At age 105, Brunhilde Pomsel is one of the last living remnants of the Nazi regime. From 1942-45, the height of the Holocaust, she served as stenographer to the Nazis’ minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Yet despite her proximity to the Nazi leadership, she says she never heard a word about the Final Solution.
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“Nobody will believe me, because everyone thinks we knew everything,” she said. “But the truth is we didn’t know anything. Everything was kept secret.”
Seventy-one years after the Nazi regime fell, Pomsel, now living in Munich, was interviewed for a new documentary, “A German Life,” which will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Saturday and Sunday (Cinephil handles the international rights of the movie). Her story sheds no new light on the Nazi regime except, perhaps, regarding Goebbels’ love for his dog, which he had flown from Berlin to Venice to keep him company on a trip abroad. But it does shed light on human nature, especially under a dictatorship.
Born in Berlin in 1911, Pomsel’s first memory relates to the outbreak of World War I – the arrival of a telegram with her father’s call-up order. When she started working, her first two employers were Jews: first, a Jewish-owned clothing store where she worked as an assistant, then Dr. Hugo Goldberg, a lawyer and insurance agent.
“I obviously didn’t tell him that on January 30, 1933, I cheered Hitler at the Brandenburg Gate,” she said in the film, speaking in German. “You can’t do something like that to a poor Jew.”
She also didn’t tell Goldberg about her second job: typing a manuscript for Wulf Bley, an author, playwright, radio personality and enthusiastic Nazi.
She had coffee with a Jewish friend, Eva Loewenthal, immediately after enrolling in the Nazi Party, and still sees no contradiction in that fact. The two women stayed in touch until 1942, when Pomsel got the job in Goebbels’ office. She advised Loewenthal to stop visiting her at work, and never heard from her again.
By 1943, when Loewenthal was deported to Auschwitz, Pomsel’s career was peaking. “It was very pleasant to work there; I liked it,” she said. “People were well-dressed, cultured. I was stupid.”
Only decades later, when the Nazis’ crimes were already common knowledge, did she return to Berlin to try to find out what happened to Loewenthal. All she learned, she said, was that Loewenthal died in 1945.
Could Goebbels’ stenographer really have known nothing about what was happening to the Jews? “They told us the Jews were sent to the empty houses of Germans who had returned from the Sudetenland,” Pomsel said, referring to a part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Germany in 1938.
Much of her monologue, which is the film’s centerpiece, consists of attempts to justify herself. “That was such a different life, with such narrow horizons,” she said, describing the harsh Prussian discipline of her childhood, which taught children to be obedient and not ask too many questions.
That naturally made her the kind of employee who never looked up from her typewriter. “I’m not the type to resist; I’m a coward,” she said. “I did my job.”
Pomsel even views herself as another victim of the Nazi regime that paid her salary. “The whole country was a giant concentration camp,” she said. “Could I decide for myself? No. I couldn’t. Anyone who did so endangered his life and could expect the worst.
“People today try to say they would have done more to help the Jews ... but in practice, they wouldn’t have done it,” she added. She made no mention of those Germans who did risk their lives to save Jews.
“Nobody will believe me, but I heard about the Jews’ fate only when I returned from Russian captivity,” she continued. “I knew there were concentration camps, but that they burned people?”
She recalled Goebbels as a “gentleman, elegant and noble,” but also an “actor” who could take off his “cultured, serious” mask and go crazy.
In 1945, Pomsel accompanied her boss into a bunker in Berlin. Goebbels and his wife eventually murdered their six children and then committed suicide. At that point, she felt like “an animal being led to slaughter. We had no more leadership. We were lost souls.”
After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison camp. “They treated me very badly,” she complained. “I didn’t do anything; I was only Goebbels’ stenographer.”
“I don’t see myself as guilty, unless you blame all Germans for enabling this government to come to power,” she concluded. Then she added, “There’s no justice; there’s no God. But it’s clear that Satan exists.”