The ear-splitting din in the schoolyard ceased abruptly; the children hurried to their classrooms. The silence that descended on the small yard threw into bold relief the full provincialism of the streets in the village of Stederdorf, in northwestern Germany: dormant stone houses; small, well-tended gardens; a gentle dripping of winter’s waning days.
Jürgen Gückel entered an empty classroom and looked around. Sixty years ago he was a pupil in this school. He has a vivid recollection of his first teacher, Walter Wilke. He also remembers how one day, in the middle of a class, Wilke left in the company of two policemen, and never taught there again.
In his interrogation Walter Wilke admitted that his real name was Artur and that for 16 years he had been using the identity of his brother, who was killed in World War II. He was one of a group of defendants in one of the most significant judicial proceedings that took place in West Germany, accused of murdering 6,600 people.
As an SS officer based in Minsk, in occupied Soviet Byelorussia (today, Belarus), Wilke was the commander of mass executions by firing squads, killed with his own hands those who survived gassing attempts in trucks, and was responsible for the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto. He also oversaw the deportation of the Jews of the Slutsk ghetto in 1943, where he personally shot people who fled – looking like living torches – as the ghetto burned. “A fanatic, passionate nationalist,” the judges ruled, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
None of these facts were known to the children of Stederdorf – neither before nor after his arrest; nothing of his deeds could tarnish the image of the teacher and intellectual who educated the village’s young children for about a dozen years. Gückel and his classmates had no idea why their teacher was incarcerated. Wilke served only half his term: He was released after five years mainly because of poor health, returned to Stederdorf and lived there until his death, in 1989.
A few years ago, shortly before his retirement, Gückel, a journalist who lives today in the nearby town of Peine, encountered Wilke’s name in a theological article about remorse among Nazi criminals. “I knew him when he was still calling himself Walter Wilke,” Gückel says today.
Astonished by the information, he started to investigate. Last December, he published a book, “Class Photo with Mass Murderer” (in German), the fruit of more than three years of research in numerous archives. On the book’s cover is a photograph of 6-year-old Gückel with his classmates and their teacher.
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For decades, Wilke’s true identity was shrouded in silence. That silence made it possible for the murderer to live and work in the village under an assumed identity, and also to return to it after serving half of what was, to begin with, an unconscionably short prison term – and then to be completely forgotten after dying at a ripe old age.
Blanket silence: on the part of his extensive family, his many acquaintances in the village, his colleagues and the authorities. It was a silence so all-encompassing that it was as though a secret order to maintain it had been issued in 1945 and obeyed for almost three-quarters of a century, until December 2019, when Gückel published his book. How is it possible for a whole community to shut its eyes, and what happens when one boy, now 67, decides to talk?
Aiming for the neck
Artur Wilke was a promising young man: Born in the Prussian province of Posen, he was a devout Christian, highly educated, an expert in ancient languages, and a graduate of theological and archaeological studies. He joined the Nazi Party in 1931, and seven years later, at the advice of a professor, became a member of the SD, the intelligence agency of the SS. “They need learned people there,” the professor told his students. Wilke was 28, ablaze with ambition, blond with prominent cheekbones and a high forehead, “racially desirable for procreation,” according to the SS reports.
In 1942, he was stationed at SD regional headquarters in Minsk, the capital of Soviet Byelorussia. The unit was engaged in thwarting enemy activities, ranging from underground meetings of the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing, to those of secret partisan networks. Proper judicial proceedings were rare at the time: Suspects were interrogated in the cellars of Minsk’s prisons and afterward disappeared. As SS chief Heinrich Himmler had made it clear that “in principle, every Jew is a partisan,” the unit also dealt with the Jews.
The murder sprees in the eastern regions of occupied Europe were raw and ferocious. The local extermination camp in the Minsk area, Maly Trostinets, encompassed several forested areas, each containing a number of pits – about 50 meters long, five meters wide and two meters deep – allowing for the shooting of a few hundred people in each round. The shooters were told to aim for the neck. Wilke sometimes shot and sometimes guarded. Eventually he was put in charge of the shooting and when needed, finished off gassing victims who had survived that experience.
Between executions, he read poems by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, which he had brought from home. He also kept a personal diary, which he kept in a closet and was later found by the Red Army.
