with many organizations in Poland, Israel and Germany. Similar marches have taken place in more than 80 cities in 12 countries.

Planning the Holocaust

Kenneth Branagh, dapper in his SS costume, his blond hair neatly slicked back, coldly spat out the words during production of the HBO film "Conspiracy": "Dead men don’t hump. Dead women don’t get pregnant. Death is the most reliable form of sterilization."

He was sitting on a soundstage that was an exact reproduction of the luxurious Wannsee villa where 15 high-ranking Nazis, over lavish food and drink, matter-of-factly planned the Final Solution on Jan. 20, 1942. Branagh, the Oscar-nominated actor-director, was playing SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, who led the brief, top-secret meeting like a ruthless CEO. His fellow actors sipped liquor and puffed cigars as Branagh, feeling revolted, completed the scene. "It was very claustrophobic, very smoky, because once those set doors were closed, all the actors were in there all the time," said Branagh, who is best-known for directing and starring in film adaptations of Shakespearean plays. "That meant that at the end of every take, you rushed out of the room, peeled off your SS uniform, and took a breather from that creepily atmospheric place."

Branagh, who suffered sleepless nights as a result of the material, actually fled the set in the middle of one scene. He was reciting the dialogue where Heydrich refers to the gas chambers and advises: "The machinery is waiting. Feed it."

"I had to go outside for a little while," he confided. "I just felt the cumulative weight of it all. At all times I was reminded that this happened: It was not a fiction. It happened in a room like this, and it took only 90 minutes, and this man, this fantastically intelligent man Heydrich, was at the heart of it. I just felt this underlying revulsion at what happened and at the man himself. I didn’t want to say the lines. It was the most disturbing experience of my 20-year acting career."

"Conspiracy" is the brainchild of &’9;director Frank Pierson, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Dog Day Afternoon" and the director of HBO’s "Truman" and "Citizen Cohn." He labored for eight years to bring "Conspiracy" to the screen.

Though Pierson is not Jewish, he felt close to the material. As a scholarship student at a posh New England prep school in the late 1930s, he befriended two Jewish classmates who were refugees of Nazi Germany. The boys, who were outcasts at school, didn’t like to talk about their experiences. Pierson learned something of what they had gone through when he avidly read about the Shoah after the war.

Cut to the mid-1990s, when Holocaust refugee Peter Zinner, a film editor, gave the director a tape of the subtitled 1984 Austrian-German drama "Die Wannseekonferenz."

"I can’t say I enjoyed it," said Pierson. "But I watched it like I was seeing a terrible auto wreck. I couldn’t take my eyes away."

He hoped to remake the movie "to elicit in viewers a kind of tenderness for the thin veneer of civilization that keeps us all from savaging each other to death." He hired screenwriter Loring Mandel to write the script, based on the 15-page Wannsee "protocols" and meticulous historical research (see sidebar below).

Pierson’s goal was to engage audiences by "making them feel as if they were in that room at Wannsee, as if it were a live event," he said. To that end, he "kept the cameras always at eye-level, so viewers would imagine that they were sitting at the table." To allow the actors to feel they were really at Wannsee, he shot 10-minute takes at a time and used 16mm cameras, which are relatively small, so he could fit two on the set without having to pull out a wall.

During a Journal interview, Branagh, 40, confided that he had known no Jews while growing up in a working-class Protestant home in Belfast in the 1970s. He did know something about bigotry and ethnic strife; when he was 9, his family fled the strife between Protestants and Catholics by relocating to Reading, England.

There, Branagh’s thick brogue made him the object of taunts by school bullies; as solace, he lost himself in 25-cent paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays. By the age of 24, he had been accepted to the Royal Shakespeare Company; over the years, he made his mark with film versions of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet."

But nothing quite prepared him for the challenge of playing Reinhard Heydrich in "Conspiracy," he said. Branagh accepted the role, he said, in part "because I felt myself to be reasonably well-informed about the Holocaust, but was shocked to discover I knew nothing about the Wannsee Conference." He dutifully visited Holocaust museums and read biographical material, only to find that Heydrich’s inner life remained an enigma. Screenwriter Mandel tried to help by typing up a psychological profile of Heydrich, a talented musician known for his brute courage and bullying manner. "We were looking for elements that would lend to an understanding of his behavior, whether it be a childhood trauma or some physical or mental disability, but nothing seemed to make psychological sense," Branagh said.

