‘I never hid my family’s Nazi history, and never will’
‘I never hid my family’s Nazi history, and never will’
By Hanan Greenwood Anna-Suzette Pfeiffer managed to hold back her tears throughout our entire interview, except for one time. When she spoke of how the Nazi regime murdered Germans with disabilities before World War II in Tübingen, southwest Germany, just half an hour away from her hometown. “The Nazis thought these people did not deserve to live,” she said,
Anna-Suzette Pfeiffer managed to hold back her tears throughout our entire interview, except for one time. When she spoke of how the Nazi regime murdered Germans with disabilities before World War II in Tübingen, southwest Germany, just half an hour away from her hometown.
“The Nazis thought these people did not deserve to live,” she said, in tears. “And this happened only half an hour away from my house. The Nazis were so pleased with how smoothly the process went, and how easy it was to kill people, that they decided to replicate the project in extermination camps.”
Anna-Suzette, only 19 years old, is shocked by the atrocities her people committed against the Jews. But she is also shocked by the history of her own family: her great grandfathers were senior Nazi officials, two of whom participated in the extermination of Jews. One was an engineer who built the gas chambers and the electric fences around the Auschwitz camps, the other – an SS sniper, who killed Jews and partisans in the Netherlands.
“They were part of this machine, part of this terrible killing,” Anna-Suzette said. “These are my people. My nation. And that is what brings me here.”
I met with Anna-Suzette in the beautiful garden of the ADI rehabilitative village in the Negev, where she has volunteered for almost a year, working with children with physical disabilities and on the autism spectrum. She first came to volunteer here in October last year, as part of the March of the Living project.
“It’s not that I constantly think about the need to rectify what my family members did in the Shoah,” she said. “True, it’s a significant part of my life, but I’m also an ordinary young woman who came to volunteer. I enjoy helping children.”
Born in 2002, Anna-Suzette spent a lot of time with her grandparents, who refused to speak about the family history during the war, and not even Anna-Suzette’s parents knew, they say, about the atrocities committed by their grandparents.
In 2007, two Tübingen residents – Jobst and Charlotte Bittner – began to research events that occurred in the city during WWII as part of Holocaust remembrance efforts. Similar initiatives took place across all of Europe.
Their research revealed that many of the local residents were unaware that they were descendants of Nazi criminals. The couple – who run the TOS Ministries Christian charity organization – decided to hold their own March of the Living with several hundreds of friends and acquaintances. Among the attendees were Anna-Suzette’s parents.
“Most Germans don’t speak about what they had done in the war because they are ashamed, and because they didn’t want to deal with the consequences that their confessions would bring about,” Anna-Suzette said. “There’s a saying in Germany that the only culprit at the end of WWII was Hitler because everyone else kept shifting the blame onto someone else. My parents began to research the past and discovered a terrifying history. All their grandparents used to be Nazis.
“The founders of Tübingen were antisemites, and so were the residents who came after them. They were proud of the fact that they established a university that had no Jews. Hundreds of years later, on Kristallnacht [Night of Broken Glass], residents burned down the local Jewish synagogue and used the remaining bricks to build a pigsty.
“During the Holocaust, members of the Nazi Party trained officers in the city, who were then sent to all corners of Europe and advanced to high ranks. I’m still learning about my family’s history, even today, and the more I find out, the worse it gets.”
One of the earliest atrocities committed by the Nazi regime occurred at the Grafeneck Castle, a half-hour ride from Tübingen. There was established a “euthanasia” center in the early 1940s where people with physical and mental disabilities, as well as autistic people and schizophrenics, were brought to from all over the region and systematically murdered.
“At first, they used sealed grey busses in which they murdered the victims using the gas from the exhaust. Realizing that was too slow, they set up the first gas chamber in the castle, and tested it on children who were brought there,” Anna-Suzette said, crying.
Anna-Suzette became interested in her family’s history at an early age.
“I was always interested in history, and already as a child, I knew that something terrible happened in the war, but I didn’t know what exactly. When I was 12, my mom bought me a book about the Shoah, which tells the story of a girl who had to overcome antisemitism. Then mom and dad decided to tell me, little by little, what happened in our family.
“I visited Auschwitz for the first time when I was 14. I very much wanted to know who I was. Mom held my hand and told me that my great grandfather helped build the gas chambers. I felt very guilty. Why did he do it? Why didn’t he stop?
“I was angry, furious that I was German, why did it have to be me. That was the first time I understood what had happened, that six million Jews had been killed, of those 1.3 million in Auschwitz, with the help of my great grandfather. It broke my heart, how much the German people viewed the Jews as subhuman.”
