An uncomfortable truth: Hospitalstraße 22 and Ella Itzigsohn

Hospitalstr 22 different angle

Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as per Google Streetview

Since beginning this project (and naming the blog), I became aware of a detail about the Szameitats so uncomfortable that it requires its own blog post. On a number of occasions, I have perused GenWiki’s page on Memel’s Hospitalstraße, which is a list of all known owners and residents of each building on the street, collated from the various online Memel address books. In recent times, I have been looking at this page because I am trying to familiarize myself with the Szameitats’ neighbours, both within number 22 and in dwellings nearby, to see if I recognize any names from Johanne’s documents. For the first time I was also focusing on understanding the continuity of residents as I was interested in learning more about how this grand building came into being and why the Szameitats might have chosen to live there. And while doing so, I noticed something that I can’t believe I had hitherto missed when viewing the page over the years. I noticed that, between the 1939 and 1942 address book entries, there had been a complete turnover of residents. Moreover, the 1942 residents all had German or Germanized names.

Sensing already that I knew what must have happened, my eyes flicked to the named owners to see if my suspicions were correct. From 1926 to 1939, the owner of Hospitalstraße 22 had been someone called Ella Itzigsohn. My interest had already been piqued on noticing her name earlier, because it was relatively uncommon for the single named owner of such a property to be a woman. Then I cast a glance over the owner of the property in 1942: Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. My heart sank. My suspicion had been right. This was a property that had passed from private into corporate or more likely state ownership in or after 1939. Moreover, the residents had all been replaced. There could only be one explanation: Ella Itzigsohn had been a Jewish woman, and on the return of the Memel Territory to Germany she must have fled to Lithuania, whereupon her property must have been enteignet (‘expropriated’) and handed over to an ‘Aryan’ organization.

Screenshot of Hospitalstraße 22’s latter owners and residents Source



Several strands suddenly started to come together in my mind. Ever since I had first seen the Google Streetview image of the property, I had been struck by its Gründerzeit-looking grandeur, and it had reminded me of buildings of a similar style in Eisenach (where I had lived for a year). I had known that many of the residents of those buildings had been well-to-do Jews.

At the same time, I recalled that Oskar had been transferred back to Memel from Pogegen in 1939, I assumed on or shortly after the Territory’s return Germany (I have not yet managed to narrow down the exact date). Pogegen had existed as a Kreisstadt (sort of like a county town) for only the brief period between the world wars: when the Memel Territory was separated from Germany following World War 1, Kreis Tilsit was split in two, so a new district, Kreis Pogegen, was created north of the river. The new Kreisstadt was a backwater and as a result many new administrative buildings had to be built and it experienced large growth at this time. The Szameitats were transferred there in 1934, probably in August, perhaps simply because Oskar’s employers needed a Kriminalsekretär there, but possibly to give him a more provincial case load following the high profile and politically motivated murder case he’d been working on earlier in the year. When the Memel Territory returned to Germany in 1939, Kreis Pogegen was dissolved and the pre-1919 districts reestablished. I assume it was for this reason that Oskar was transferred back to Memel: as Pogegen was no longer a Kreisstadt, there was no longer a job there for him. On 28th August 1939, Oskar officially became a Kriminalsekretär of the German Empire. Did that date mark his transfer to Memel, or had he already been transferred and this date simply signify a formality that recognized that he now worked for a different nation? Either way, it’s near enough impossible that the family wasn’t aware that they were moving into a formerly Jewish property. Even if they had moved a number of months after Ella Itzigsohn (and presumably her Jewish residents) had fled, it must have been obvious even just from conversations with neighbours that the building had previously been in different hands. To say nothing of the fact they were paying rent to Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. I can envisage no scenario in which my grandmother’s family can not have known they were moving into stolen Jewish property.

At best, this makes any attempts of Oskar’s to protect and help Jews before 1939 reek of hypocrisy. At worst, it casts a good deal of doubt on the veracity of such claims. How can Oskar have ‘helped Jews to escape’ when he was happy to profit from their expulsion? Perhaps there wasn’t anything else suitable for a family of four within walking distance of the Polizeidirektion children’s schools at the time they were looking. Perhaps all the available apartments were ones that had been seized from the departing Jewish population (several thousands of them fled the city in early 1939, where they had previously made up 12.5% of the population). Perhaps. But perhaps this spacious and beautiful building so perfectly situated was too attractive for them to hold on to any principles, if indeed they had them. I can imagine that they might have been able to get more for their money as the Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH probably offered competitive rent prices in order to fill the property quickly. Oh, and probably a better rate for party members, too.

