A Journalist’s Rediscovery Breaks the Long Silence in BavariaTikkun | August 5th, 2005
The town of Plattling lies at the foothills of the Bavarian Forest, which climbs mountainously off the plain where the Isar and Danube rivers meet in southeastern Germany. The sky hangs oppressively gray here, even in June when the potato and sugar beet fields emit a green summer luster and the Niederbayern , or Lower Bavaria, looks flourishing and picturesque. The human landscape is quaint the way one expects: brown painted barns, neatly tended gardens and square homes with sharp roofs and lace curtains in the windows. So little stands out about the region that few tourists ever visit–which helps explain why the beer gardens, pastry shops and silent town streets lend it an atmosphere of time standing still. Lulled by Plattling’s charm, it’s easy to feel you’ve stumbled into a story by the Brothers Grimm.
Like many fairy tales, this story too has a dark underbelly.
About 6,500 people lived in Plattling before the Second World War. Located in a region known as the “Siberia of Germany” for its isolation and its long frozen winters, the town had one strategic advantage: it sat at the crossroads between Austria, Czechoslovakia and the rest of Germany, and near the foothills of the Alps. During the Depression, government jobs in railways and transport sustained Plattling’s working families, who remained loyal afterwards to the National Socialist Party. The town became a conservative base of Nazi support, producing top-ranking SS officers like Leo Grasmeier, notorious for brutal acts like the time he hanged a man for sleeping with a milkmaid. Munich’s Nazi Police Chief Heinrich Himmler enjoyed bicycle rides around Plattling during the summertime, when he was famous for chatting up locals at the beer halls. Both he and Adolf Hitler earned places (which they held until as late as 1993) on the list of 20 Honorable Citizens of Plattling–a town people still refer to bluntly, even with a touch of pride, as a “Nazi nest.”
Early in 1944, Hitler chose this town as the site on which to build a secret airport used to test experimental models like the first high-speed engine aircraft, the Heinkl-Messershmidt, which engineers in nearby Regensburg were developing faster than the United States military. The Nazis needed runways so they widened Plattling’s roads, leveled wheat fields for a landing strip, and converted farmers’ barns into secret hangars that became known as Shatenplätze, or Shadow Places. They brought in 2,000 Jewish prisoners from Poland, Hungary, Russia and other parts of Germany to work as builders, and the airport’s construction got under way in February of that year.
Nazis set up an initial concentration camp in a large, three-story building in central Plattling, just behind Saint Magdalena Church and next door to the rathaus , the local seat of government. Town residents watched from their windows each morning as guards marched the prisoners through the streets and, on occasion, shot them in open view. Two hundred women once protested what they called the “abusive treatment” of the Jews. But for the rest of Plattling, life simply adopted a more silent quality. It wasn’t until the groans and screams echoing through the church walls disrupted prayer services that residents complained, forcing the Nazis to relocate the camp to a field outside the town center. Between February of 1944 and Plattling’s liberation by American forces on May 2, 1945, 1,800 Jewish prisoners were killed by exhaustion, starvation and execution. The airport, needless to say, was never completed.
If you visit the countryside around Plattling today, you’ll see broad fumes of smoke spewing from an industrial park where the airport was once being built. I drove out there with a tense and talkative schoolteacher named Hans Simmeth, who pointed out the numerous “Nazi barns” we were passing on the way to his home. Hans grew up with four siblings in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Plattling, just 100 yards from the concentration camp after its relocation from the town center. A barn blocked the view of the camp, but Hans can still recall his mother bringing bread to the Jews, and sometimes neighbors slipped potatoes into their pockets as they passed on the way to work. Yet no one in the town, not even Hans’s mother and father who watched executions in their backyard, ever spoke about what happened–either during the war or after. A cloud of silence hovered over Plattling and, only after years of piecing together the town’s role in the killing of the Jews, Hans developed a sense of deep betrayal.
“It’s a horrible history here,” he told me. “You have it in your soul through your whole life. It’s unbelievable that this happened and that nobody noticed, and now it’s been forgotten. Everyone knows there was a war in Plattling, but not a concentration camp.”
A bachelor with pale blue eyes, a beak-shaped nose and long wrinkles streaming in channels down his face, Hans became something of a local celebrity two years ago when he filed suit against the German government. He claimed the Nazis had stolen 300 acres of his father’s land during the campaign to widen Plattling’s roads for the airport. In his zeal to win the case and raise awareness, Hans hung a giant swastika banner in his front yard with the words, “Here the Nazis stole land from my father,” which sparked a row with the Plattling mayor and generated nationwide press. The mayor ordered Hans to take down the banner, calling it a “hazardous distraction” to drivers on the country road. The German government has thus far returned 150 acres of land, or half of Hans’s claim, while the other half remains tied up in the European Commission Court in Strasbourg.