“Monday, Feb. 8, 1943… 05.00 Starting in the ghetto, a very good start, 1,300 Jews removed… Afterward the sector commander Karl decides to burn (about 300-400 Jews come out of their bunkers)… March 9, 1943. The sun is shining. At night I had that terrible itching of the skin again.”
Wilke was the commander of mass executions by firing squads, killed with his own hands those who survived gassing attempts, and was responsible for the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto.
It is impossible to determine exactly which murders Wilke took part in, but the documents and his diary confirm his presence on certain occasions. It can be proved, for example, that he was the commander of the executions on the first day of one the last Aktions in the Minsk ghetto (about 2,000 victims) and of the liquidation of the Slutsk ghetto (1,600 victims). According to this rigorous calculation, which apparently reflects only some of the massacres that went on, the court of law in Koblenz attributed the deaths of 6,600 victims to Wilke.
Wilke married during the war and fathered three children. At the end of the war, however, he abandoned his family, moved to Stederdorf, the village east of Hanover where his brother Walter, who had been killed in the war, had lived, and assumed his identity. He married another woman and had two children with her. A few years later, his first wife died, and Wilke adopted his first three children: To them he was their uncle Walter. They had no idea he was their father, Artur, who had disappeared in the war.
“Part of it is also guilt feelings, because until now I did not devote enough thought to how the Holocaust still affects us,” says Gückel, explaining why he undertook his research, when we met in the village recently. “I wanted to understand that now. And also, when I asked people in the village what they knew about Wilke, I would sometimes get hostile replies, even though those people had absolutely no idea what Wilke actually did. That only served to motivate me.”
We leave the school and head for the small lake in the heart of the village. We are joined by Gustav Kamps, another former pupil of Wilke’s; his family has lived here for six generations and he himself served as the local mayor for 23 years. On the edge of the lake he and Gückel exchange banal reminiscences about the village – about someone who fell into the river, about the kiosk that closed down.
“In the village they talked about the war, but never about mass murders or anything like that,” Kamps recalls. “That, they did not see, or did not want to see. There was [tacit] agreement that we don’t talk about things like that – that’s how I understood it. ‘Let those old things rest quietly’ – that was always the comment.”
They didn’t talk, but did they know? In the years after the war, West Germany was flooded by impostors, people who assumed false identities who popped up out of nowhere and reinvented their pasts. But Wilke was brazen enough to return to the village his brother Walter had lived in before the war and to assume his identity.
Kamps estimates that the population of Stederdorf at the time was slightly more than 2,000. From the whole period of his childhood he remembers only one incidental remark. “My father said once that Wilke went to the war a handball player and returned a soccer player, and that there was something odd there.”
The same story repeated itself almost without exception in dozens of interviews Gückel conducted with veteran residents: Before Wilke’s arrest they didn’t know, after the trial they didn’t ask, to this day he is never mentioned. For example, a boy named Eckhardt, who was the best friend of Wilke’s son, never exchange a word about it with him. When it came to the father, he testified, a “deathly silence” reigned between the two boys.
“I still can’t imagine how it was possible,” he told Gückel. “But we were brought up to be silent about the past and that is how we accepted it.”
How is it possible for a whole community to shut its eyes, and what happens when one boy, now 67, decides to talk?
Wilke’s second wife, who was the local doctor, also knew and said nothing. And his relatives, the 30 members of the Wilke family who lived in Stederdorf at the time, also knew and kept silent. How did he blend into the life of the village so smoothly?
“That is a question I asked myself over and over,” Gückel says. “How did they let him loose on the children in a place where so many people must have known that he was not who he said he was? It was a time when many people looked the other way… And as the village teacher and the husband of the village doctor, he quickly became part of the community.”
Even after Wilke was sentenced and the explosive material from the trial became accessible, his past remained completely obscured. Many of his neighbors and pupils – Gückel among them – never learned his real name. The school archive documents every detail of the community’s day-to-day life: a new teacher has arrived, someone drowned in the lake, a school fire drill. But about the fact that a veteran teacher was arrested, and later convicted, on a charge of mass murder – not a word.
Gückel: “The father of a girl from my class was the school principal for 10 years. For 10 years he had a colleague who was a murderer! That man did not say a word at home about how he was tricked by Artur Wilke. It was simply not talked about.”
