On today's date, April 20, in 1889, Adolf Hitler was born. It wasn't by chance that the German aktzia (roundup ) to wipe out the Warsaw Ghetto was scheduled for this date, leading to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on April 19, 1943 - the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan. This year, Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day, Nisan 27, was marked yesterday.
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Hitler's life and horrors have been analyzed extensively and deeply from every angle, but the files of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation illuminate them from two different, bizarre perspectives.
The first, when Hitler rose to power in 1933, is the official response to threats by American Jews to assassinate him. The second, after his death in the bunker in Berlin in 1945, is the investigation of the theory that Hitler had escaped and was living somewhere in the Americas, openly or clandestinely, and was plotting to revive the Third Reich.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover apparently intended to bring in Hitler's head. Hoover wrote to various informers, some crazy and some avaricious, who told him they had seen Hitler and his partner Eva Braun riding a train or sitting in a neighborhood cafe in a quiet Virginia town, right under the nose of a complacent administration. Many of these documents were released for publication only recently, at the end of the past decade, and only in part - the names of sources, witnesses and FBI employees are censored.
Hoover wanted to impress the people at the top - the president, the cabinet secretaries, the top military brass - with his intelligence information. He was competing with other agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (which was founded in 1947), and in defining the FBI's mandate, he tried to preserve its traditional bastions in Latin America. Hence the sources in Argentina, Brazil and their neighbors, the primary suspects as Nazi sympathizers.
Hitler was elected German chancellor in late January 1933. Less than two months later, on March 23, the Reichstag voted to give Hitler dictatorial powers. That day, a letter signed by someone named Daniel Stern or Stearn was sent to the German ambassador in Washington. It states, "Dear Sir, I have asked President Roosevelt to publicly remonstrate with your government the outrage upon the Jews in Germany, and to demand an immediate and complete end of this persecution.
"In the event that he does not make such a statement, I notify you that I shall go to Germany and assassinate Hitler."
The ambassador, Friedrich Wilhelm von Prittwitz und Gaffron, had been appointed during the Weimar Republic, opposed the Nazis and later resigned so as not to have to serve Hitler's regime. But the letter drove him to complain to the U.S. State Department about "a communication received here, wherein the assassination of the Chancellor of the Reich, Mr. Adolf Hitler, is threatened. I would be grateful if an investigation of the matter could be made and the results thereof communicated to me at its conclusion."
The State Department forwarded the German Embassy's request to the Justice Department, which passed it on to the FBI. Hoover instructed the bureau's Washington branch to "ascertain the identity of the writer."
Two weeks later the investigation was passed along to a field office in Philadelphia. Investigators in both cities used a sophisticated method - flipping through phone books and municipal registries. They found that a man named Daniel Stern had resided at a specific address, but the building janitor said he had left the apartment more than a year earlier, and his whereabouts were unknown. Stern "appeared to be very high type person and was highly respected by the other tenants in the apartment house," the janitor reportedly said.
The German consul in Philadelphia told an FBI agent that he believed the letter writer was "in all probability some crank, who is a sympathizer of the Jewish element." Moreover, the consul told the agent, he himself was also often inundated with such threats. He did not take them seriously, he said.
On April 21, the German Embassy received another letter, this time in German, signed by a C. Portugall. The translation by the German Embassy reads: "Permit me to draw your attention to the following. In listening to a conversation between several New York Jews, I learned that a plan is under way to murder Reich Chancellor Adolph [sic] Hitler, and that a young American Jew has already been chosen to perform the act. The Jews present were jubilant over the plan. [I] am informing you of the above in order to prevent a possible misfortune."
The Portugall letter went the way of the Stern letter, from the embassy to the State Department to the Justice Department and then the FBI, but its author was also not tracked down.
The rabbi assassin
In August 1933 another investigation was opened following a complaint by one "Col. Steinman." The writer stated he was a Mexican immigrant in Phoenix, Arizona, a mining engineer and an officer in the Mexican army "who spent 25 years in Mexico in both capacities" under dictator Porfirio Diaz. Steinman wrote to the German Embassy that in May he had heard two Jews talking in "the San Carlos Hotel in Phoenix" about an agent sent by New York Jewry to assassinate Hitler, and that a hotel worker said one of the two men was a rabbi.
Upon questioning, the hotel bellboys said they knew who Steinman was, but did not remember seeing him speak to other hotel guests. Hoping to tie the case to the first threatening letter, agents searched the hotel registry for a guest named Daniel Stern, but found no record of such a guest between April and June.
