At Symbol of the Final Solution, Two Israelis Pass Down Its History

80 years ago, fifteen high-ranking Nazis held a meeting in Wannsee. The item on the agenda was the logistics of the Final Solution, the bureaucratization of the Holocaust

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Buedenbender visit Villa Wannsee in Berlin, this week.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Buedenbender visit Villa Wannsee in Berlin, this week.Credit: Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

There is a question that Deborah Hartmann has fielded several times: “How does a Jew feel about working in the same place they discussed the Final Solution?” She is the director of the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, and since she started the job last year, she has been a much much-sought-after subject for interviews in the German press.

“I understand that for them the fact that I am Jewish, a woman and also relatively young, is impressive,” Hartmann says, “but it’s difficult for me to answer such a question, and I have not yet found my place within this thing,” she adds with bashful sincerity. “Actually, what interests me more is to know how they, as Germans, feel about working or visiting this place.”

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When it comes to tough questions, Hartmann sometimes rolls the ball over to her colleague, Aya Zarfati, a historian at the site’s research and education department. “She’s the most veteran Jew in the building,” Hartmann says.

The house of Wannsee.Credit: Michael Sohn

Zarfati, originally from Ramat Gan, has worked at the site for 12 years. Both she and Hartmann have relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. “For the Germans, these questions are a sort of defense mechanism,” says Zarfati. “They prefer to ask the Jew how she feels – as if the Final Solution is a story of the Jews and not of the Germans – in order not to deal with how they themselves feel.”

When Zarfati is nevertheless asked how she feels about working there as a Jew, she offers a well-grounded answer. “To a certain degree, as a Jew there is something comfortable about working in a place like this, because when I talk about the German perpetrators, I myself have some distance from them. For this very reason, I am more interested in the question of how my German colleagues who work here feel.”

The memorial site at House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.Credit: Thomas Bruuns conference/House of Wannsee

Hartmann was born in Vienna in 1984, to Jewish parents whose roots were in Europe but who were born in the Land of Israel. In 2006, she immigrated to Israel, and worked as the head of the German desk at the Yad Vashem Museum. Last year, she moved to Berlin with her husband and their two daughters, after having been offered the new job.

“Early on, I felt that there was something similar between Yad Vashem and Wannsee. Both places have really beautiful nature outside,” she says. But she quickly noticed a significant difference between working in the two memorial sites. “Speaking about the Holocaust in Israel is playing on one’s home turf; it’s safe. Everyone really identifies with it,” she says. In Germany, on the other hand, she encounters “a different perspective,” one that is unique to the people that spawned the architects of the Final Solution, the detailed plan that was discussed at the famous conference.

The Wannsee Conferencewas held on January 20, 1942, 80 years ago Thursday. Fifteen high-ranking figures in the Nazi regime convened at the villa upon the lake, had breakfast and then sat down to a working meeting that lasted about 90 minutes. The item on the agenda was the logistics of the Final Solution, the bureaucratization of the Holocaust.

Among other things, they discussed the definition, registration and expulsion of the Jews. The minutes of the conference, which were taken by Adolf Eichmann, were discovered in 1947 and in due course became a symbolic milestone in the annals of the Holocaust. The Israeli public first heard of the conference at Eichmann’s trial in 1961. “Various options for execution were discussed,” Eichmann responded when asked at his trial what “solution” was discussed at the conference.

The Wannsee House memorial site and education center opened 30 years ago. It is visited by Germans, Israelis and other tourists from around the world. There, Hartmann and Zarfati face a complex challenge. “When it comes to dealing with the Holocaust, Germans have a feeling of satiation,” said Zarfati. Conversely, she says, when she guides groups of German schoolchildren, she feels that “over the years, their knowledge of the subject is diminishing.” This situation, in which both the levels of knowledge and desire to learn are low, does not bode well.

Villa Wannsee in 1921.Credit: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin
Deborah Hartmann (right) and Aya Zarfati (left).Credit: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin

The memorial site is also contending with another challenge: attempting to tell its story to different audiences, which include migrants from Arab countries, who are at times hostile toward Israel and are therefore uninterested in hearing about the persecution of the Jewish people. The same holds true for rightists steeped in antisemitism, including people mandated by the German judicial system to visit the site as a type of punishment for committing xenophobic or antisemitic offenses. Zarfati is opposed to this practice: “We are not a washing machine. You cannot send someone off to a two-hour program and expect that they’ll come back cleansed of anti-Jewish prejudice or racism.”

One guest that Zarfati guided was a young man who at the end of the tour asked her to sign off on a statement that he had undergone guiding at the site. “He was part of a large group, and participated in a brief tour that lasted all of 45 minutes. It was obvious that the court had compelled him to come here and that he wasn’t really interested,” she says. When she asked him at the end if he had questions of any sort, he responded: “No, thank you,” and went off on his way. “It was obvious that it went in one ear and out the other. That is not our way of educating.”

Hartmann adds: “We do not believe that a visit to a memorial site is a cure for antisemitism. That is too high of an expectation.” Nevertheless, she notes that in her work plan, she would like to put greater emphasis on antisemitism and racism today, and to enable the memorial to sound off on current events that are related to its area of engagement, such as the rise of the extreme right and expressions of antisemitism.

But when it comes to conveying the site’s educational values to young Arabs and Muslims, Zarfati reports relative success. “Specifically because of their background,” she says, “they have a great deal more interest in Jews and Israel, and they are a lot more active in the study program than others.” During periods of tension, for instance around the clashes in the Gaza Strip, the educational staff asks visitor groups – providing that they also include migrants – to talk about where they come from and the historical and current events of interest to them. This gives room to recognize their stories as well. Afterwards, the staff makes it clear that the program will be devoted to another subject – Nazism and the Holocaust – which neither competes with nor replaces the issue they hold dear. “It works,” says Zarfati.

Document from the meeting at Wannsee in 1942.Credit: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin

When visitors from Israel come in, Hartmann takes note of their extensive knowledge of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but their lack of knowledge when it comes to the perpetrators of the crimes. “Some of them are amazed that Hitler did not take part in the Wannsee conference,” she says, noting that she experienced a similar feeling when she was working at Yad Vashem.

Zarfati relates, “One of the participants in a group that arrived from Israel was amazed to hear about the Holocaust of Italian Jewry, for instance. She evidently thought that the Holocaust only took place in Poland.”

Prior to receiving tenure at the Wannsee House, Zarfati also guided groups at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, not far from Berlin. “At the time, I did not agree to guide tours there in German, because I felt very unsure about how to deal with antisemitic or strange comments in a place like that,” she says. In Wannsee, where the Final Solution was discussed but was not implemented as it was at Sachsenhausen, she feels like she is on firmer ground.

Nevertheless, by its very nature, Zarfati has encountered uncomfortable moments at the House of the Wannsee Conference as well. On one occasion, for instance, she was guiding a group of law students from Holland. When she told them about the fate of Eichmann, one participant opined that it was wrong that the Jews put him on trial. “It was clear to me that there was some antisemitic tinge lurking there. She was arguing over the legality of the trial, but was not using legal arguments. After the tour, I had to shut myself into my office until I managed to calm down."

Deborah Hartmann (right) and Aya Zarfati (left).
Villa Wannsee in 1921.
The memorial site at House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.
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Deborah Hartmann (right) and Aya Zarfati (left).Credit: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin
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Villa Wannsee in 1921.Credit: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin
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The memorial site at House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.Credit: Thomas Bruuns conference/House of Wannsee
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