One of Anna-Suzette’s great grandfathers from her mother’s side was Herman Bernhardt. He worked as an engineer at a synthetic rubber factory before the war. When the Auschwitz extermination camp was established, he transferred to a factory located at the camp, where Jewish inmates were forced to work, including Holocaust survivor and Noble laureate Elie Wiesel.
In October 1941, Bernhardt and other Nazis began to build the Birkenau camp, which was mostly designated for the extermination of Jews.
“During the war, my great grandfather came home and told his family about his actions, but told them never to talk about it, fearing that he himself would be killed or sent to the camp,” Anna-Suzette said. “Then, still during the war, he divorced, changed his last name and disappeared. That was the last time that his son Rudolph – my grandfather – who was eight at the time, saw him.”
Rudolph Bernhardt only found out about his father’s terrible crimes in his 80s.
“In 2012, he traveled to Israel to meet with a Holocaust survivor, and heard from them what his father had done, and he apologized to them. Ten days later, he passed away. My grandmother donated everything he left behind to Holocaust survivors,” Anna-Suzette said.
Her second great grandfather from her mother’s side, “Jacob Wilhelm Fuchs, was in charge of a tank factory, which apparently forcibly employed Jews. I’ve been told that he was a very aggressive man. One day, he brought home jewelry, earrings and a necklace, and gifted them to his daughter, my grandmother, who was eight. But she intuited that something was off about the jewelry and threw it away. She didn’t want to wear something that belonged to someone else.”
Anna-Suzette’s great grandfather from her father’s side, Wilhelm Pfeiffer, served in the Wehrmacht.
“He served in France, Ukraine, Russia, and other countries. His job was to prepare territories Germany took over for the visiting senior officers and public officials,” she said.
“He might also have been involved in the shooting of innocent people, but he never spoke about this. He left behind a diary, in which he spoke about the beautiful countries he visited, but no mention of what he did, of course.”
Anna-Suzette’s second great grandfather from her father’s side, Ernst Hamann, was a member of the SS.
“He was born in Romania, in a German community that migrated there,” she said. “He was imprisoned before the war, not clear as to why, but it seems it was something terrible. When the war broke out, he refused to join the Romanian army, and instead traveled to Germany to volunteer for the SS.
“He was an ardent believer in the Aryan race ideology and believed that Jews, disabled people and Communists were inferior and had no right to live. My father, who knew him, said that as a child he was very scared of him. There was something very cruel about him. At family dinners, he would speak about disabled people and the Jews with utmost hatred.
“During the war, he served, among other things, as a sniper for the SS in the Netherlands, and was involved in killing partisans and Jews. He also patrolled occupied territories and purified them from the Jews. He was an active participant in the killings.
“He later participated in the deportation of Jews and Poles from their home to concentration camps. Hamann survived the war and became a maintenance man. He died when I was a baby. I even have a picture of me sitting on his lap.
“Hamann is the one who caused the greatest atrocities,” Anna-Suzette continued. “He is the one who makes me feel at most unease. I have a feeling that Herman was somewhat forced to do what he did, and had a hard time living with it.
“Whereas Hamann did everything in order to kill people. This was his deepest desire. He came from Romania to Germany of his own accord, even though he was not rich and this was not an easy trip. He was willing to pay the price, sacrifice himself, just to kill Jews. And until the day he died, he didn’t regret what he had done.”
Q: It is heartbreaking to hear your family’s story.
“In 12th grade, I created a project about Herman Bernhardt. I sat in front of the computer and cried. I couldn’t understand how my great grandfathers led double lives. They killed and shot, treated human beings like animals, while their family was waiting for them at home.
“How can one cate human beings like that? It shocks me every time. Knowing that someone’s life came to an end because your grandfather shot him.
“A German journalist asked me once why I use such harsh words. She said it was as if I was unclothed, that I was exposing myself and allowing anyone to hurt me. That the truth hurts the German people.
“I explained to her that the German people continue to hide the truth to this day, with pretty words, and it helps no one. When Holocaust survivors hear that my great grandfather built the gas chambers, and another one was a sniper that killed people, they are shocked. But when they see a young German speak about this without hiding a thing and take responsibility – then the process of healing can begin.
“I feel that I’m making a difference here at the center, in so many ways,” Anna-Suzette continued. “When I came here, it was the first time I met children with disabilities. It was difficult in the beginning. I was peed on, pooped on, vomited on, everything. But I got used to it. Working here made me open up, and also taught me to be more relaxed.”
ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran provides residents with rehabilitative care and educational, vocational, and social opportunities. It empowers hundreds of Israel’s most vulnerable citizens to advance well beyond their initial prognoses and live happy, dignified, and meaningful lives. ADI is also establishing fully inclusive communities and laying the groundwork for the provision of the highest-level rehabilitative care for all.
Q: Back in Germany, were you taught about the Holocaust in schools?
“Yes, but in a very factual and chronological manner. No one knows who has a Nazi family history, and no one speaks about it. Instead, they hide behind facts and numbers. That is why it was so important for my mom to take me to Auschwitz as a girl, for me to understand almost from the source what happened there.
“Germans don’t speak enough about the Holocaust. True, there are commemorative ceremonies every year, and candles and flowers, and the news outlets cover it, but it is not personal. Politicians say, ‘Never again’, but in the meantime, we see more and more antisemitism, not just from neo-Nazis, but the general population.
“Antisemitic incidents happen all the time. Every synagogue has security and guards with guns. A boy in my class shared a photo in the Whatsapp group chat, with a grey cloud and the words ‘Jewish family’ written above. He found that funny. It’s insane.
“I have a Jewish friend who they called ‘Jewish pig’ and told him to go back to Auschwitz. Someone in my city put up a sign with a Star of David calling for an end to antisemitism. The next day, it was already vandalized with graffiti.
“In Germany, they always blame Israel, demonize it, as if it was a terrible country that always attacks poor Palestinians. Two weeks ago, Eli Kay was murdered in Jerusalem, but German news outlets didn’t specify that it was a terrorist attack, and the report made it seem like Israelis killed someone in Jerusalem.
“As far as the Germans are concerned, the subtext is always that Israel is at fault. There are a lot of protests, for all kinds of reasons, and there is always a group that holds Palestinian flags and calls for the killing of Jews. Why? If you demonstrate for the protection of the environment, or against coronavirus vaccines, what does that have to do with Palestinians and killing Jews? Crazy.
“You say, ‘Never again,’ but it is happening again,” Anna-Suzette continued. “In a different way, maybe not such a magnitude, but this is definitely not ‘Never again.’ Jews cannot feel safe in Germany. We must learn from the past and be moral in the future because this is the only way to heal as a society. That is why I don’t hide anything and reveal even the smallest details about my family’s past.
“Antisemitism only increased as a result of the pandemic. There were so many rumors and conspiracy theories about Jews and the coronavirus, and the nerve of Germans who protested against vaccines to compare themselves to concentration camp inmates, wearing yellow stars, and claiming they were like Anne Frank. That is completely insane. We are descendants of murderers, how dare you compare yourselves to the victims?
“At that time, March of the Living offered me to come volunteer here, and I saw it as a sign. I knew that people with disabilities are the most vulnerable, and I thought I could do good. That a German would come to Israel to help children with disabilities, specifically in the middle of a pandemic.”
Q: What do you think your great grandfathers would say if they saw you volunteer in Israel with Jewish children with disabilities?
“I believe they would be shocked, and if they had a gun in their hands, they would shoot me on the spot. They would think I was bringing shame to the family, the black sheep. I think it is wonderful that my life can be the exact opposite of the terrible past.
“It is important for me to stress, however, that the past is not the only reason I am here. I focus on the present and doing good deeds. I am proud of this. Elie Weisel once said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. In my family, there was both. That is why instead of hating the Jews or hiding from them or from people with disabilities, I chose to work with them. I cannot change the past, but I can take steps to rectify that which was broken and destroyed.”
Q: If you could, what would you say to your great grandfathers?
“I would confront them and say to them, ‘You thought you were superior, and that Jewish lives that you took were meaningless, but it is you who are meaningless. You destroyed your family, your people, because hatred never wins, only love.'”
Q: And what did your parents say when you decided to volunteer in Israel?
“My father encouraged me to volunteer. He saw how good it was for me. It was my friends from high school who couldn’t understand why I decided to leave everything after finishing my studies and go volunteer with special needs children. They asked me ‘What? Do you want to die in Israel? There is terrorism there, and the coronavirus is spreading now.’ They did not understand the meaning of volunteering in Israel for me.
“Most finish high school, travel to Australia to surf or work at a bar, and then study at university. I wanted to do something meaningful.
“I thought I would be brave and come help children, and I learned with time that they are the ones who teach me. They come from such a difficult starting point in life, and yet they are happy and full of optimism. They fight for their lives every day, and it is inspiring. They are the ones who changed my life.”
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