It also calls into question the level of consciousness the family had about their own complicity in the anti-Semitism that took hold of Memel in the 1930s. Did they not see it as a problem that they were directly profiting from the expulsion of and theft from others? Each time Johanne wrote Steht unser Haus noch? in her letters home to Oskar in the war, did she never ask herself whether its previous owner and tenants were wondering the same thing? When she filed for compensation for the land that had been confiscated from them as a result of Oskar’s imprisonment, did it never occur to her that the rightful owner of Hospitalstraße 22 would almost certainly never have the opportunity to do that? Was any of this on her radar at all?

I can’t speak for Johanne in her latter decades as there are no documents from then (and this was the time when Germany began to confront its Nazi past more seriously), but from the evidence available to me from the 1950s and 60s, I genuinely don’t believe she gave it much thought. Why? Johanne seems to have ascribed to a mindset typical of 1950s Germany that viewed Germans primarily as victims of the Nazi period. The majority of Germans, especially the 14 million refugees from the east that endured a dreadful flight across Europe never to return, certainly had their share of suffering, often to a very great extent. It has historically been politically and academically unfashionable to acknowledge this for fear of diminishing the suffering that the Nazis’ true victims bore and taking attention away from the millions of innocent people they murdered. In the triangle of victim-bystander-perpetrator, the average German totally blurred the boundaries. But after the war, most were so focused on rebuilding their own lives that they had little desire to examine their individual and collective complicity in the horrors of Nazism. This suited the Adenauer administration, which, moving on from the policy of denazification introduced by the Allies after the war, encouraged amnesty in the interest of social cohesion and economic growth. Most Germans wanted to draw a line under the recent past after the Nuremberg trials, which had helped to cement the view that those responsible for the atrocities had been brought to justice. The focus on the everyday German’s own status as victim was underscored by the fact that, in the echo chamber of similar experiences, there were very few Jewish survivor voices to be heard within post-war Germany. The silencing of these true victims through the Shoah allowed West Germans to fill the vacuum with their own narrative of victimhood (see Tobin, 2013 for more on this).

It is not lost on me that, by writing this blog, I am perpetuating that narrative of German victimhood, and thus also contributing to the silencing of Jewish suffering by taking up space with my German family’s experiences. Have you noticed that in this blog post so far I have only focused on my family’s motives and my own thoughts and feelings about them? I have totally centred the German experience over the Jewish one, even in a blog post about Jewish suffering. I own that. Following my family’s story means that what is written here is naturally going to focus on them. But Ella Itzigsohn never had the opportunity to share her experience: she was murdered in the Shoah.

It is not easy to research former Jewish inhabitants of the Memel Territory using the usual German genealogy websites. In part, this must be because any descendants who might be in a position to upload information are small in number. But it’s not as simple as that: why would a survivor or their children wish to enter details about their murdered family members into German genealogy websites, when it was that world that shunned their families and persecuted them in the first place? Jewish organizations like Yad Vashem, however, are testament to how important it is to put names to the statistics, and Ella Itzigsohn can be found on their database here. It’s possible to piece together bits of her story from this document in addition to a few other sources.

Born on 15th August 1889 to Aba and Selda Burak, Ella Itzigsohn was a born and bred Memeler who probably never lived anywhere else. She married Heiman Itzigsohn, a business man, who, on the basis of his name, must have been an assimilated Westjude: Memel’s Jewish population grew in the nineteenth century, as many Eastern Jews moved there as a result of Prussia’s more liberal laws and to take advantage of the city’s relative economic prosperity. By the end of the century, only 20% of the Jewish population were Western Jews (source).

