Quest for Nazi father shatters German myths
WHEN Beate Niemann went in search of her father she hoped to find a man she could be proud of, but instead uncovered a truth that lay hidden for nearly six decades under family lies and deceit.
While she went looking for Bruno Sattler, a father, First World War soldier, Berlin policeman and family man, she found only SS Major Bruno Sattler: mass murderer with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Jews on his hands.
At a time when Germans have begun to embrace victimhood about the Second World War, projecting themselves as having suffered equally under RAF bombs, from Red Army rapes and under their Nazi masters on a scale that somehow equates with the millions upon whom Germany inflicted its savagery, Niemann’s story shatters this cosy attempt to retreat into shared pain.
Now Jewish groups and schools are being given special showings of an extraordinary film which chronicles Niemann’s journey in search of her father. Her disturbing voyage into the past is told in The Good Father which has won documentary prizes in the US and Canada.
It is showing in select cinemas in Germany and being screened to schoolchildren and Jewish groups. The film is a journey that many of Niemann’s generation found too painful to take.
She said: "I went in search of father I never knew and I hoped that the nagging doubts I had had about him down the years would be dispelled and I would find a man that I could be truly proud of.
"Instead I found a man who was a mass murderer, whose life was glossed over by my mother; my mother who lied to me and who continued to lie up until the day she died. I found a man who, when I was being suckled on my mother’s breast, was ordering mobile gas wagons each day to a concentration camp outside of Belgrade to kill women and children.
"I found a man who gave the orders for tens of thousands of Jews to be shot in Smolensk and outside Moscow and who participated in the destruction of 500,000 partisans, Jews, gypsies and others in Yugoslavia.
"This is what I found. This is the truth. It is inescapable. And in my greatest rage I wonder why, why he didn’t even have the decency to kill himself, to do that small thing for me?"
Broke and desperate to avoid being one of the millions on the human scrapheap of the German great depression after World War One, Sattler took a job selling jewellery in the Wertheim department store in Berlin in the 1930s. The store owned by the Jewish Wertheim family.
Then he left, joined the Nazi party, became a policeman and took the fast track to promotion with the Gestapo. Then he went into the SS security service, the SD, and then into the ranks of the Einsatzgruppen, the Action Squads which killed 1.5 million civilians in the Soviet Union before the human abattoirs of Auschwitz and Treblinka came on-stream in Poland.
In 1997, 17 years after her mother died, Niemann, now 62, went in search of the truth in 100 different archives in three countries.
But it was in her mother’s possessions and in the local planning office in Berlin that she first began to piece together the fading paper mosaic that would illustrate the moral collapse of her parents.
She discovered that in 1942, before she was born, her father negotiated to buy the spacious family house in Dahlem from a Jewess named Gertrud Leon for the knock-down price of 14,617 Reichsmarks. Sattler was able to strong-arm the property from her by offering her protection from the transports that shunted Jews eastward to their deaths every day.
He did nothing of the sort: two weeks later she was shipped to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia and then taken to Auschwitz for gassing.
By the time one defenceless Jewish lady was shipped to her doom, Sattler’s Einsatzgruppen B had blooded themselves in the fields around Minsk, Moscow, Smolensk and numerous other places where individuals were dispatched in ones and twos and then in their hundreds and their thousands.
The film shows Niemann travelling to Belgrade where she met Liliane Djorjevic, a Jewish woman whose father was murdered by Sattler. She was incarcerated in a concentration camp that Sattler oversaw and where he ordered mobile gas vans to dispatch more than 8,000 women and children to their doom.
Tears are never far away but they do not flow from Niemann’s eyes, not even when she walks into the killing fields where her father oversaw the execution of more than 500,000 Jews and hostages, 100 of whom died for every German soldier who was killed.
Russian agents kidnapped Sattler from the streets of Berlin in 1947 and he vanished into the East German prison gulag.
Niemann’s journey of painful discovery ended in the cellar of a Stasi jail in Leipzig, long abandoned, the tiny cells where men slept 20 at a time on wooden pallets. On October 10 1972 Sattler was killed with a shot in the head in the execution cell in the jail’s cellars, a lightless, airless place the inmates called the U-Boat.
"My sympathies are solely for his victims," Niemann said. "I came away from this project only wishing I had not been born a German and that I did not have parents such as these. It is my experience that Germans of this generation are all liars."
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