A Picturesque Bavarian Town Shows That Germany Isn't Confronting Its Nazi Past

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Hitler during a visit to Landsberg am Lech, in 1934.
Hitler during a visit to Landsberg am Lech, in 1934.Credit: Print Collector / Getty Images
Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman

1. Verdant pastures, crystalline lakes, the river Lech, hamlets, bicycle paths, the Alps looming on the horizon: Bavaria is beautiful, placidly self-possessed, content. I chose that region for a vacation this year during the holidays that usher in the Jewish new year. A soft autumnal sun shone welcomingly on the day after my arrival, and I immediately set out on my first bicycle trip. Following the bends in the river, I arrived at the district capital, Landsberg am Lech.

The town has an ancient ambience and is well preserved, I read in a tourist brochure I found in the hotel, and no one likes medieval European towns more than I do. Indeed, after a refreshing two-hour ride, I was already sitting on a bench in the venerable town square, which was spectacularly maintained and reconstructed, from top to bottom – from the small square flagstones to the facades of the pastel-colored buildings and their pointed roofs, with all the angles and gables. But even at this early stage of my trip, in fact from the moment I sat myself down in this postcard landscape, I felt that I may have made a mistake coming here. In fact, very quickly, the vacation took me to places where I had absolutely no wish to be.

This was because I looked up “Landsberg am Lech” on Wikipedia on my smartphone, something it hadn’t occurred to me to do earlier. Now, I discovered that the Wikipedia entry about this colorful town, whose existence I’d been unaware of until a few days before, has a special section on its history during the period of Nazi rule, with a hyperlink directing the reader to an article devoted wholly to that subject. I clicked on the blue script of the link, and my eyes became glued to the text that came up on the screen.

From reading it I learned, among other things, that: Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” in Landsberg, where he was jailed for his attempted coup in Munich in 1923. As a result, the town became a place of pilgrimage for Nazis, and between 1937 and 1945 had the honor of being the third most-important center of National Socialism, after Munich and Nuremberg. It became a meeting place for Hitler Youth. The movement held mass processions in the town, ending with speeches and ceremonies in the picturesque ancient square (I raised my head and took another look at it), and the young folk would receive a copy of “Mein Kampf” in cell No. 7, where former prisoner Hitler had been incarcerated.

I also learned from the site that, contrary to what the official information provided by the authorities claims, the town’s lofty status during the Third Reich was not “imposed on it from the outside.” Indeed, as early as 1933 the town used all the means at its disposal to acquire the title of “the Fuehrer’s city,” the place where the principal tenets of Nazi ideology were conceived, and which prospered thanks to Hitler-inspired tourism.

The town and its lovely surroundings played a particularly appalling role, I learned from my smartphone, toward the end of World War II. In the summer of 1944, that was where the Nazis began building the largest concentration camp complex within the borders of the Reich, consisting of 12 sub-camps and called Kaufering, after the name of the municipality, whose train station is to this day a central railway junction. Beginning in September of that year, prisoners, the vast majority of them Jews, were transported to the station from ghettos and concentration and death camps in the east, and were taken from there to the Kaufering complex. French resistance fighters were also incarcerated in one of the camps.

The inmates of all the sub-camps were forced laborers in the munitions works that were intended to save Germany from imminent defeat. Many prisoners died in the cattle cars in which they were transported over days and nights to Kaufering. Thousands more perished in the camps in the months that followed of starvation, disease, cold, shooting and abuse.

At the end of April 1945, on the eve of their final defeat, the Germans evacuated the inmates from the various camps, because “No prisoner must be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive” – in the words of SS head Heinrich Himmler. A march of men and women who survived – frail and sick, human skeletons – passed through the ancient quarter of Landsberg before the eyes of the inhabitants. It was yet another of the death marches that Germany, crushed and collapsing, still summoned the power to organize.

Landsberg am Lech, which did everything to acquire the title of “the Fuehrer’s city.”Credit: Tim Moore / Alamy Stock Photo

This is the ancient quarter whose alleyways I wandered through that day and in whose central square I sat, like many other contented tourists, most of them Germans – but now I was feeling utterly distraught. This land, whose sons murdered my grandfather and my grandmother and whose offspring honored me with scholarships and hosted me in their academic institutions – and whose language and culture I learned in the meantime and whose history and literature I studied and where I spent many years and forged personal ties – this land drives me mad time and again.