It’s likely that Ella inherited her parents’ property, because from 1926 she is also mentioned as the sole owner of Börsenstraße 1-4, which included a shop front. Perhaps her parents had been shop owners and worked in retail themselves. In any case, by 1926 a number of Itzigsohns were living there, though only the head of each household is listed so we can’t be sure whether Ella lived there herself. I suspect she did, as in 1931 her husband Heiman is listed as one of the residents. For reasons unknown, she sold the property at some point between 1935 and 1939 to one of her Jewish tenants, Isaak Simon, who sold it to a (presumably non-Jewish) textile company in February 1939, when one assumes Simon was cutting his losses and leaving Memel. Shortly after, it was also used by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (a Nazi trade union) and the NS-Frauenschaft (the women’s wing of the party). I remember reading somewhere that the Nazis had a habit of using formerly Jewish property for their various party affiliations.


Börsenstraße 1-4 after 1939 Source

It isn’t possible to tell from the information I’ve read whether Ella fled before or on the return of the region to Germany, whereupon Hospitalstraße 22 was expropriated, or whether she left after March 1939 and after the authorities had taken away her property. At any rate, it seems that she didn’t sell it on cheaply to a German or Lithuanian buyer, as Simon had done with the Börsenstraße shop. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway: in 1938, the Memel Territory government started to ape its Nazi counterpart in Germany by beginning to limit the possibility of selling Jewish property by setting its market value and introducing property, export, and emigration tax laws that resulted in the financial destitution of all but a few Jews. Even if Ella had been able to sell, she would have received an amount much below what it was worth. In any case, at some point in early 1939, she fled with her husband and children (and probably her extended family) to Šiauliai, perhaps along with thousands of others on 23rd March, the day of the return of the region to Germany, or perhaps shortly before. You can read more about the experience of Jewish Memelländers here.


A Jewish family is expelled from Memel on 23rd March while SA troops look on Source


As thousands fled on 23rd March, Germans hurled insults at them from the pavement. Source

In Šiauliai, the Itzigsohns were outside of the 25km strip near the border in which the Einsatzkommando Tilsit performed their massacres. Yet it didn’t take the German army long to reach them. Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, several of the town’s Jews were shot, and the rest were rounded up into a ghetto. According to the testimony of her daughter Rachel, who survived the Shoah, Ella Itzigsohn, age 52, was murdered in 1941 as part of the ‘first action’ in the ghetto. From my reading of Yad Vashem’s page on the ghetto linked above, it looks like she was probably shot by Lithuanian collaborators alongside dozens of orphanage children, their teacher, elderly and sick people, and the ghetto administrator.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a household term to every German or student of German. It is usually translated as ‘coming to terms with the (specifically Nazi) past’, but I think that doesn’t capture the fact that to bewältigen something, you have to be an active participant. Over the last fifty or so years, first in the West and then in a reunified Germany, a good deal of the national literature, arts, politics, culture and education curricula have engaged with the theme of how to interpret and learn from the Nazi past. Through their collective soul searching, the country has reached a maturity of historical understanding that far surpasses us as Brits: if you want to understand Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, you need to understand the country’s commitment to engage with its past. No, it’s not utopia, and yes, there are plenty of dissenting voices, but the truth is the Germans are about fifty years ahead of the British in critically engaging with their nation’s history. The first stage is to admit that the truth about the past is not what we have been taught: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” says Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, describing Britain’s view of history as ‘dangerous’. The atrocities committed in the British Empire, many after the Second World War, along with the general whitewashing of our history contribute to our nation’s ‘historical amnesia’, according to the former UN under-secretary general, Shashi Tharoor: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.” We are not taught these things in school, they are not the focus of museum exhibitions, and they are not discussed at the political level. In the wake of Brexit, we need to engage with our past more than ever.

This blog is serving as a sort of personal Vergangenheitsbewältigung into my German past. It is making me realize more than ever how engaging with and learning from the past can never end, because it must always influence our present, and that present is always changing. It is also teaching me that history doesn’t live until you put a face on it: we will never be able to engage with our hearts unless we seek out personal stories. It is teaching me to lean into the discomfort of admitting that my family might have been complicit in the twentieth century’s atrocities, either by their action or their lack of action. It is teaching me to examine my own action, or lack thereof, regarding the injustices around me. Where do I see myself on the victim-bystander-perpetrator triangle? Where do you see yourself? What are we doing to make sure the lessons from history don’t repeat themselves?