"My previous experience of playing somebody quite so dark and evil was Iago in [the Castle Rock film of] ‘Othello,’" he added. "And yet, inside that part are many motivations — sexual jealousy, thwarted ambition — that you might regard as human, however unappealing. But I didn’t find that with Heydrich. It was very difficult to discover what was human inside him."

In the end, the key to Heydrich "was just that he relished power, his ability to judge and be ruthless with people," Branagh said. "I didn’t even think he had any deep-rooted hatred against the Jews. I think that if he had been asked to get rid of 11 million tennis players, he would have done it with exactly the same efficiency and skill."

The casual tone of the Wannsee meeting was as shocking to Branagh as the concentration-camp photographs he perused while researching his role. To cope with the difficult subject matter, the cast played a movie trivia game between takes "with a mad zeal that I have never encountered before," Branagh said. "We threw ourselves at the banal and the silly and the superficial in a hysterical way."

At the end of the Journal interview, the actor said he was flying off to Greenland to live on an icebreaker while making a movie about legendary British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. "He was a man who valued life and was awash with compassion," the actor said. "It will be healing to play him. He was the exact opposite of Heydrich."

"Conspiracy" airs May 19, 9 p.m. on HBO.

Tough Jews

As twilight descended upon the forest of Ponar, Rich Cohen gazed upon the green canyons where the Vilna Jews died in the Shoah. He took photographs of the treetops, thinking of a survivor who had stared at the same trees while feigning death in one of the mass graves. “I knew that the roots of everything growing were in ashes,” says Cohen, the 32-year-old author of the Jewish-gangster tome, “Tough Jews.”

Chicago-bred Cohen was researching a book on a very different kind of tough Jew: the partisans who blew up Nazi trains and poisoned thousands of former SS solders after the war. “The Avengers: A Jewish War Story” is the tale of the cell led by Abba Kovner, Kovner’s future wife, Vitka, and Cohen’s cousin, Ruzka, for whom Ponar was the call to arms. “Abba never visited Ponar, but he knew it was there,” says Cohen, who began his career in the mail room of The New Yorker. “For me, going there was like reaching the place the world ended.”

The story has preoccupied Cohen since he was 9, when he first encountered the Avengers after a dusty ride down a bumpy trail to a kibbutz. There he met Ruzka, his grandmother’s niece, the sole survivor of her Polish family; she was a slight, rugged-faced woman who immediately introduced him to a steely thin man who “looked like an Old World prophet,” Cohen writes. By his side, never out of whispering distance, was the lanky Vitka; as the day passed, their stories emerged of outlandish plots carried out against the Germans. Cohen stared at a black-and-white photograph of the trio wielding machine guns (it now graces the cover of “The Avengers”) and knew he would write about it one day. “The sky outside filled with stars. Constellations wheeled,” he recalls. “I suppose I was obsessed.”

For Cohen, the Avengers offered a version of history different from what he saw in the popular culture; the same media that depicted Jews as nebbishy white-collar types. A short, cocky kid who learned how to bully the bullies on the ice during hockey games, he was more riveted by the stories his grandparents told about the Murder, Inc. mobsters who had frequented their Brooklyn diner. They were guys like Tick-Tock Tannenbaum and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Reles chivalrously drove Cohen’s grandma to the hospital when she went into labor; later he was thrown out a window at the Half Moon Hotel. If the story of the gangsters is connected with the story of the Avengers, it’s that both act outside the Jewish stereotype, Cohen says.For decades, the story of the Avengers remained secret; Abba worried their actions could be used by Israel’s enemies to excuse terrorist attacks. But one evening on the kibbutz in the late 1990s, Vitka was ready to talk. She led Cohen to two graves on the edge of the cooperative’s cemetery: Abba and Ruzka, buried just a few feet apart, next to a third, empty plot – her own. She didn’t want the story to die with her. For several months in 1998, Cohen moved into a kibbutz guest cottage and interviewed Vitka and other Avengers on neighboring kibbutzim. If they refused to talk, Vitka had only to utter the magic words: “Rich is a cousin of Ruzka’s.”

While Vitka refused to accompany Cohen to Ponar, “The Avengers” helped her achieve another closure of sorts. All her life, she had hated Jacob Gens, the Jewish Vilna ghetto chief who had cooperated with the Nazis. “But she said the way I wrote the book enabled her to see Gens in a different way, as a good man living in the wrong time,” Cohen reports. “She said she didn’t hate him anymore.” – Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor