Uncovering My Family’s History—or a Clever Scam—75 Years After Kristallnacht
A woman in Germany claimed to have photos that could solve a mystery about my great-uncle’s death. But was she telling the truth?
This is a story of my own foolishness. I got scammed on the Internet. I lost some money—not a fortune, but enough to sting a little. I didn’t offer assistance to a deposed Nigerian government minister or try to collect winnings from a lottery I never entered. I went looking for a movie of my great-uncle Leopold being marched to his death by the Nazis, and someone in Germany took advantage of me.
To start at the beginning is to go back exactly 75 years, to Nov. 9, 1938. That night, the night we now call Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass,” the Gestapo arrested my grandfather Felix at his apartment and hauled him off to Buchenwald. While that was happening in Frankfurt, the window glass was shattering on his brother Leopold’s drygoods shop in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Kissingen. Leo was arrested but spared the trip to a concentration camp. They held him in the local jail instead. He emerged a few days later, in time to sell his shop’s inventory to a neighbor who saw an opportunity. They said the sale was of Leo’s own free will, but the buyer paid pfennigs on the Reichsmark, and Leo had to hand over a hefty transaction fee to the Nazi Party’s District Economics Adviser.
My grandfather was released from Buchenwald after a few weeks and fled to Switzerland. Leo stayed behind. Three and a half years later, Leo was dead. It was all quite orderly. He was seized in Bad Kissingen, taken to nearby Würzburg, marched through the streets with 800 other Jews from the region, put on a train, and deported to Poland. I lose the thread of his story as the train leaves the station on April 25, 1942. I am desperate to know whether he was killed on the train trip to the Polish ghetto, or if he died of disease or starvation in the ghetto, or if he was shot on the way to the death camp Sobibor or was gassed there and incinerated. It’s one of those. I’ll never know which.
But I do know what the death march to the train looked like, because the Gestapo took pictures. A photo album of the deportation survived the war and was seized by Allied forces. It was used as evidence at Nuremberg and at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. I’ve examined these photos with a magnifying glass, looking for Leo in the masses. He is not to be seen, but in a couple of the photos you can see a movie camera. Yes, the Nazis actually made a film of their crime. We know that Gestapo officials screened it, but it disappeared and is presumed lost or destroyed.
Fast forward to my foolishness.
After years of gathering the scattered traces of my great-uncle’s life, with some surprising successes, I decided back in June to hunt for the film. Of course it probably burned in a bombing or was destroyed by some nervous German official as the Allies closed in. But things you think would be gone survive somehow. Last year a guy in England found a coded military message from 1944 on the skeleton of a carrier pigeon in his chimney. Maybe this movie is in an old box or a long-unopened suitcase in some German attic.
I can’t go crawling through the attics of Germany. But this summer, it occurred to me that I could use the power of the Internet to ask Germans to go crawling through their attics for me. I made a short video in German, describing Leo’s well-documented deportation and asking people to help me find the missing film. It’s not about assigning blame, I assured them, or seeking reparations. It’s just about finding Leopold, rescuing him from oblivion. I posted the video on YouTube and created an email address to receive suggestions. The video didn’t exactly go viral, but the website of Der Spiegel, a leading German magazine, picked it up. For a couple of weeks, my inbox was filled with sweet but unhelpful suggestions from Germans who were moved by my plea. These soon trickled off, leaving only a steady stream of spam.
Months went by. And then, on Sept. 30, an email from a German email address appeared. In grammatical, conversational German, it said: “Hello. We are in possession of 17 original photos of the deportation to Poland. Would you like to buy them? But only if you can guarantee absolute discretion. Thank you!—Susanne.”
I was excited and intrigued. I wrote back to confirm that these were photographs of the deportation in question and that they weren’t simply duplicates of the well-known photos that had been around since the war. Susanne replied: “These are never-before-seen photographs of the deportation from Würzburg to Poland. We’re in possession of a photo album of my grandfather’s. My grandfather was in the Gestapo there. That’s why discretion is so important to me.” She went on to say that the album contained 17 photographs of the April 25 deportation, 26 other pictures having to do with Jews in Würzburg, and 90 other photos of her grandfather’s Gestapo service, all of them inscribed with dates and explanatory notations. “Naturally,” she said, “the photos have only been in the family’s possession, and I inherited them when my grandfather died.”
I found myself perversely overjoyed. It’s odd to be thrilled at discovering pictures of a death march, but when the death march is your great-uncle’s and you’ve been searching for him for years, it’s a big deal. I also knew that whether or not Leo appeared in the pictures, this was an extraordinary historical record. Most of all, I was thrilled that my hunch was right: One simple YouTube plea and German attics were flying open, disgorging their secrets. How many other photo albums were out there? Would the film itself turn up?
I was also a little disgusted. Susanne, the granddaughter of a perpetrator of my great-uncle’s murder, was offering to sell me evidence of the crime. It seemed tone-deaf, mercenary, oblivious to the enormity of my family’s loss and her own grandfather’s guilt. But I didn’t begrudge her the desire to see a little profit from her inheritance.
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