In his closing speech at the 1958 Einsatzkommando trial in Ulm, prosecutor Erwin Schüle said this:

“The reason why many regard this trial as unpleasant lies in the fact that we all have a guilty conscience when we think back to the evil of those times. It’s simply that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all judge ourselves harshly and have to agree with the witness Hartl: back then, we were all too cowardly.” (Quoted in Tobin, 2013:246)

Let’s not be cowardly. Let’s learn from the past. Let’s stand up for what’s right. In a hundred years, one of your descendants might just hold you accountable for it.


On good guys, Nazis and searching for the truth

My great-grandfather Oskar Szameitat was a member of the Nazi party. Number 7,136,738, to be precise. I can remember when, on perusing the documents as a teenager, I first discovered this, and recall the swooping sense of disappointment I felt in my stomach. I don’t know what I was expecting: had I hoped to find in my family a member of the resistance? Someone who sheltered Jews? Or at least someone who just tolerated the regime rather than someone who seemed to actively endorse it?

Over the years I’ve repeatedly come back to these questions. What did Oskar’s membership of the party mean to him, to Johanne, to my grandmother Irene, and what does it mean to me as his descendent? Was he a convinced comrade or a quiet collaborator? Did his attitude towards National Socialism change during the war? It led me to think more broadly about what I am ultimately hoping to achieve by delving into my family’s past and bringing to light some potentially uncomfortable truths: as I researched further, I discovered for instance several contradictory statements made by my great-grandmother, letters from her to her daughter Irene seemingly telling her what to say under oath in court and, perhaps most depressingly, letters from and declarations under oath given by a number of Gestapo officers who I later discovered had been convicted of facilitating the mass murder of Jews over the border in Lithuania as part of an Einsatzkommando in 1941a series of events that are considered by historians to have marked the start of the Holocaust.


Throngs of people turn out to welcome Hitler to Memel following the ultimatum to Lithuania in March 1939 Source

On the one hand, it’s easy to be defensive of Oskar’s party membership, and this seems to be the line that many Germans took in the post-war era. Party membership offered you better career prospects and relative safety from the autocratic regime, but, as many Germans later believed, it didn’t necessarily make you a Jew-hater or guilty of the atrocities carried out in the name of the German people. It was, so the justifying goes, often a pragmatic choice. After all, hadn’t Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame been a member of the party? Even the previous Pope had belonged to the Hitler Youth.

This certainly seems to have been the way my great-grandmother Johanne saw it. In fact, she didn’t see herself or Oskar as collaborators at all. In her view, they had been persecuted by the party. This is clear from the fact that, in 1957, she applied to various funds for compensation under the Bundesgesetz zur Entschädigung für Opfer der nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung (Federal Act on Compensation for Victims of Persecution under the National Socialist Regime), or BEG (Bundesentschädigungsgesetz) for short. In 1958 she was notified of the outcome: rejected. The reason? Lack of evidence that Oskar’s imprisonment and subsequent dismissal from office had been due to political reasons, in part because he himself had been a party member. How could someone who seemingly signed up to the hateful ideology via his party membership claim to have been persecuted by the very organization he belonged to?


Extract from the Berlin Document Center file on Oskar Szameitat

I must give credit to Johanne, because she stopped at nothing to achieve her goal. The compensation claims and appeals rumbled on into the 1970s, so determined was she to have her husband’s name cleared.

After the initial rejection, things got really bad for her: not only was she denied the compensation she believed she deserved, she was also taken to court for having withheld information in 1947 when claiming her widow’s pension, which she was technically not entitled to given her husband’s dismissal from office. This came about as a result of the research conducted into her husband’s past by the local authorities as part of her compensation claim. To cut a long story short, she was suddenly ordered to pay back nearly 25,000 DM that she had received in the years since the end of the war. She then had to prove that her husband had been unfairly dismissed from office back in 1943 for political reasons, which required a monumental task of finding and interviewing witnesses at huge cost to herself financially and emotionally. Mum remembers being taken on trips to various places as a girl as part of the Prozess, as Johanne referred to it, and tells me that no lawyer wanted to touch the case, as it was so fraught with legal complications.

But I digress. Johanne seems to have been outraged by the notion that her husband couldn’t possibly have been persecuted just because he was a party member, and set about dismantling that claim as soon as possible. She secured a signed affidavit from Emil Liedtke, another Kriminalsekretär who was a member of the Gestapo in Tilsit (modern day Sovetsk), who said that Oskar had, like many, been a member of something called the Memelländischer Kulturbund (something like the Cultural Alliance of the Memel Territory), and all members of this organization were taken over into the Nazi party on annexation with Germany in 1939. Oskar had had, according to Liedtke, a passive attitude towards the NSDAP, and this did not do him any favours after 1939. The claim has a ring of truth: the date of the start of Oskar’s party membership was 1st April 1939. Lithuania surrendered to the German ultimatum on 23rd March, the contract between the two nations being signed a few days later on 30th (Pölking, 2013:304).

The organization Liedtke mentions was (my research tells me) technically an apolitical group that stood for and promoted the German interest in the region. In practice, however, it was run by the same people who championed the local German political parties. It was banned in 1934, and in 1938 it was restyled as the Memeldeutscher Kulturverband, and actively campaigned for the political unification of the Memel Territory with Germany. This organization must be the one Liedtke meant: it counted some two thirds of the population of the Memel Territory as its members in 1938, probably because it incorporated sporting and recreational groups by rote. I found some external evidence that corroborated Liedtke’s general claim: Broszat (1957) tells us that, contrary to what Liedtke writes in his affidavit, at 60,000 members, not all of the Kulturverband were automatically taken over into the party, but ‘bewährte Mitglieder’ or ‘reliable members’ were given Nazi party membership. Oskar was clearly considered ‘reliable’. But what did that mean, and why? Was it because he was a long standing member of the police force? Was it because he knew the ‘right’ people? Was it because he had a good track record of military involvement in the First World War and subsequently in the Freikorps? Or was it because he actually believed in what the movement stood for?

Whatever the reason, it didn’t cut the mustard with Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister who oversaw the activities of the BEG in 1958. The rejection letter cited a reference from the Berlin Document Center, which centralized the collection of documents from the Nazi era, in which Oskar is said to have been thrown out of the Nazi party on account of suspected treason in 1941. But Oskar, according to the document, appealed that decision several times, first at the level of the Kreis (local administrative region) then the Gau (larger administrative region). Among the many undated and miscellaneous documents in my great-grandmother’s collection is one whose first page is missing, but seems to be a post-war copy of several collated Nazi party documents concerning Oskar and his imprisonment, dismissal from office, and ejection from the party. In it, there is a statement attributed to him as part of his appeal and given the date of 15th July 1941. It is a strange statement, because in it he appears to admit to having passed information to the Lithuanians for a fee, something which Johanne always strongly denied (saying any admission was made under duress), and something which I, having waded my way through all the documents many times now, don’t believe to be correct either. That aside, the statement attributed to him also includes the following words:

Ich bin nicht schematisch seinerzeit in die NSDAP aufgenommen worden. Auch bin ich nicht korporativ Parteimitglied geworden. Aus eigenem freien Entschluß bin ich in die NSDAP eingetreten.

(‘I wasn’t affiliated with the Nazi party schematically at that time. I also didn’t become a member of the party corporately. I joined the Nazi party as a result of my own free will.’)

This obviously directly contradicts Liedtke’s affidavit, what Johanne always maintained and what people close to the family at the time also believed (which is evident from letters that we have). Which is right?

This isn’t the only apparent contradiction in the story. Despite multiple accounts of Oskar’s death defending Memel as part of the Home Guard, Johanne appears to have told a number of people and organizations at various points that he (along with their son Odo) was murdered by the Nazis. Why did she do that, when she had good evidence to the contrary? Given that she contradicted herself with her claims regarding to her husband’s death, is she really to be trusted on her other claims?

And then there are the multiple claims (including a declaration under oath by a friend of theirs from their Memel days) that Oskar had had a good relationship with local Jews and protected them even after 1939, which had had negative consequences for him politically and possibly resulted in his imprisonment. Really? Really? Isn’t proximity to Jews what everyone claimed after the war to make it look like they weren’t complicit in or at least responsible because of their silence about the war’s atrocities? I genuinely didn’t know what to believe. I knew that, at least after the war, my great-grandmother had had nothing against Jews. But she did go in for general stereotyping, saying that she didn’t like Poles or Catholics. How can we understand her and others’ claims that Oskar helped Jews to escape when he seems to have been a committed member of the NSDAP? Is it possible to make sense of the contradictions?