Did his friends know that he had murdered thousands of people? “No, we did not give that any thought,” one of those friends told Gückel. “It did not interest me. Back then, after he was released, people did not talk about politics.”
Mum on the Holocaust
“The Holocaust played an astonishingly marginal role in the consciousness of most Germans after the war,” Harald Jähner wrote in his book “Time of the Wolf” (in German) about Germany in the first decade following the war. Few people spoke about the Holocaust publicly.
The repression of knowledge of the extermination camps and the disinclination to talk about them continued after the war, despite attempts by the Allies to compel the German people to confront the Nazis’ crimes by means of films, for example. While the world was reeling with shock at the Nazis’ industrialized murder, the Germans occupied themselves with the surge in winter crimes: the theft of coal and potatoes.
“Apart from a couple of total and touchingly puppet-like villains, I still have not encountered any Nazis here,” the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote to Thomas Mann in 1949, and continued, “not simply in the ironic sense that people will not admit to having been Nazis, but in the far more disturbing sense that they believe they never were Nazis, that they have utterly and entirely repressed this.”
Repressing the past did not necessarily mean being silent about it, but when it was discussed, the assumption was consistent: The Germans perceived themselves as the victims. Visiting Germany in 1949, Hannah Arendt, who had fled her native country in 1930, was taken aback by the endless verbiage and the stories about hunger, the bombing raids and the suffering the Germans had endured in the war, which she heard time and again from people she met. Of the fate of the Jews, not a word was spoken; about her own fate she was asked nothing.
A “cloud of melancholy” covers Europe, but not Germany, Arendt wrote in 1950. There, “a lack of response is evident everywhere,” and “busyness has become their [the Germans’] chief defense against reality.”
Was the silence crucial to rebuilding a functioning society from the ruins? In his book, Gückel cites a marginal episode from late in the war. In 1933, he writes, the Nazis arrested the head of the Social Democratic Party in Stederdorf, Anton Görgner, and the leader of the local branch of the Nazi Party, Heinrich Santelmann, came to his defense. In 1945, when the situation was reversed, a group of vengeance-bent Poles arrived at Santelmann’s house, and he called on Görgner for help.
“I threw them out with shouts,” Görgner wrote in his memoirs. “This is a decent man and I can vouch for him, I told them. When they laughed contemptuously, I presented the certificate proving I was an inmate in a concentration camp. It worked and they backed off. To Santelmann I said: Now we’re quits.”
For his part, Gückel comments that “people had to begin anew, and get along with one another.”
The Allies were amazed to see that when the fighting ended, no Germans took to the streets to settle accounts with the Nazis. Some historians today view this erasure of the past, including the silence about Nazi crimes, as a development that made it possible to integrate millions of avowed Nazis into (West) German society. This entailed a series of infuriating general amnesties and statutes of limitation.
When West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, appointed Hans Globke, a lawyer who had helped write the Nazis’ race laws, as chief of his chancellery, he remarked, “You don’t throw out the dirty water if you don’t have any that’s clean.”
The 1968 generation
'In the village they talked about the war, but never about mass murders or anything like that. They did not see, or did not want to see.'Gustav Kamps
I accompany Gückel as he travels to Braunschweig (Brunswick), some 30 kilometers west of Stederdorf, for a meeting with high-school students. He belongs to the generation that came to maturity around 1968 – the generation of the students’ revolt and the shattering of conventions, of those who were not silent and confronted their parents about what they had done in the war. Was the silence broken then?
“The 1968 generation grasped much of all this only in a mediated version,” Gückel explains. “That generation studied politics in the university and drew its information from thick books about fascism, but they didn’t connect it to people, to those around them. Everything was always very theoretical.” In the case of Stederdorf, that would mean that no connection was drawn between what was taught at school, and someone who once taught there.
The young students listen as Gückel reads long excepts from his book about villages in Belarus and events in the 1940s that sound as distant as the moon and as remote as ancient Greece. Nevertheless, they display considerable interest. German high-schoolers are used to engaging with the Holocaust.
“What surprised you most in your research?” one student asks. Gückel replies that “there is so much information and so little of it is well known,” and adds that one of his goals was to give the murderer a face.