When he was questioned, Steinman claimed he had visited a friend in a room at the hotel. "And when the latter left the room for a few minutes and he was left alone, he chanced to overhear a conversation in Yiddish in an adjoining room. The two men were speaking about conditions in Germany and Chancellor Hitler and the latter's antipathy for the Jews. One of the talkers told the other that Hitler would not last long; that a number of Jews in New York City were sending a man to Germany to assassinate Hitler. They named the German boat on which the assassin was leaving, sometime in May, 1933. The assassination was to take place between May and September, 1933. Hitler was either to be poisoned or shot."
Steinman reported that he had followed the two men down to the lobby. "He said they were both Jews of about 50 years old and quite stout .... He stated as they went out he asked one of the bellboys who they were and that he furnished him their names." He thought he recalled "the bellboy told him one of the Jews was a rabbi but he is not certain that he was told so."
Steinman claimed that in his letter, he had given the names he had heard as well as the name of the ship, but when he was questioned, he could not recall them. Asked whether one of the names was Daniel Stern, he said he couldn't remember but that he thought not.
Steinman expressed bitterness that the German Embassy had divulged his name, contrary to his explicit request. When the FBI agent continued to question him, Steinman "launched into a tirade against the Jews in this country, stating it will have to take the same action against them within 10 years that Germany has taken." He had tried to obtain a patent for a lead-copper alloy and sell it for industrial use, but American Jews "prevented the financing of same."
In October the FBI branch in Detroit reported that on September 25, it had questioned "a young Jewish boy, 19 years of age," who "has the appearance of a clean living and moral individual. He graduated from high school in June 1932 and is presently employed as a clerk." He denied that he had information about a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler or that he had spoken about such a thing. The only conversation in which Hitler's name had come up was at his dentist's office. As he was drilling the young man's teeth, the dentist noted that he had formerly used German drills, but that ever since Hitler had begun persecuting Jews, he and many other dentists in the building, he said, had been boycotting German products.
FBI agents went to question the dentist, who said that another patient told him "he did not want any German products used on him and someone 'should bump Hitler off.'" This dentist noted that this remark was not made in "a savage way" and added that this "was not the type of an individual who would be involved in such a plot." The patient "is 55 years of age, was born and raised in the state of Michigan, and it was also noted that he is quite hard of hearing and is more or less of the gossiping type."
The Chicago police called the FBI and reported that the German consul general in that city had been told of a plan by American Jews to send a person to Germany to assassinate Hitler. The source had demanded $1,000 for the information and an additional $1,000 when the information was verified. The informer had left Chicago for Washington to meet with the German ambassador. An embassy official had contacted the Washington police and asked them to keep the informer under surveillance there and in Chicago, in order to uncover his contacts. A top FBI official wrote to Hoover that the Washington police could not operate beyond city borders, and asked if the FBI would continue the surveillance once the man boarded a train to Chicago.
At this stage the FBI agents agreed that the investigation would continue only if the secretary of state made an official request. There is no record of any such request being made.
During World War II, Hoover did not receive much information about Hitler. He gave the little he did obtain - which was eventually proven false - to his superiors.
"From a confidential source information has been received to the effect that widespread reports have been circulating in Germany that Chancellor Adolf Hitler has changed his former plans for his successors and now in case of his sudden death, three German army leaders will succeed him: Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, General Heinz Guderian and Field Marshal Karl von Rodstadt. It is said these three Army officers will continue to rule Germany for a period of five years after the peace in Europe has been established.
"It will be recalled that Hitler first designated Marshal Hermann Goering and Rudolph Hess as his successors. However, Hess is now a prisoner in England and it is said that Hitler is likely to outlive Goering."
The most ridiculous chapter concerns the FBI's hunt for people who looked like Hitler.
On August 28, 1945, to the FBI, from (deleted ), Chicago, Ill.:
"Gentleman: I truly believe that you will find Adolph [sic] Hitler and his Eva (perhaps even with a child, as reported by the papers ) hidden in Japan and perhaps disguised as Japs. The disguise would naturally be there and what better country has he had to hide in up to now. Some of your agents better put on their most penetrating glasses."
September 21, 1945, a missive to Hoover from Los Angeles:
A source (name deleted ) told a reporter on the "on the City Desk of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper that upon his leaving the Melody Lane Restaurant at Hollywood and Vine on or about July 28, 1945, he met a friend of his who at the time was engaged in a conversation with an individual" whose identity he did not disclose. The interlocutor told the friend "that he wished to find some high government official who would guarantee him immunity from being sent back to Argentina if he told the following information. According to [deleted] he was one of four men who met Hitler and his party when they landed from two submarines in Argentina approximately two and one-half weeks after the fall of Berlin."