My vacation was turned on its head. Very quickly I discovered that it wasn’t by chance that I hadn’t known about this network of camps, which were sub-camps of the Dachau concentration camp. For decades after the war, local residents and the authorities endeavored to ignore its existence and consign it to oblivion. Where the inmates built bunkers for the munitions industry of Nazi Germany, on the outskirts of Landsberg am Lech, an industrial park now stands. The remains of the barracks and the structures that held the inmates and their jailers were removed. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a civic association was formed in Landsberg, whose members decided to investigate the crimes that were perpetrated uninterruptedly in the heart of their residential area and to erect monuments at the sites of the mass graves of their victims. Now the information is available to anyone who takes an interest in it, as I discovered.

Still, I wanted to know more. I asked a German acquaintance of my generation – we are both “second generation,” to the executioners and the victims, respectively – to drive me to the monuments. He agreed and said he was sure he’d find them, because when the initiative for the association arose he followed its progress and had visited some of the sites.

For decades after the war, Landsberg am Lech's residents and authorities endeavored to ignore its Nazi past and consign it to oblivion.

But this is what we discovered: It is no easy task to find the memorials to the people who were murdered here amid the lovely countryside, around Landsberg/Kaufering. Using charts that we downloaded online, we drove around on the rural roads until we found the first sign, a low, white one at the start of a dirt road: KZ [Konzentrationslager] Friedhof (“Cemetery of concentration camp), 100 m.”

We continued on foot. The hundred meters stretched out, because several dirt trails branched off the main road. We tried one and then another, until finally one of them led us to a small area, surrounded by a stone fence with a gate adorned with a Star of David – opposite to which stood the memorial.

We stayed there a while, gloomy and silent, each of us a prisoner to our thoughts and memories, before resuming our journey. But the other signs, too, were hard to find and we were able to see only a few monuments. Each of them bore an inscription in memory of the hundreds buried there. In some cases the text was in German, or in German and Hebrew, or only in Hebrew, which neither my companion nor his compatriots can understand, of course. In any case, the words were merely hollow clichés, of the sort that I, as an Israeli, had been brought up on since childhood: about holy and pure and righteous people who were murdered by accursed evil men, about those whom hatred had brought low but who were exalted and ennobled by their agonies, and other pompous phraseology devoid of any real content – human or political – concerning what happened in those years in Europe. One of the monuments bore an inscription in German: “Through the night to the light. Here lie victims of concentration camps.”

“What is this nonsense?” I said to my German friend. “What light did the victims go to?” And he, a politically active person, critical in every fiber of his being, who had been about 6 years old in 1944-45, said, with no apparent connection, “You know, it was the generation of my parents that committed all these crimes.” And again we fell silent.

To myself, I wondered which Germans, besides him and a few others like him, would take the trouble to find these hidden memorials. And in particular to remember, to remind and to warn, that even today, Germany is repeatedly faking its confrontation with the true political lessons of the past – but more on that later.

A memorial to Jews murdered by the Nazis, outside Bavaria’s Landsberg am Lech. Credit: Ilana Hammerman

In any event, the small stones set on the fences, and a few private headstones and memorial plaques with names and dates of the birth and death of those who were at least privileged to be redeemed from their anonymity – these all show that the main visitors are apparently Jewish relatives who want to honor the memory of a father, a mother, a grandfather, a grandmother, a brother, a sister.

According to the chart we had, the barracks where the inmates lived had been preserved in one of the 12 camps – Kaufering VII – and it, too, had become a memorial, described as the “European Monument to the Memory of the Holocaust.” We spent hours looking for it, in vain; no central road sign showed us the way. Dusk was falling when, passing a place we had already gone by three times, we finally saw the sign by the roadside that pointed toward the site.

But here another infuriating surprise awaited us: The gate was locked. On both sides of it detailed signs in English and in German explained that the few tubular cement and clay structures of concentration camp Kaufering VII are the last remaining, original barracks of concentration camp inmates still extant in the German Republic. A few years ago, the sign went on, they were declared a preservation site and memorial monuments “of national significance.” But nowhere did it say when this gate is open to visitors, if ever.

We walked along a barbed-wire fence and discovered that some people had insisted on entering and had trampled the fence to half its height. We also entered there and approached the structures. Some were well preserved, but they were locked. With an effort, it was possible to see through the windows into the obscure spaces of these empty buildings, where it is now difficult even to imagine the torment endured by the people who were squeezed into them. In one of them we could see that excavations were still going on. “Archaeological excavations,” they’re called for some reason, as far as I could decipher partially, on a poster attached to a metal device. From this I understood, amid the rage that had accumulated within me, that the crimes here, if they hadn’t been committed on another planet, had been perpetrated ages ago.

The life and death that took place in these camps was documented as early as 1947, in a slim memoir by one of the survivors, Dr. Albert Menasche, from Thessaloniki. He was displaced from his city together with tens of thousands of other Greek Jews, incarcerated in Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland, and at the end of the war was brought here to assist involuntarily in the arming of Germany. From Thessaloniki to Birkenau, from Birkenau across Germany in cattle cars, from city to city, from camp to camp, until reaching Kaufering. What madness – the act of those serving the Nazi state, ordinary people, soldiers and civilians – to take the trouble to transport in this way a person from Thessaloniki, Greece, to a small town in Bavaria in order to use him to the last for backbreaking labor that by then was superfluous!

Germany is repeatedly faking its confrontation with the true political lessons of the past.

Here is how the author of the book describes the encounter with the residents of the place on the way to the Kaufering VII concentration camp: “Surrounded by police dogs and armed S.S. soldiers, the long column of tattered beings started off. Snow fell continuously ... Finally we went through a small village ... We had been isolated from the world of the living for two years and had forgotten these familiar scenes of everyday life. A few of us cried bitterly ... But quickly the dogs barking and sounds of Schnell and Aufgehen recalled us to sad reality. We were again nothing but miserable wrecks, perhaps walking our last mile. We went on ... Finally, barbed wire and posts appeared on the horizon. It was Dachau.” (Source: “Birkenau (Auschwitz II): (Memories of an eye-witness) How 72,000 Greek Jews Perished,” published in English by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture)

2. Just when I became aware of the atrocities that had been perpetrated at the site of my bucolic vacation, and of the covert place being allotted in the present to cope with their memory – a minor incident, characteristic of the German spirit at the present time under the influence of that past, occurred not far away, in Munich, former capital of the Nazi “movement.” The president of the city’s Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, demanded that the Catholic organization Caritas cancel a contract to rent one of the community’s halls to a small group of activists called the Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group. The group intended to hold a discussion with a journalist from Der Spiegel, one of the authors of an in-depth investigative report published in the weekly about the problematic activity of a pro-Israel lobby in Germany that urges local politicians to support the current policy of the Israeli government and to label as anti-Semitic any event organized by critics of that policy, be they Jews or non-Jews. The apex of their success had been the bizarre resolution adopted this year by a large majority in the Bundestag categorizing BDS (the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement, which is totally marginal in Germany) as anti-Semitic.

The article in Der Spiegel was subsequently also labeled “anti-Semitic,” prompting the weekly to defend itself by means of a long, tiresome, truly nitpicking piece that reinforced the factual bases of the original report. But the leader of the Munich Jewish community was not persuaded. She viewed the rental of a hall for a talk by the journalist as being “in the best-case scenario, dangerous negligence” (meaning that, in the worst-case scenario, it would be an anti-Semitic act). She warned Caritas that if the rental contract were not canceled, she would no longer be able to consider them a “reliable partner in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” The Catholic organization panicked, apologized obsequiously and canceled the contract to rent a room to the group. “Anti-Semitism has no place among us, of course, and Caritas will not give it any room, pun unintended,” the organization stated. The journalist canceled his participation.

A Hitler Youth march in Landberg am Lech, 1937.Credit: ullstein bild Dtl. / ullstein bi

Not long afterward, the mayor of Frankfurt, citing the same grounds, vetoed the use of a theater hall in his city for a discussion about the decline of freedom of expression in Germany in terms of criticism of Israeli policy. In a statement to the press he mentioned by name two of the scheduled participants in the event and said, “Anyone who gives these people a platform promotes hostility against Jews in our country.” No less. One of the two is a Jewish woman, the other is a Palestinian man, both are German citizens.

In both cases, the courts ruled that the cancellation of the contracts was unlawful, but as the result of the rabid campaign being waged in Germany lately against BDS, in the guise of the struggle against anti-Semitism, increasingly fewer public and private individuals are willing to rent spaces they own to civil organizations that are critical of Israel’s policy in its conflict with the Palestinians. Concomitantly, not only politicians but also the media, public figures and intellectuals are increasingly loath to publicly condemn this disastrous policy, which in recent years has not even attempted to hide its underlying nationalist, racist, annexationist ideology.

During this vacation, I also became aware of something else that happened, and is still happening, in Munich. In 2004, the city council prohibited the implementation within its area of jurisdiction of the Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) commemoration project, in which brass-coated cobblestones of about 10 square centimeters are installed on sidewalks and other places of public passage, to commemorate individuals who were murdered by the Nazis: Jews, Roma people, homosexuals, euthanasia victims, political activists and others. The initiative for installing a cobblestone usually comes from community organizations, schools and victims’ families. Many of the Stolpersteine are installed next to the murdered individual’s last address before his or her arrest. The stone states, “Here lived…,” followed by name, date of birth and, if known, date and place of death.

The project, conceived and implemented by the German artist Gunter Demnig since the early 1990s, continues today, with about 70,000 such stones having been installed in cities across Europe. By this means, the memory of the person and of the crime and suffering of which he/she was the victim are grounded in the public domain, as is the responsibility of civil society to remember and learn the lesson in everyday life.

Well, Munich banned the project in 2004 and again in 2015, and continues to reject requests from both nonprofit organizations and individuals to allocate space for it within the municipal boundaries. One of the major grounds cited for the official refusal is, again, the opinion of the president of the Jewish community, which views the stones as disrespectful to the memory of the Nazis’ victims, because passersby step on them.

In early 2018 in Singen, a town in south Germany, a local council member from the racist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party also demanded the cessation of the project in his town. He did so in connection with the intention to install a stone in memory of the communist leader Ernst Thaelmann, who was murdered in Buchenwald. The councilor took advantage of the planned ceremony to assail not only German communists but the entire commemoration project – both because people step indifferently on the stones, and because the culture of remembrance of the Nazis’ victims in Germany was becoming, in his words, a “dictatorship of memory” that was being foisted on the public. His demand has been rejected, in the meantime; that of the Jewish community in Munich was accepted.

I learned about the Munich ban during a conversation with a local resident, Dr. Reiner Bernstein, who headed the Stolpersteine project for six years in that city. As a consequence, he was recently vilified by Arye Sharuz Shalicar, a German-born official living in Israel, who is a central spokesman of the pro-Israel lobby in Germany. Shalicar, a reserve major in the Israel Defense Forces, a former IDF spokesman and at present the head of the foreign relations department in the Ministry of Intelligence Affairs, wrote the following about Bernstein in his 2018 German-language book, “The New-German Anti-Semite: Do Jews Belong to Germany?”: “Reiner Bernstein likes dead Jews in Germany and honors them with ‘stumbling stones’; but with living Jews in Israel he has a problem, and therefore he supports an organization that calls for a boycott of living Jews… Bernstein is a Jew who suffers from self-hatred. I suppose that he hates being a Jew and deep down wishes he were not a Jew… Bernstein lives in a fantasy world. He is a Jew and he will remain a Jew, no matter how much he hates it.”

That is a vulgar Israeli’s take on a person of moral stature who was born 80 years ago to Protestant German parents and who is not a Jew and does not support a boycott of Israel.

Since the early 1990s, artist Gunter Demnig has dedicated his professional career to placing memorial tripping stones in front of thousands of European homes.Credit: Steven Klein

Following my conversation with Bernstein, and under his guidance, I went for the first time to see one spot in Munich where there are Stolpersteine – in memory of the courageous Germans who resisted the Nazis, the members of the White Rose group, who were students in Ludwig Maximilian University there. Installed in the large plaza in front of the university are Stolpersteine bearing images of the leaflets which the students distributed in the institution against the Nazi regime, as well as of some of the young heroes, who were tortured and executed in 1943.

There was no concern about disrespect here; on the contrary, passersby are called upon to remember these individuals and their civic courage in the heart of the one-time major Nazi city, and to recall the horrific price they paid. Those who wish, stop and look; those who don’t want to, ignore the stones and continue on their way.

In my opinion, there is no more dignified and proper way to preserve the past and its lessons in the public space, the true habitat of Nazism. After I also visited the permanent memorial exhibition to White Rose members within the university campus, which documents in detail the group’s activity and its liquidation, I was no longer able to concentrate on the magnificent art museums that adorn the city. In Munich, too, my vacation during the Jewish holidays went awry this year.

The reason was that all the things I had seen came together in my consciousness to form a frightening and infuriating contemporary jigsaw puzzle: the experience I underwent in Landsberg/Kaufering, the rambling pursuit of the memorial monuments for the tens of thousands who were tortured there during the last months of the war, and the way those monuments were swallowed up in the vibrant landscapes of Bavaria; my becoming acquainted with the manipulative influence exerted by the lobby that supports the policy of an extreme right-wing Israeli government upon the German authorities and public; the present turning away of the German establishment from Germany’s double responsibility in the wake of the Nazi chapter in its history: responsibility both for the true dangers that threaten the millions of Jews in Israel – many of whom would not have gone to the Jewish state that arose in the Middle East, had Nazi Germany not sought to commit genocide of their people – and for the fate of the millions of Palestinians who, because of the policies of Israel’s governments, are being deprived irrevocably of the right to live in freedom and dignity and peace in their land and in their state; and the twisted, truly pathological dimensions that the campaign against anti-Semitism is now assuming in Germany.

All of that shows, in my eyes, that this country is not coping properly with its Nazi past, and today perhaps less than it ever did. If Germany were coping properly, what it would certainly place in the forefront of its struggle against anti-Semitism is not a campaign against the Palestinians, but against the extreme right at home, which is once more making deep inroads into German society. After all, the fomenters of most of the anti-Semitic incidents come from its camp, including the murderous attack in Halle on a synagogue and a Turkish restaurant this past Yom Kippur.

If Germany really and truly accepted responsibility for its Nazi past, it would draw from it in a deep and uncompromising way the lessons to be learned from hatred of the other, from the promulgation of racist laws to trample human rights, from the displacement and uprooting of the other from his living space, and from the use of military might for these purposes. It would apply these lessons resolutely to the policy of the Israeli government as well, and not bend and falsify them in order to stand by Israel in a grotesque posture that brands as an anti-Semite anyone who opposes Israeli policy. Indeed Germany should have long since used its senior status in Europe and worldwide to pressure Israel to terminate its military and civilian rule in territories that were earmarked, according to all the international resolutions, to be an independent Palestinian state, and to remove its civilian settlements from them and thereby enable the gradual emergence of conditions for creating a peaceful solution to the conflict.

And not only out of moral considerations. Because, given the lethal arsenal that is today available to so many forces in the Middle East, peace is the only guarantee of our continued life here as a Jewish minority in a predominantly Muslim region. That is the truth, no matter where absolute justice resides in the bloody conflict between the two peoples, if that is still relevant at all, and no matter how immense Israel’s military might will continue to be: In a reality of nuclear weapons and precision missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers, we will all go down together.

“No, apparently they don’t want us to live here, either,” I get carried away and say to myself at the moments when Germany drives me mad. For otherwise, they would not make it a point to side with the suicidal policy of Israeli governments as the linchpin of their fight against anti-Semitism, as they have done in recent years. For otherwise, they would also listen and give a platform in their country to the voices of Jews and Israelis who love their country and who oppose that policy domestically, and whose civil organizations are persecuted relentlessly and with increasing severity.

But according to their new definitions of anti-Semitism, even we, too, are destined to be considered anti-Semites in today’s Germany, a country in which not even the members of the so-called third generation can find the inner resilience to obey the true dictates of their conscience. A few years ago, a member of the German parliament from the left side of the map said to me, “You’re here to tell us what’s happening in your country? What’s happening in the occupied territories? Do you think we don’t know? But taking the right stand would mean the loss of our political strength – and we need that for more important purposes.”

In the meantime, he or his colleagues may have voted for the Bundestag’s resolution to aim the struggle against anti-Semitism in Germany not against the constantly intensifying right-wing racism –which targets mainly Muslims, if only because there are so many of them, but also Jews, who are only a small handful – but against BDS and in favor of Israeli policy, both of which are related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to anti-Semitism.

From Kaufering and Landsberg and Munich to the Bundestag in Berlin, things are askew in Germany, and are continuing to unravel. Last month marked the 81st anniversary of the Kristallnacht riots in the heart of the German population, who just stood by, and the lesson is constantly growing dimmer. Germany is taking the easy way out, it is not protecting us Israeli Jews; it is serving its own political and economic interests and aligning itself with the strong side, the Jewish Israeli side – on its way to perdition. The heart and the mind find it hard to believe.

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