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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?

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Leopold Müller’s identity card, issued in 1939. (Courtesy of the author)
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Our correspondence continued. I assured her that I’d be discreet and asked her whether she had scanned a photograph that she could send me. I also asked her what she wanted for the album.

She wrote back with embarrassment, asking me what “scanned” meant. “Pardon the question but my husband and I are not the youngest and we really don’t know all of the new terms,” she said. Rather than answer my question about a price, she asked if I might possibly have the opportunity to go to Germany to have a look at the album and take it from her.

It was also at this point in our correspondence that Susanne, without my bidding, brought up her discomfort over what the photos showed. “I’m sorry for what happened to your family but what’s to be done about it? It’s awful when you think about what your own grandfather unthinkingly participated in. That’s how it must have been, even though by then he was already pretty high-ranking. But when I remember the stories he used to tell I still get shivers down my spine.”

The word “unthinkingly” sent shivers down mine. Here was the tired, bankrupt narrative of German innocence: Everyone was a little ignorant cog in a big terrible machine, just following orders. I thought this German illusion of innocence had been shattered decades ago, but apparently not, at least for Susanne. I said nothing about this to her, though; I didn’t want to make her regret reaching out to me.

I explained to her what I meant by “scanning”: Could she send me an electronic copy of one of the photos so that I could make sure it was of good quality?

“Unfortunately we haven’t made any copies,” she replied, “and for us it’s not too pleasant to send something having to do with the Holocaust by email. But the photos are all in good condition and of good quality.” She also asked again whether I could come to Germany: “At least that would make it easier to discuss a price,” she said. And then she asked what I planned to do with the photos. Did I want to publish them? “If so,” she said, “that would be OK with us so long as you don’t reveal our names.”

I wrote back. Planning a trip to Germany would be very difficult, I explained. But if I bought the album, I assured her, I would promise not to reveal any names.

“That sounds good,” Susanne replied. “You don’t absolutely have to come to Germany if it won’t work for you. But it would have been interesting to meet someone who has a connection to this. Maybe another time.”

We were now four days and six back-and-forths into our correspondence, and I was still elated. I imagined myself opening the album and spotting Leo in one of the photos. I imagined a trove of primary source materials that I could publish—a coffee table book that readers would pore over and Holocaust scholars would mine for new insights. It was enough to make me want to hop on a plane to pick up the album immediately, so I went back to my calendar and found a long weekend in November when I thought I might be able to make a trip work. I wrote to Susanne, inquiring whether she’d be available that weekend.

“I can’t tell you today what I’ll have going on that weekend,” she replied. “But I can look into how to ship a package to the USA. Or do you have experience with that? DHL or some other company?”

She still hadn’t said anything about a price. But she seemed willing to move ahead without my traveling to Germany, so I decided to go the DHL route. I told her that I’d had good experiences with DHL, and that I’d be happy to pay for the shipping. To supply a little of the personal contact she seemed to want, I attached a photograph of Leo with his dog from before the war and a photo of myself with my wife and daughters. I thought maybe this personal touch would help her feel comfortable going ahead with the transaction.

Susanne replied the next day: “Yes, shipping through DHL will work. Thanks for the pictures. What price do we want to set for the album? You can certainly make an offer!”

This plunged me into uncertainty. Some of it was about obvious things: Was it wise to send money to someone I’d never met, without first seeing what I was buying? How could I put a price on such a priceless historical artifact? I couldn’t exactly hop onto eBay to find out what similar never-before-seen photo albums of Gestapo atrocities have been going for.

Part of my worry came from something else entirely—an ugly, ancient anxiety I did not even know was my own. I felt as though I was being tested: the Jew being asked to set a price. Would I offer too little and prove how cheap we are? Would I offer too much and show how rich we are? I bounced back and forth in my mind, low to high and back again, trying each number on as a defensible expression of the Jewish attitude toward money. I wondered: Is this what Leopold went through when he had to sell his shop’s inventory after Kristallnacht?

I ultimately settled on an offer of 450 euros (about $600) plus shipping costs. Susanne accepted it the next day. “The shipping costs for the package are 17.90 euros,” she said. “Let’s just make it 470 euros including shipping and that’ll be OK for us.” She gave me her name, her street address, and her grandfather’s name, reminding me to keep these all to myself: “It has to stay private that I’m his descendant and that we are the ones who sold you the album.” She gave me all of the necessary wiring information for her account at the German bank Targobank, including the IBAN and Swift numbers. She told me she was going to buy a box at the post office and pack the album up well. She asked what sort of description she should list for the U.S. customs form—“just ‘photo album?’” And again she stressed the need for discretion in the wiring transaction. “It’s important not to write anything about WWII or anything like that. We don’t want our bank to potentially ask us what we sold because the people down there all know us very well.”

And that was that. On Monday, Oct. 7, a week after she first contacted me, I wired her 470 euros. While we waited the couple of days for the transaction to clear, I asked her something I’d forgotten to ask earlier: How exactly had she found me? She explained that it was by chance. She likes to read Der Spiegel online, and a couple of months earlier she had seen the link to the video about my search for the film. She watched it and then she and her husband spent a long time debating whether to write to me because of their worries about disclosure. “But then we decided to go ahead and do it because it might help you learn a little more on the subject of your family,” she said.

On Tuesday, she told me that she planned to send me the album on Saturday when she went to the market, and that she’d let me know when it would reach me.

On Thursday, she confirmed that the money had reached her bank account, and again said she’d ship the album on Saturday.

I wrote her on Saturday afternoon to say that I hoped everything had gone well with the shipment and that I’d appreciate a tracking number so that I could monitor the shipment. Late that night she answered that she had gotten to the post office too late. There was so much going on at the market, she explained, that she hadn’t managed to get the package off. She apologized and said she would take care of it on Monday.

That’s the last I heard from Susanne.

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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?