In a break after the meeting, Helen and Nikita, 17-year-olds, confirm that they “can talk about the subject without any problem.” Just recently they took part in a seminar about the Holocaust in school, tey say, while at home “we talk about it openly.”
So, is the silence history? Has Germany processed that dark chapter successfully? Samuel Salzborn, a German professor of political science and author of the book “Collective Non-Guilt,” is skeptical.
“The confrontation [in Germany] with Nazism and with the Holocaust is often described as a success story,” he says in a phone conversation. “But what applies to a small part of the society, educated and left-liberal, doesn’t apply to the majority of the public. Accordingly, I view [this success story] as a lie, possibly one of Germany’s greatest postwar lies.”
Interrogations and torture
Wilke grounded his false identity in documents, such as a membership card in the Social Democratic party (bearing a date that preceded the party’s reestablishment in the village). But more important, for the British army, which controlled the region, he was apparently an important personage and they did not expose him.
He testified in his trial that the British recommended that he keep his true identity secret; indeed, he said that in 1948 they even sent him to a secret service course in Southampton. The reason was not Wilke’s lengthy experience in the killing pits, but the new career he had started to develop at the end of 1942: as an expert on anti-partisan combat. Partisan activity in the Soviet Union was expanding at the time, and the SS responded by establishing a special division for dealing with it.
A secret cable was sent to intelligence officers on the front: “By order of the chief of combat against the partisans… The decision as to whether villages will be burned and the residents liquidated or evacuated, is delegated absolutely and exclusively to the commander of the SD force.” That was Wilke’s new assignment.
Torching villages was not an exceptional operation as part of “combat against the partisans.” In many cases, women, children and the elderly in a village were herded into a barn or a house that was then set ablaze.
The 257 residents of the village of Dory, in Belarus, were forced into the church. “They shouted all the time, ‘To the church! To the church!’” related Rudovic Ivan Petrovic, who was 12 at the time. “Then they shot the people in the church… Maybe wounded people were also burned – who knows?” The scene repeated itself in hundreds of villages across Belarus.
The cinematic version of these horrors, in the feature film “Come and See” (USSR, 1985), is unforgettable. Even if Wilke was not present in every village – there were a total of 5,295 in Belarus – he alone possessed the command authority over the atrocities.
One of the units that executed these orders was that of the sadist Oskar Dirlewanger, and named for him; it was made up of released prison inmates, and known as one of the most brutal in the SS. When Wilke was at the front he often joined the unit. Between operations he returned to Minsk and directed the interrogations in the torture cellars, events accompanied by a lot of drinking, electric shocks and benzine injections – which almost always ended in the killing pit.
“Artur Wilke belongs to the type of mass murderers who were present in the field and are responsible for victims on a scale of tens of thousands,” says historian Peter Klein, of Touro College Berlin.
“He did not have a broad perspective, like the more senior SS and police commanders, who drew up large-scale plans. But in western Belarus, he bears chief responsibility for the mass murders of 1942-1943, both of Jews and of the civilian population.” He was, however, never brought to trial for that anti-partisan episode in his career.
Gückel presented his findings to the Stederdorf villagers in stages, with the sensitivity of a group therapist.
“The first meeting was attended by 140 neighbors,” he says. “I presented the story, and a long silence fell on the audience. The people were completely dumbfounded, because they of course did not know beforehand what Artur Wilke really did.” Over a period of three months, the local paper serialized the entire book. Now, Wilke’s name was on everyone’s lips; the hostile responses to Gückel disappeared completely.
The story’s effect on German audiences in general is palpable. At the end of an open evening I attend in Berlin, after Gückel reads from his book to a gray-haired audience, copies are snatched up and a crowd mills around him. One person tells him that in his family they discovered that an uncle had served in the Gestapo. “It happens at every event,” Gückel says afterward. “There are always people who say, ‘and in our family,’ or ‘in our school,’ something similar happened. ‘And we all kept silent.’ It’s not an isolated case, it’s a phenomenon.”
The connection that had been silenced between distant Holocaust events and neighbors and relatives, between the theoretical and the personal, was finally established.
Over the years, Gustav Kamps, the former mayor, took part in the activity of the local YMCA branch. By a harrowing coincidence, that activity also included the visits of delegations of youth to Belarus, and specifically to locales that were destroyed by his former teacher Wilke – although Kamps was completely unaware of this. Young people from Stederdorf even took part in rebuilding the church in Dory in which 257 people were burned to death in 1943, without knowing that their parents’ teacher had been in charge of the massacre.