In the exchange of letters that we have between Oskar and Johanne, it is clear that Johanne is the worrier, and Oskar the calm voice of hope. He comes across as a wise, gentle and deeply caring husband and father, whose interests range from cellular biology to the wellbeing of the family chickens: hardly the type of person one might stereotypically associate with committed Nazism. But here’s the thing: the world isn’t separated into good people and Nazis. It’s perfectly possible to be a lovely and intelligent person and still be a racist.

When Hitler arrived by ship in Memel on 23rd March 1939 claiming victory, was my family among the throngs that lined the streets yelling heil? I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. You could argue that the Memelländers’ desire to return to the fatherland and therefore their support of being annexed heim ins Reich did not necessarily mean they supported Nazism, and this was the view of many Memelländers after the war, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The two issues were totally blurred, and besides, they didn’t have the excuse of not knowing how minorities would be treated, having been able to witness the hateful policies towards Jews in 1930s Germany (as a result, pretty much the entire Jewish population fled the Memel Territory when it became clear that it would return to Germany, making the claim that Oskar supported some of them after 1939 seem perhaps more questionable).

If the Szameitats were ever ardent Nazi supporters, they certainly ceased being so after Oskar’s imprisonment, and there is good evidence that he made derogatory statements about the regime which contributed to the decision to dismiss him from office. From Johanne’s private post-war documents, the contempt she felt for the numerous Parteibonzen (‘party bigwigs’) who were employed in prestigious and well paid jobs following the war is clear. But how can we interpret some of the contradictions pointed out above? Here’s my take on it.

From the available evidence, I don’t believe the Szameitats were particularly convinced by Nazism, though I do think they broadly supported a return of the Memel Territory to Germany. I think Oskar was co-opted into the party as Liedtke suggested, and I think the family probably viewed this as a pragmatically smart option. If Oskar had truly been ideologically opposed, he could have refused membership (it was certainly possible to do so). This would, of course, have had implications for his career, but there’s something else: in his role as a detective, Oskar had worked alongside the Lithuanian authorities in the 1930s on a murder case that formed part of the international trial in Kaunas that I alluded to in my previous blog post. I just wonder whether he viewed party membership in part as a safety net to show how committed he was (at least outwardly) to the Territory’s German roots.

How can we understand the fact that he appealed the decision to chuck him out of the party on numerous occasions? And what of his statement that he chose to join the party himself? To be honest, I think that was a pragmatic move too. I think he thought he was more likely to get out of prison (where he was sitting without charge) if he claimed to be a good Nazi than if he didn’t. I suspect he was given advice to that effect by friends in the party who were sympathetic to his cause.

And his connection to convicted murderers? It is complicated, because those who were found guilty in the Ulm trial I linked to above were made up both of colleagues of Oskar (his boss was the police director Bernhard Fischer-Schweder, not a nice man, and one of his colleagues was Franz Behrendt, also found guilty of aiding mass murder) as well as those who were investigating his case of suspected treason (Hans-Joachim Böhme, head of the Gestapo Tilsit, and one of his subordinates Harm Willms Harms). And it was good fortune that Oskar worked for the Kriminalpolizei branch of the police force (plain clothes detective squad), because it was the uniformed police that were invited to go and partake in the mass shootings of Jews in the summer of 1941. Franz Behrendt had also worked for the Kripo but then switched to the Gestapo. It is a relief that Oskar didn’t, and therefore didn’t have to choose whether to commit mass murder or risk losing face (because, genuinely, that seems to be all that would have happened for refusing to shoot innocent people). In any case, he was in prison from February 1941 to December 1942, so he would have missed it all anyway. But it has rather made me aware of how close even ‘normal’ Germans were to the atrocities carried out in their name. And it makes me question whether their declarations under oath that my great-grandmother obtained were really truthful. Can you really trust people who oversee mass murder, go underground after the war by changing their names and then make out that you were just ‘following orders’ in your trial?

And what of Johanne’s claims that he and Odo were murdered by the Nazis? I have scratched my head a lot over this one. She often mentioned this when writing letters to people such as the Chancellor’s wife or Nazi hunters, so was she trying to get their attention by making her lot seem worse than it was? After much reflection, I don’t think this is right. In her heart of hearts, I think she always knew Oskar had been killed in battle and Odo had gone missing. But we must be mindful of the age she had just lived through: where the ‘official’ line was usually little more than propaganda and no one knew who to trust. She was also wary of the fact that most of those in positions of authority in post-war West Germany had been Nazi supporters themselves, and there is a general sense of distrust of West German government officials in her correspondence because of it. As far as she was concerned, her compensation rejection might well have come about because those in the office of Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister had all been Parteibonzen themselves. She had grown up in a world when conspiracy theories were thought as likely to be true as the ‘official version’ of history (believing for instance till her death that West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Bill). I think she probably therefore felt she had reason to doubt the ‘official’ version of events surrounding the deaths of her husband and son.

And what of the claims about supporting Jews? Well, on the face of it, there is no reason to doubt them just because lots of Germans claimed this in the years following the war. Someone called Irene Brock declared under oath that Jews had lodged with the Szameitats before the war. There is no evidence to the contrary, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so skeptical. It just always seemed to me that it didn’t sit easily with the fact that Oskar joined the party. But it is certainly possible under the interpretation I have suggested above, and why would someone who doesn’t stand to gain anything like Irene Brock lie under oath?

Am I making excuses for them in this blog post? How should I interpret their actions? Were they the right thing to do? It’s hard to escape the feeling that they were quiet collaborators focused on saving their own necks rather than standing up for what is right. But then, would I have been any different? When Oskar was imprisoned and sacked from his job, the family lost its financial stability and suddenly had no income. Johanne’s brother, Karl Pätzel, refused to support them (we were given the impression that he was a convinced Nazi supporter) and that saddened Johanne so much that she (and her three sisters) broke off all contact with him for the rest of their lives. The whole affair had considerable emotional and mental health consequences for the entire family, and there’s evidence that Odo especially suffered at school probably because of it. No wonder Oskar wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible – to say nothing of the fact he was in solitary confinement for nearly two years and was apparently beaten frequently.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that there were so many who suffered much worse fates because they refused to be associated with a regime that promoted and carried out hatred: people like Erdmonas Simonaitis, for instance. He was a prominent politician in the Memel Territory who stood for the Lithuanian interest between the wars. He was sent to a concentration camp. One of the reasons I am comfortable in saying I believe the vast majority of Johanne’s claims is that she has post-war letters and declarations under oath from Simonaitis, meaning that Oskar must have been known to him and probably worked alongside him. Oskar and Johanne could certainly have shunned the party openly and done so much more to speak up against the hatred. But again, can I really judge them? What would I have done?

It’s easy to think we would stand up for our principles at cost to ourselves and our families, but until we are actually in that position, I don’t really think we know how we’d act. And yet how much do we, in the knowledge that we aren’t about to be locked up for voicing dissenting views, actually use our privilege and our freedom to stand up for justice in our world? It’s easy to view the events I’ve outlined in this post as an interesting relic of the past and nothing more. But the truth is, there are striking parallels with our own day: in many places around the world people do not have the freedom to speak up for the marginalized. What are we doing about that?

There is a little known and much underrated twentieth century author from the region called Johannes Bobrowski, who among other things, wrote beautiful poetry that, unlike most of the Heimwehliteratur (nostalgia literature specifically concerning the lost former German eastern territories), addressed the difficult topic of collective guilt as well as loss. I’ll leave you with some of his words.

Ich mein’,

man muß eben von der Vergangenheit leben,

und mit der Zukunft muß man ganz behutsam umgehen,

ganz sensibel. Denn da wissen wir nichts.

(‘I think you have to live in light of the past, and you have to tread very carefully with regards to the future, very sensitively indeed. Because we know nothing about the future.’ Quoted in Pölking, 2013:2)


Pölking, Hermann. 2013. Das Memelland: wo Deutschland einst zu Ende war. Ein historischer Reisebegleiter. Berlin: be.bra verlag.