The source added, "The first sub came close to shore about 11 P.M. after it had been signaled that it was safe to land and a doctor and several men disembarked. Approximately two hours later the second sub came ashore and Hitler, two women, another doctor and several more men, making the whole party arriving by submarine approximately 50, were [on] board. By pre-arranged plan with six top Argentine officials, pack horses were waiting for the group and by daylight all supplies were loaded on the horses and an all-day trip inland toward the foothills of the southern Andes was started."
Hitler, reported the informant, was "suffering from asthma and ulcers, has shaved off his mustache and had a long 'cut' on his upper lip."
October 3, 1946, from Mrs. (deleted ), Department of State, to columnist Walter Winchell, New York:
"One day in August 1946, I went down the street on business, stopped at the S.W. Restaurant for lunch, as usual the place was crow[d]ed, tables scarce, looking around trying to find a place I found this man at a small table just for two, so I asked if I may share his table ... I sat down, trying to figure out just who that person could be, after close observation, Hitler came to my mine [sic], 'I thought Hitler in person.'
"So then I looked for something to make that name fit with the person, the following: Description: I found was right jaw larger than the left, black mustache cut like he had his cut, dark eyes, black hair, it looked like it had been dyed, the most impressive thing about the man was his hands, large with a large ring on the left hand, just as white as could be, looked like he had been in confinement for sometime, would say he is about 5 feet, 7 inches, 150 lbs., more or less, suit was miss matched [sic] coat of checks, cheap looking, very nervous he played with his napkin, after he finished his lunch he sat at the table playing with his napkin and watching his watch, after a period of time he leaves saying (Par don ) ...
"I agree with you that Hitler is not dead, I really think he is right here in Washington, D.C."
May 8, 1947, from Hoover to (censored ):
"Reference is made to your letter dated April 28, 1947, wherein you state that a reputable physician and surgeon of [censored] reported information to the effect that possibly he had been treating Adolf Hitler ... Most of the statements in the public press allege that Hitler is in South America and he went there by submarine. None of these allegations of course can be proven by fact and the American Army officials in Germany have not located Hitler's body nor is there any reliable source who will say definitely Hitler is dead; therefore the possibility exists that he is alive. The United States Army is spending most of its efforts to locate Hitler in Spain."
Hoover's letter goes on to say that the doctor prescribed the patient "tablets containing 20 milligrams Trasentine and 20 milligrams of phenol barbitol, one to be taken before each meal" and "formed the impression that the man might be Hitler," so much so that he had the man come back for a follow-up appointment in the presence of the doctor's daughter, a college student and "a very stable type young woman." "The doctor stated that his daughter, after viewing this man, had become so nervous and excited she could not stay in the office, due to the fact that she too thought this man could have been Hitler from his appearance."
A handwritten note, undated:
"Dear Sir, I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut that Hitler is located right in New York City!
"There's no other city in the world where he could so easily be absorbed. No doubt you have considered this possibility, but I mention it for what it is worth anyway."
March 3, 1948, FBI Office Memorandum. Subject: Adolf Hitler and woman aboard City of New Orleans, Ill. Central Railroad.
"Dr. McSwain stated that this was washed out; that two Special Agents, [censored] and [censored], had got on the train and had closely observed the person in question and his woman companion. It was so obvious to the agents that this person was not Adolf Hitler that they did not make a positive determination of his identity, feeling that it would possibly create a situation causing absurd publicity. He stated that the person in question was not more than 42; that instead of a foreign accent he had a very pronounced southern accent; he wore a brown mustache; and his general appearance and over-all description precluded any possibility of his being identical with Adolf Hitler. The woman accompanying him, who had previously been stated to be 41 years old, in the opinion of Agents [censored] and [censored] could not have been more than 22 or 23."
November 28, 1950, to Hoover from the branch in Madison, Wisconsin:
"This is to advise that [censored] in Madison, Wisconsin, has reported to this office that he is positive that an individual by the name of [censored] was in reality Adoplh [sic] Hitler in disguise, and that he was very convinced of this fact and that in the event the agents of the Milwaukee office did not immediately apprehend [censored] he was going to write to Washington in order to see that this matter is properly taken care of.
"It is to be noted that [censored] at the time of the interview would interrupt the interview to play the violin and to open the door in order to see that his neighbors weren't listening, and generally appeared to be mentally deranged."
The FBI's obsessive concern with Hitler raises the question of whether it was only the censored sources who were mentally deranged.