Who was Franz Ehrlich? Was he a political prisoner arrested by the Nazis and forced to plan the Buchenwald concentration camp, or an ambitious Bauhaus-trained architect who took advantage of the chance to gain professional experience? It was Ehrlich (1907-1984) who planned the gated entrance to the camp where around 50,000 prisoners died.
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Visitors to Buchenwald still pause next to the motto above the gate: "Jedem das Seine" - "To each his own." New information about Ehrlich is revealed in an exhibition now underway in nearby Weimar, Germany, part of a project with Buchenwald's research institute.
Five years ago, historians from the institute received a phone call from the Bauhaus archive in Berlin. They were asked if it was possible that a former prisoner at Buchenwald might have been permitted to leave the camp with a truck filled with furniture.
The unusual question prompted historian Ramona Brau to take a look into the archive, where she found that the prisoner in question was Ehrlich, who in 1939, after spending two years in the camp, was released - on condition that he continue to work for the Nazis. It also turned out that the pieces of furniture in the truck were prototypes of desks, chairs, sofas and lamps that Ehrlich had designed for high-ranking SS officers.
"The Bauhaus archive sifted through materials found in Ehrlich's estate after his death, and some fascinating documents began to come to light," Brau says by telephone from Germany. "A lot of things there were related to Buchenwald, but it took us four years to understand that he was the person who designed the gate. He never spoke publicly about his past, even though the same furniture he designed surrounded him in his home until the day he died."
According to Brau, Ehrlich's collaboration with the Nazis was "an act of survival."
"He never connected with the ideology of the Nazis, and he even claimed that during the period of his incarceration, he was active in the resistance movements," she says. "Working as an architect earned him a sort of limited freedom in the camp. When he designed the gate and the plan for the camp he certainly was collaborating, but Ehrlich could not have known that ultimately 6 million Jews would be murdered in Europe. You have to consider his point of view, as opposed to the information we now have about the period."
Brau adds that Ehrlich's work shows concern for the prisoners; for example, the camp hospital he designed. His claims to having belonged to resistance movements have never been confirmed. Prof. Dina Porat, who heads Tel Aviv University's Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, says that until Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Nazis' murderous intentions were not clear.
"Between 1933 and 1938, the camps were not intended for Jews, but for opponents of the regime, social democrats and homosexuals," she says. "Kristallnacht marked the turning point at which the Nazis began to arrest Jews for being Jews."
Bauhaus is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary with exhibitions and publications around the world. It is considered the 20th century's most influential school of design, art and crafts. Its graduates include many great creators of the International style and modernism: Mies van der Rohe, Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.
Until recently, very limited research was carried out on the activities of the school's graduates and teachers during the Third Reich. The revelations about Ehrlich only bolster the idea that the institution's heritage is much more complex than what is familiar to Israelis, such as Tel Aviv's architecture. Attractive furniture, anarchistic masks and costumes, bold graphics and innovative architecture are only one chapter in the creative oeuvre of Bauhaus alumni.
On January 1, 1972, the "Vienna Auschwitz trial" began in which two high-ranking architects, Walter Dejaco and Fritz Ertl, were in the dock. The two men had planned Auschwitz-Birkenau, where up to around 1.5 million Jews were murdered. Ertl, scion of a well-known family of architects, was a Bauhaus graduate who was drafted into the military arm of the SS in 1939. Two years later he was assigned to the construction bureau at Auschwitz, where he oversaw the camp's expansion. He planned the gas chambers that were labeled in the blueprints as "showers for special needs."
Prof. Robert Jan van Pelt, a historian at the school of architecture at Ontario's University of Waterloo, is a leading scholar on Auschwitz. He followed the trial and says it was Ertl who signed off on all the construction plans and who admitted in court that he was the death camp's architect.
"Ertl claimed that he'd tried a few times to avoid the work assigned to him, and I believe him when he says he was disturbed by the acts of the SS," Van Pelt says. "During the trial he claimed he was anti-Nazi, and he seized on the Bauhaus' democratic image. He told the judges he was a progressive person but was forced to keep bad company."
A few years after the trial, in which Ertl was acquitted, it was revealed that he had been present in 1942 when the Nazis decided to build the crematoria and gas chambers intended for Jews.
Still on the shelves
Van Pelt's research turned up another fact linking Auschwitz and Bauhaus. Ertl was one of the most enthusiastic students of the architect Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer, who was known for his progressive ideas on urban planning. Some of his trademark principles are easily discernible in the Auschwitz plans.
The metamorphosis of modernist, enlightened ideas from Bauhaus to the Third Reich is also evident in construction methods. The book of construction guidelines and regulations written by Ernst Neufert, another graduate of the institution, had a powerful influence on the Nazis. The book is still on the shelves of nearly every architectural office in the world.
"If you study the monumental and symbolic Nazi architecture, you see that it is absolutely opposed ... to the language of Bauhaus," says van Pelt. "But in terms of the management and industrialization of construction, it drew a lot of inspiration from Bauhaus. Neufert is the bridge that links the 1920s with the Nazis .... The dimensions of the prisoner barracks, for instance, were set based on Neufert's dimensions. Bauhaus ideas eventually became a significant tool for the Nazis."
New revelations notwithstanding, there is a big gap between Bauhaus' progressive ideas and Nazi theory. The school was maltreated by the Nazis and closed in 1933. Sixty-one of its students and instructors were arrested or imprisoned. Several of them, including textile artist Otti Berger, died at Auschwitz.
How should history deal with the school's graduates who collaborated with the Nazis? "There is an opportunism here in which they did not care who was heading the regime, as long as they were allowed to work," says Prof. David Bankier, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.
"You have examples of this in every field, such as the conductor Herbert von Karajan. After the war, they found a word for these people: Mitlaufer. This was someone who collaborated not out of wholehearted belief in ideology. Of course, there were also those who worked with the Nazis under threat, or who did so for professional advancement."
Brau says Ehrlich "did not have to be an architect in the service of the SS. Apparently, this was a great dilemma for him." She insists there's a difference between Bauhaus and its clean image. "In the end, only 16 of 1,400 students were persecuted," she says. "Bauhaus was not part of the resistance movements. I think you could even cautiously say that it could have continued to exist in one form or another under Nazi rule."