Original blueprints for the Auschwitz death camp, owned by the German newspaper Bild, were smuggled illegally out of Germany seven years ago, to Jerusalem. The courier chosen for the mission, Bild publisher Kai Diekmann revealed in an interview Tuesday, was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu because, as prime minister of Israel, he enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
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In an interview with journalist Tal Alon in the Hebrew-language magazine Spitz, published in Berlin, Diekmann says that in 2009, Bild purchased the sketches, verified their authenticity and pondered their fate.
“We needed to decide what to do with these sketches. I was convinced that they should go to Yad Vashem [in Jerusalem]. I thought they belonged there,” recalls Diekmann, former chief editor of Bild and a well-known media personality in Europe. But, he adds, Germany's Federal Archives thought differently.
“They and the German Interior Ministry told us that the documents belong to the German government, since it was the legal successor of the Third Reich,” he says.
Diekmann was warned not to send the blueprints out of Germany and told that he risked being arrested if he did so. “If you try taking them out you’ll be in trouble – we’ll stop you at the border, I was told. I thought to myself: Okay, what do I do? I still believe[d] they should go to Yad Vashem,” he says.
The solution he came up with was to recruit someone who would definitely not be detained by German authorities: “Then I had an idea. I needed someone who could take them across the border without being stopped. That was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We asked him if he’d come to Berlin for a ceremony in which he’d be given the plans, and that’s what happened.” There is no indication that Netanyahu was aware that the blueprints were not supposed to be taken out of the country.
So it was that a special ceremony was organized by Bild, to which Netanyahu and the chairman of the directorate of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority, Avner Shalev, were invited. The event, which received wide media coverage, took place on August 27, 2009, at the Berlin offices of the tabloid's publisher, Axel Springer.
While handing over the documents, Diekmann said that “anyone who doesn’t remember the past can err in the future. The German people are burdened with heavy shame. This was a hellish scheme and we think that this [documentation] belongs in Yad Vashem, not here.”
Netanyahu responded at the time by saying that these documents were a “true gift”: “These sketches of a death machine are very important documents which will help us preserve historical truth.”
A month later Netanyahu showed these plan at the UN General Assembly, using them to refute the denial of the Holocaust by then-president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Here is a copy of the plans for Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million Jews were murdered. Is this too a lie?" asked Netanyahu. The blueprints were later shown at an exhibition in Yad Vashem. They are now kept in that institution’s archives.
29 authentic documents prepared in 1941
The affair began in February 2008, when Bild published the blueprints on its pages, saying it had recently acquired them. German media reported at the time that they had been found in an abandoned apartment in Berlin, a version supported by Yad Vashem's records as well. Subsequently, Bild showed these blueprints to the public in a special exhibition at its publisher’s offices, after which they were donated to Yad Vashem.
However, to this day it’s not clear how these blueprints really reached the newspaper. Diekmann has now told Spitz that after the war the plans ended up in the hands of Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, who was collecting incriminating evidence about the Nazi past of Germans in order to blackmail them. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 they made their way to the black market. “We managed to obtain them,” he adds, without revealing any more details.
Another report, published in 2009 by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the documents were held by one of the heirs of an architect who worked in Auschwitz, before being purchased by Bild through an intermediary.
In any case, an investigation by Germany's Federal Archives showed that these were 29 authentic documents, prepared in 1941 by the Nazis. One of them bears the signature of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.
The story in the Frankfurt paper, under the caption: “Among friends – did Springer donate something belonging to German property to Israel?” criticized their transfer to Israel. “The Federal Archives believe that the documents, given as a gift to be kept by Yad Vashem, belong to others. The rightful owner is the Federal Republic of Germany.”
According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Diekmann violated an agreement he had made with the Federal Archives, which stated that after they were authenticated, the documents could be published exclusively by Bild and then returned to the archives. Diekmann denied this in the past but Springer publishers admitted that the original plan had been to deposit them with the archives. Only later was it decided to donate them to Yad Vashem.
But the German authorities have not formally protested to Bild, Yad Vashem or Netanyahu. On the contrary, at a press conference in 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that this gift is important and that its transfer to Israel moved her.
In response to the Tuesday's interview with Diekmann, a Yad Vashem spokesperson said that the possibility of the documents’ transfer via the prime minister wasn’t discussed with the Holocaust center. Rather, Bild had arranged the transaction vis-à-vis the relevant authorities, and the German Federal Archives received high-quality copies of the plans, which were virtually identical to the originals.
“In any case, the German Federal Archives never asked us for the blueprints or claimed that they are German property,” Yad Vashem said.
There has been no comment yet by the prime minister’s bureau.