While the annual marking of International Holocaust Remembrance Day Jan. 27 gave voice to the stories of victims of the Nazis’ atrocities, what can Germans know about perpetrators from their own family?
That was precisely Maya Levy’s question when she contacted the German government agency Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt), known in English as the Wehrmacht Information Office for War Losses and POWs, to begin an investigative search into the Nazi past of her paternal grandfather.
All Levy knew from her family’s oral history was that her grandfather was drafted into the Third Reich army at age 17. She filled out a form detailing his biographical information, and weeks later received a letter from the WASt informing her of her grandfather’s army ID and tank unit, named after Gestapo founder Hermann Goering. The letter surmised that other documents were destroyed, leaving Levy with more questions.
“He never spoke about the war when he came back, like everyone else, and nobody asked,” Levy said from her Berlin home, where she lives with her Israeli husband.
Established at the outbreak of World War II, the WASt has cooperated with Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate. While granting a recent tour of the WASt archives, Hans-Hermann Söchtig, the agency’s director, proudly opened a guestbook to the page where former Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission in Berlin Emmanuel Nahshon thanked the WASt for its work.
The WASt helps second- and third-generation descendants of Nazi soldiers learn more about their father or grandfather’s service, a subject that German families have until recently been traditionally hesitant to broach.
“For a long period of time, it was like a taboo,” Söchtig said from his Berlin office at an imposing brick complex, formerly an arms factory, in the neighborhood of Reinickendorf. “The [wartime] generation didn’t talk about this era. It was a gray zone.”
If not for an American-Jewish soldier of German descent, the younger generations might still be left wondering about their ancestors’ past. Upon leading an American team that processed military records after World War II, Henry Sternweiler defied an order to destroy the military information of individual German soldiers. A year before his death in 2010, Sternweiler received Germany’s national Order of Merit honor for his efforts.
“He wrote that he was convinced that it’s not good to compare one criminal act with the other,” Söchtig said of Sternweiler. “And to destroy these papers and not give information to women waiting for husbands and mothers waiting for sons is a criminal act, also.”
In 2013, a German TV miniseries titled “Generation War” (“Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” in German) dramatized the choices that young Germans made to serve in the Wehrmacht (armed forces), breaking open the sensitive question of families’ Nazi ties. Since the miniseries aired, the WASt has received hundreds of requests monthly from Germans wanting to know: What did my grandfather do during the war?
The agency was first established in 1939 under the auspices of the Geneva Convention, which required signatory governments to maintain and transfer records on POWs and fallen soldiers to enemy countries. The WASt expanded its task to keep records of all German military personnel serving in the Wehrmacht. After World War II, the Allied powers, aside from Russia, turned over the records they kept on German soldiers who ended up behind enemy lines.
The multilevel archives are home to rows upon rows of fading, original documents on some 18 million German combatants. Strewn together, the length of these documents would extend 40 miles. The agency has digitally catalogued most of the basic information, but scanning the entire archives would take at least a century, Söchtig estimated. The agency is staffed by 250 employees.
At random, in the section for British records, Söchtig picked a browned index card from a box of 600. It listed official handwritten information about a German soldier born in 1922, who survived bullet wounds to his shoulder in 1942 and to his abdomen in 1943. Another soldier was determined to be “MIA” after a relative inquired into his fate in 1972. In the room for American records, Söchtig randomly selected a manila folder of a German soldier who was transferred from Louisiana to Arizona to Denver. It contained his mugshots, fingerprints and health lab reports.
“Each folder is a story,” Söchtig said, reluctant to label every German soldier serving under the Third Reich as a “Nazi.”
Not all soldiers, he explained, were willing members of the Nazi Party. His own father, who dreamed of becoming a pilot, was drafted into the Wehrmacht at age 17 toward the end of the war, when Hitler rallied every male of fighting age. An American bullet took him off the battlefield. The Nazis had imprisoned Söchtig’s grandfather for a week for preventing his teenage son from attending a Hitler youth meeting, offering household chores as an alibi.
The WASt archives are not open to the general public. Söchtig opens them to Germany’s federal public prosecutor for efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, and in some cases shows them to journalists, filmmakers or researchers. But the agency’s more basic function is to provide German families information about the fate of family members and, sometimes, a measure of closure. The WASt also works with the German War Graves Commission to discover unknown burial sites of German soldiers throughout Europe, North Africa and Russia, identifying soldiers by their dog tags to issue a death certificate, when possible.
If Germans would like to know in-depth details of their grandparents’ service, including direct involvement in the Nazi genocide against Jews, they would need to supplement whatever information the WASt could provide with other sources, such as the German Federal Archives or family testimonies and documents. The WASt does not hold Nazi SS force records, which were destroyed in a facility in Bamberg at the end of the war.
As for Maya Levy, she does not know definitively if her grandfather committed war crimes against the Jews. Near the end of his life, while he was suffering from dementia, he told an uncle that he had served during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She heard him, on his deathbed, singing songs from the Hitler Youth. For now, the extent of his Nazi service and his personal attitude toward the Nazi regime remain a mystery.
“There are rumors,” she said, “and it’s hard to figure out what’s true or not.”