Gückel discovered these links for the first time while working on the book.
Wilke's daughter Sigrid didn’t know about the war-crimes indictment. She and her siblings didn’t even ask what he was accused of.
Kamps: “He told me, ‘Did it ever occur to you that Wilke was there committing murder? That he perpetrated multiple crimes there? ... A person switches off, doesn’t think about it. He needs some sort of stimulus. And then the interest came too. I have to say in all honesty, then the matter came up. And then we spoke about it significantly more.”
Perhaps this is the key to the silence: lack of interest. The questions about who knew and why no one cried out lose their meaning, because no one took an interest. Gückel didn’t shatter the silence – he shattered the lack of interest.
The silence assumed its most grotesque proportions in the home of Artur Wilke. “We always called him ‘uncle,’” says Sigrid, 79, Artur Wilke’s eldest child, in the dining room of her house, in Nienburg, a journey of an hour and a half from Stederdorf. They didn’t know a thing, she reiterates. They had not an iota of suspicion. “After all, I did not know my father at all.” The “uncle” was an intelligent person but very rigid and violent. He beat her brother so badly that once he needed stitches in his head.
“We lived in a small apartment,” she says. “The neighbors downstairs always heard when there were blows and shouting and everything. My brother’s screams were awful. I can hear them to this day. It never leaves your head.”
With five children in the house it was very crowded, so Sigrid and her sister moved to a vacant room in the school. Afterward, Wilke decided to send his three “adopted” children for another adoption in the United States. Two of them remained there, but Sigrid returned to Germany within months. “My brother was grateful for the move to America and he didn’t want to hear anything more about Germany. Nothing. I didn’t hear from him for the next 60 years.”
Sigrid was 20 when the man she called “Uncle” was arrested in the school. “A phone call came. Walter has been arrested, my stepmother said. I was shocked.”
Did you ask why?
“You don’t ask. There are no questions. That was completely taboo.”
How did you come to understand that one doesn’t ask? Children always ask.
“True, but somehow there was fear. We entered a family we didn’t know at all. You also have to remember that we were still in shock from our mother’s death.”
The initial rumors heard by both villagers and the family, was that the reason for the arrest was bigamy. A partial truth. Sigrid didn’t know about the war-crimes indictment. She and her siblings didn’t even ask what Wilke was accused of. “With us there were no questions. In this story there were no questions. There were questions if something happened in school, you were allowed to ask about that, no problem. But other than that? About personal matters? No. That was the most terrible of all, yes? I didn’t know where my father was born. I didn’t know anything.”
Her siblings learned about the arrest one day when they at school in the United States.
Sigrid: “The teacher came into their classroom and said, ‘Another pig has been arrested in Germany.’ In front of the whole class! An educator has to have a little understanding! He could have approached them at recess and told them that it was their father. Horrible.”
Wilke wrote from prison frequently. Many poems. Sometimes the children wrote back. Then, one day he was released and returned home. “I think he tried to apologize for having been in the war, for the arrest, for not having had time for us. That was my feeling,” Sigrid says. Even after he returned, she never called him Father; or Uncle; or Artur. “I just refrained.” A few years later, her half-brother, Wolfdietrich, committed suicide on his 27th birthday.
All the questions about what she knew, what she thought and what she asked elicit the same answer: nothing. It’s difficult today to understand the world in which she grew up – the orphanhood, the small village apartment, the violent uncle, the war generation that erased its past. It was a world of silence. A crack appeared in that world two years ago, when Gückel shared his plans with Sigrid, although there wasn’t much she could tell him. “I tried to forget everything until now, when it all surfaced again. It is very hard, yes. Not easy. To discover all this. There is a burden.”
Is the burden heavier now?
“Yes, certainly. After all, we didn’t know a thing, and now we are starting to understand what really happened; or actually not to understand.”
The book’s publication led to a renewal of the connection with the brother in America, after 60 years. However, ties with her younger sister, who lives in Stederdorf, have been cut since the book’s release. “You have to let all these old things rest quietly,” it’s said. But Sigrid is not sorry. “I wanted to know the truth,” she says.