We went walking outside Hans’s gate toward the former camp, which sits at the end of a suburban cul de sac where a gravel path peters out and a grass field speckled with orange wildflowers begins. Renovated two-story cottages shadow the skeletal remains of barracks that once bordered the field, and which are now overgrown with moss and weeds the way a jungle swallows the stones of lost civilizations. “Right over there was a factory where the workers turned the soil into bricks,” he pointed. “And here,” Hans led me further through the grass, “we’re standing on the spot where they stacked three bodies on top of one another and buried them in little piles around the field.
“What’s most terrible is that no one talks about this. No one wants to talk,” he said in barely more than a whisper. The irony of the Plattling camp–and what makes it different from so many former camps scattered throughout Germany–is how intact the stone structures have remained, untouched and altered only by natural decay, yet despite its astonishing preservation, it’s taken more than half a century for anybody to seem to notice.
After the war, Hans and his friends played in the factory ruins among what he remembers were the bones of dead Jews. Now, as a middle-aged teacher in the town where he grew up, and among schoolchildren who have never even heard of Camp Plattling, he treads nervously across the field as though he is forbidden to be there. Just as we were about to leave, a teenage boy pedaled past on his bicycle and Hans stopped him, desperate to prove his point. “Young man, did you know there was a concentration camp here during the Second World War?” he asked. The boy stared back with a blank expression, alarmed, a little humored, then shrugged and biked away.
Between 1954 and 1958, Hans attended primary school in the same building in central Plattling where the Jewish prisoners were first housed. Nobody told him about the building’s past. “Nobody ever spoke a word of what happened there,” he said. I went to visit the school, which today serves as an institute for learning impaired teenage girls. Paint was crumbling from the walls and broken pipes prodded off the roof into the sky like splinters. I approached a girl smoking a cigarette on the back steps of the school, who said she’d heard stories about Jews who were beaten and killed inside. “It wouldn’t be right to tear the building down,” which is what the government was proposing, she said. “It should be a museum so that people learn what happened here, so that young people can know.”
The school’s director, Brigitte Tarras, embarked less easily on the task of retelling history. Instead, she led me–and half a dozen students who tagged along–into the school basement to see the building’s past for ourselves. Swallowed by humidity and darkness, I scrambled through the cavernous underground filled with broken glass and torn off strips of insulation. A faint light was entering through tiny window slits built high into the walls at street level, and as we edged along a plank covering a muddy corridor, I peered into a small, cell-like room. A phrase painted in a flourishing German hand across the ceiling read: Wine, Women and Song Make a Fool the Whole Life Long . Brigitte rapped her knuckle against the wall. “This is where the soldiers drank and raped women,” she said, ushering us on to the end of the corridor.
There, printed in large black letters on a wall chipped of its paint and pocked-marked with bullet holes, were two words, Gut holz, which, in German slang, means “Have a good game.” At the base of the wall, a dirt pit had been dug a few inches below floor level. It was scattered with leaves and trash. It was in this pit, against this wall, that many of the Jewish prisoners at Camp Plattling met their end, Brigitte told us. The girl students looked on glumly, neither disgusted nor surprised; maybe they’d seen it before, or maybe an execution wall looked the way they’d imagined it would. They didn’t act differently from normal girls, they only seemed more numbed by the things around them. For me, the image of bodies shot point blank and slumping into the leaves and soil brought the past starkly alive in a way that few memorials to the Holocaust ever do. The basement had remained raw, not tampered with, and, in the spirit of an unearthed tomb, it appeared to be unique as an archeological remain of WWII and the Holocaust. At the same time, hardly anybody but Brigitte and a handful of her students had seemed to have ever seen it. I suggested to her that tours like this could educate tourists and also the students and residents of Plattling.
“It’s finished,” Brigitte turned to me sharply, shaking her head and leading us back up from the basement into the light. There’s no reason to make this building a museum, to preserve it and show it off as a record to future generations, she said.
“Yes, we are the sons and daughters of Nazis, but we must start new. The people of Plattling don’t know what happened here. It’s a shadow. But now it’s finished.”
Her tone echoed the stiff and withdrawn responses I received elsewhere in Plattling. Even some of the people who had witnessed the camp’s atrocities first-hand didn’t want to believe that their town’s past was worth focusing on today.
“It’s bad to speak about,” said Johan Riederer, who as a boy of 14 watched from his window as SS officers marched the Jews through the streets. Riederer was born in 1929 and joined the Young Hitler Group when he was 10 years old, the year the war began. Now small and bald with a trim white moustache, Riederer spoke to me in a voice that still trembled with the memory as he recalled one day, not long before the Americans liberated the camp and town, when guards drove a number of Jews into the center of Plattling and shot them in plain sight.
“It you don’t speak about it, you don’t have to lie. Plattling was a small Nazi nest, but now the old ones are dying. Anyway, unemployment is the problem now. It’s the future that worries us, not the past.”
Sixty years after the war, the memory of the Holocaust still casts a long and dividing shadow over German society, which continues to struggle for control of the right version of history. On one side stand the majority of Germans who continue enduring and expanding their feelings of wartime guilt through film, literature, museums and monuments like the gargantuan Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opens this spring beside Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin. Germany’s evolution towards a fuller recognition of its crimes against the Jews has been gradual to say the least. It took until the early 1980s, after the four-part U.S. television series “Holocaust” aired on national German television, for widespread public discussion of the concentration camps to catch fire. Investigations broadened the war’s culprits to include not just Hitler and the SS but the police units, local authorities and average German men and women who aided the genocide both actively and through complicit silence.
By the 1990s, giant companies like Siemens, Deutschebank and Mercedes-Benz were opening up their archives and publishing books to show their thorough involvement with the Nazi regime–not just because it was the politically correct thing to do, but it was also good for exports. Public guilt ranged deeper, targeting institutions that ranged from insurance to real estate companies, many of which profited from the Holocaust. Now, concentration camps like Dachau and Sachsenhausen show up as tour book sites visited by thousands of families and guided groups each year. The architecturally haunting Jewish Museum is one of the main attractions to the German capital, and German movies that critically revisit the war, like this year’s “Downfall” and “Sophie Scholl: The Last Days,” come in as box-office hits. But it took a long time for popular German culture to accept its collective guilt, and some say the reaction has already reached a saturation point, in schools especially, and gone far enough.
At the same time that the majority of Germans have accepted the burden of the crimes committed by past generations, a growing minority of ultra-rightists are now ritualizing the celebration of Germany’s wartime past in new and sometimes shocking ways. Neo-Nazi marches and demonstrations happen here about once a month, channeling young men’s anger over high unemployment and the number of foreigners that have swelled into the former East Germany. The group’s core argument–that Germany during the war was as much a victim as other countries, and that it is not guilty for crimes any greater than those carried out by other countries–has found an increasingly receptive audience. The neo-Nazis boasted surprising election results last September when Saxony and Brandenburg states voted for nationalist parties by 10 percent and 6 percent, respectively. And in November, I witnessed one of the largest skinhead gatherings in years, when more than 1,000 young men armed with flags and flowery bouquets marched in Halbe, a town one hour southeast of Berlin, for the first-ever “National Nazi Day,” where they commemorated scores of German soldiers killed by Soviet troops and buried their in a mass grave in the final days of WWII. Police had banned the march but a Brandenburg court overruled the decision, citing constitutional rights of assembly and free speech. The rally included nationalist folk songs and speeches about soldier heroism and the glory for which their Nazi grandfathers fought the war.
“Every movement needs dates and places to remember,” Rainer Erb, a professor of Anti-Semitism Studies at Berlin’s Technical University, had told me at the march. “They’re trying to start a ritual today.”
Beyond those who condemn the Nazi past and others seeking openly to commemorate it, there persists a gray zone of silence in which many of the descendants of Nazis still live. One example was Hitler’s birthplace and childhood home in the Austrian border town of Braunau–a building that officials had let decay for years in the hopes of one day destroying. “They wanted it to get so bad that they could tear it down and no one would notice,” one resident told me. But protests by the Jewish community forced the government to leave the building standing in public memory–first it served as a library and now, much like the camp in the center of Plattling, it is a school for handicapped children. There is no sign or plaque affixed to the structure reminding people of its past; there is only a tiny inscription on a boulder taken from Mauthausen–Austria’s largest concentration camp–and placed on the sidewalk outside, which you must bend down to street level in order to read: For peace, freedom and democracy: never again the fascism that killed millions. Despite the building’s anonymity, each year on Hitler’s birthday policemen stand watch to prevent neo-Nazi groups from leaving flowers on the doorstep.
A similar ignorance may have been destined for citizens in the nearby farming community of Plattling, whose legacy remained an untold chapter of Holocaust history for decades. A half century ago, a priest in Plattling wrote a 300-page history chronicling the town from medieval times up until 1954, making no mention of the Nazi presence or the concentration camp. Part of the reason may have been the scarce paper trail left behind in post-war Germany; one of the few documents that still exists about the camp is a denouncement a Plattling police chief filed during the war, accusing Nazi officers of violent acts against Jews. Also on record, in Munich, are the interrogation and trial transcripts of SS officers like Josef Brauner, one of more than 30 Nazis tried and hanged by the United States military for crimes committed at Camp Plattling.
However, at the same time that Germany as a whole began digging deeper into its wartime past, the haze of denial that had settled like an uneasy dream around Plattling began to lift in 1981. That was the year that a journalist and local historian named Michael Westerholz first heard about the camp and began going from house to house interviewing people about what they remembered. Residents had felt under tremendous pressure to stay silent after the war and many had turned ill, often blaming their sicknesses on the failure to speak about horrors that had haunted them for decades. When Westerholz began knocking on doors in the 1980s, inviting people to describe the past as they best remembered it, stories about the concentration camp rushed out like a river dammed for 40 years. Westerholz compiled the anecdotes, letters, photographs, documents and conversations into a narrative he re-worked for 13 years before self-publishing it in 1995 under the title Sick People: Slaug htered Like Cattle.
Eight months after its publication, Sick People sold out of its first printing of 6,000 copies. The slim, yellow-covered book, just 110 pages long, had, in unsentimental and unsparing character, split open the town’s secret and caused an uproar. Enraged citizens denounced Westerholz for the lies they said he’d slandered on their families. The mayor of Plattling, Sigfreud Scholz, attacked him in the press. Neo-Nazi groups made threats against his life. But strong reactions echoed from the other side as well. Residents praised Westerholz for telling the truth, for daring to write a story that brought the town’s dark history to light, and for lifting the shadow that had hung for so many years over Plattling.
I met Westerholz, now in his late 60s, the day before he left Bavaria for two weeks in a sanatorium on the Baltic coast. He had a large belly and a heart condition. His throaty jowls and broad nose and forehead showed a kind and tired erudition. Seated in wicker chairs in the Japanese garden outside his home, Westerholz peered at me through thick eyeglasses, smiling at the coincidence that we should meet on the day a letter had come to him from England, he told me, written by a long-time friend and survivor of Camp Plattling.
In his 42 years as a journalist, Westerholz has worked as a correspondent for Der Spiegel and a number of German newspapers from France, Poland, Scandinavia and Ukraine. He speaks Russian and Turkish and has published more than 40 books on themes ranging from art criticism to labor unions to Danube and Bavarian history. Like many German writers of the 1960s and 70s generation, Westerholz helped open the wounds of his country’s past, and the articles he writes today remain critical of the local elites that still guard German history. In his two weekly columns for the Danube Courier , Westerholz focuses especially on stories related to Jews and the Holocaust. Early in our conversation I asked Westerholz if he was Jewish. He stared back, brooding at me for some moments before answering in a hushed voice that reminded me of the way Hans had whispered in the field. “That’s a question I don’t answer here in Lower Bavaria.
“It’s totally mistaken not to talk about history,” he said. “We must speak, we must write, we must keep publishing. The young generation wants to know what happened. They want to learn about the Jewish past, because the story of Bavarians and Jews is important for the world. We can never forget that the Nazis killed so many.”
Compared to the 30,000 people, most of them Jews, who died at Dachau just a two hour drive southwest of here, the story of a “secondary camp” like Plattling belongs in a peripheral telling of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, by looking at the ways that one small town endured its wartime legacy–not by struggling to overcome it, but by pretending for a half century that it did not exist–Westerholz presented a microcosm of Germany’s collective trauma, something the historian Jorg Friedrich has likened to “an accident when somebody experiences identity loss.
“To regain it, he has to return to the moment of the crash. As a nation, we have to re-conquer our past by returning to the moment when our history crashed: 1945.”
Westerholz told me that he never understood why people here stayed silent for so long, with the consequence that Plattling had failed to develop and modernize on a level competitive with other towns and cities in Lower Bavaria.
“Rather than putting up new hospitals and schools and growing in size, the population today in Plattling is actually shrinking,” he said. “If people had admitted what happened, they could have left it behind them. Instead they said that nothing happened.” Even today, 10 years after the publication of Westerholz’s book, and with the raw physical remains of the camp standing as evidence all around them, the people, government and institutions of Plattling still resist acknowledging the truth of the past–not only that it fervently got behind Hitler and the National Socialist effort to win the war, but that it provided the very psychological base from which Nazism was born and had a chance to flourish. Unlike other German towns that have struggled over the past half century–through memorials, museums, tourism and education–to come to terms with their wartime past, Plattling has virtually formed an identity around its ignorance.
Sick People prompted authorities to strike the names of Hitler and Himmler from the list of 20 Honorable Citizens of Plattling. But how much of an impact did it really have on this town and the other gray, silent places like it in German memory? On the 60 th anniversary of the end of WWII, Berlin is unveiling its Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to great pomp and relief. Meanwhile, the growing neo-Nazi movement campaigning in coalition to win a seat in the 2006 Bundestag offers living proof of the last words that Westerholz told me in the afternoon we spent together.
“They said that nothing happened,” he said, taking a long deep breath as though unwilling to let the final words escape from his lips. “And they continue to deny it.”
Then he uttered a final word to me, Shalom , as I walked away.