Day to remember: Nazis formalize obliteration of Jews

January 19, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN GRAPHICSSpecial to The Sun

BERLIN -- It is Jan. 11, 1943, 20 degrees below zero, and 24-year-old Ilse Rewald's short defiance of the Nazi Holocaust seems at an end. Having abandoned her apartment, torn off the yellow star and buried her Jewish identity card, she now finds herself turned away by a Berlin family who she hoped would take her in.

"I started to walk down the stairs from their apartment, crying and wondering what I would do next. Then they called me to come back. They had decided that they couldn't bear the responsibility of leaving me to the Gestapo," Mrs. Rewald said.

From then on, Mrs. Rewald became one of the thousands of Jews who daily defied the Nazi authorities' efforts to exterminate them. Living by their wits and with the help of friends, hundreds escaped the death camps that claimed millions of Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe under Nazi occupation.

Today, 50 years after top Nazis met on Jan. 20, 1942, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to coordinate this campaign of genocide, Mrs. Rewald and others will be commemorating the infamous meeting with services, speeches and the opening of a museum in the very villa where the conference took place.

In addition, readings, concerts and exhibitions, including a massive exhibition on Jewish culture in Berlin, will mark the grim anniversary in Germany.

For Mrs. Rewald, the Wannsee Conference meant the beginning of her clandestine life underground, constantly having to avoid police checks and make do without the all-important food ration cards.

Although no one on the street heard of the 1942 conference, its goal was to force all remaining Jews out of Germany over the next year -- even those like herself who worked in the armaments industry.

Rather than be deported to the Eastern European ghettos and the death camps that had already claimed her family and friends, Mrs. Rewald and her husband decided in early 1943 to join about 4,000 Jews in Berlin who went underground. Between 1,200 and 1,400 survived until the war's end in 1945.

After the Berlin family took her in, she began a nerve-wracking struggle of constant vigilance against recognition and hunger.

A family of devout Christians gave her illegal work in their laundry, and her husband worked illegally as a truck repairman. Mr. Rewald's former boss at the railway, a socialist, gave them both fake railway identity passes, allowing Mrs. Rewald to assume the improbable identity of Maria Treptow, a secretary with one of Hitler's SS security units. The couple lived separately with various friends posing as out-of-town relatives.

So incredible did their story seem to victorious Soviet troops that the Rewalds had to dig up their old Jewish identity papers to prove that they were indeed victims of Nazi Germany and not accomplices.

But for most other Jews in German-occupied Europe, there was no escaping the reach of the decisions made at the Wannsee Conference.

In the luxurious villa hugged by the forests along the Wannsee lake, the curious mixture of well-educated government officials and low-brow Nazi security men met in what participants described as a friendly and easy atmosphere. There was no open dissension, and after 90 minutes work, French cognac was served before the 15 men returned to their departments and ministries.

With German troops in control of most of Europe, the conference was designed to realize one of Adolf Hitler's chief aims: the destruction of all 11 million Jews in Europe.

Until then, the Nazis' genocide was brutal but crude, relying primarily on mobile killing units and deportations of Jews out of greater Germany. The conference members agreed to coordinate their departments to iron out the legal, financial and logistical problems involved in deporting all Jews in German- occupied lands to the death camps.

The legal experts drew up the necessary legislation to make the victims stateless, the Ministry of Finance prepared to receive confiscated property, and the Ministry of Transport provided the railway cars for the deportation and saw to it that these trains did not conflict with other timetables.

The conference minutes show that once in the eastern ghettos and camps, some Jews were to be worked to death, the rest "handled accordingly" -- a euphemism for the gas chambers that were being perfected at that time.

Adolf Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich's right-hand man in the feared Nazi SS, who carried out most of the administrative work, said he felt no compunction in executing the plan because the conference absolved him of all responsibility.

"I had the feeling of Pontius Pilate. I had the feeling that it was not with me that the guilt lay, because what was being laid down at the Wannsee Conference was being done by the elite of the state," Mr. Eichmann testified at his trial in Israel in 1961.

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