|The Wannsee Villa|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Any sort of reporting about the Shoah is always very difficult and has an extremely strong emotional side to it. And there are always some moments more shocking than others. When I was met at Wannsee by the Director of the famous Villa where the 1942 conference took place, my surprise was enormous when he told me as we went up to his office, “The elevator you are in is from the period…it was probably used before you by Reinhardt Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.” This casual start to the conversation immediately recalled the horror of the place, which nonetheless is superb and where no Jew was ever murdered.
It was in this house that on the 20 January 1940, under the chairmanship of Obergruppenführer Reinhardt Heydrich, fourteen senior officials of various ministries and of the SS met to plan the deportation of the Jews of Europe to occupied Poland for their extermination. This meeting went down in history as the “Wannsee Conference”, and, contrary to popular legend, it was not during it that the “Final Solution” was decided upon, but much earlier, in 1941, by Hitler himself. This conference’s main purpose was to organize the massacre of the Jews of Europe, which is the reason Heydrich had called the meeting (see the article by the historian, Dr. Norbert Kampe, Director of the Wannsee Conference House).
But who was Heydrich? Born in 1904, the son of a composer and director of a music conservatory, he joined the navy in 1926 and reached the rank of Lieutenant, but was relieved of duty in 1931 for “dishonorable conduct”. From 1932 he was a member of the NDSAP (Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) - the German National Socialist Workers Party – and of the SS, where Himmler immediately gave him the job of monitoring political opponents. In 1933 he was appointed Police Chief of Bavaria, and in 1934 head of the Gestapo in Berlin. In January 1936 he became Head of the SIPO (Sicherheitspolizei) – the Security Police – and in October 1939, Head of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) – the Reich Main Security Office. During the months April and May of 1940 he was a fighter pilot. From June 1941, it was he who gave the orders to the Einsatzgruppen to carry out pogroms and executions in the USSR. At the end of July 1940, Göring charged him with preparing the “final solution of the Jewish problem”. At the Wannsee Conference he presented his overall plan for the planned annihilation of 11 million Jews by deporting them to the East, and took the occasion to require the support of the various ministries represented at the conference. He died on 4 June 1942 following an attack carried out by Czech resistance fighters in Prague.
There is no doubt that a visit to Berlin is incomplete without a visit to this famous villa. Beyond the agitation and the shuddering that can overwhelm a visitor coming into the conference room, the permanent exhibition is worth seeing. In the conference room a photograph of each participant is on the wall, and it takes no great effort of imagination to bring to life what was said there. Here was orchestrated the scientific, meticulous, physical extermination of the Jews of Europe, including one and a half million children. Even though the exhibition does not deal only with the conference itself, it is that part which is most instructive. Very well done and laid out in the rooms adjoining the conference room, it recalls the historic events since 1933, the process of exclusion, the persecutions, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry by the Germans and their accomplices. The exhibition has something remarkable about it, that in such a limited space the essentials of the Shoah are presented extremely starkly, using very powerful, shocking photographs, geographical and strategic maps, and enlarged documents from the period. Apart from the actual exhibits, the Wannsee Villa has an educational department for schools and special seminars, a very rich library and media library where books, tapes and videos of the period can be consulted. Seminars organized by the Wannsee Conference House cover a wide range of subjects and are mainly linked directly to particular professions and the behavior of these organizations during the Shoah. These study sessions are divided into six main sections: Judaism and Jewish life in Europe before 1933, Jews under totalitarian Nazi rule, power and daily life under the Nazis, the planning and organization of genocide, the impact of the Nazi regime on German society and politics, and lastly, the current debate and recollection of the crimes of the Nazis. To quote just a few themes, there was a colloquium organized for professional soldiers on the subject, “The involvement of the Wehrmacht and the role of the police and the Security Services in genocide”; another, for medical and paramedical practitioners, was entitled, “From euthanasia to the murder of the Jews”; there was recently a lecture for professional firefighters, dealing with “The behavior of German firemen during Kristallnacht”. In this connection, it is interesting to note that in certain areas the firemen beat the fire-raisers with the metal tips of their hoses, not out of particular sympathy for the Jews, but simply out of a basic sense of duty. They said, ”We are firemen, whose task is to put out fires and prevent them from occurring. If we see someone causing a fire, we are obliged to stop him”. At the national level, seminars that can last up to a week are held regularly, organized by the Federal Ministry of Finance, at which civil servants from all levels attend, on the single theme, “The organized plunder of Jewish property by the German tax authorities”. The question that comes up again and again at these study sessions is, “can this happen again?” Curiously, the answers are always the same. Senior management is generally very categorical, saying that there are so many safeguards in German law that such a horror could never re-occur. Ordinary civil servants have a completely different approach: “I would like to see what would happen if I refused to carry out the work I was instructed to do, on the grounds that one or other decision does not seem to me proper or correct.”
The Wannsee Conference House makes a particular effort to sensitize German youth to the question of the Shoah. Schools coming to Wannsee naturally have disruptive elements in their classes who are uninterested in “just another museum”. After a short visit to the exhibition, the classes are divided up by subject, each group choosing the photo it finds the most striking, and then studying the selected issue. Teachers are excluded from the process, and the students prepare their presentations by themselves. They have access to the library and the media library, where the villa staff are available to help. The works that result from these experiences are not only exceptionally interesting, but also symptomatic both in the way subjects are developed and of certain types of personality that come to light within the class. Preparation programs for trips to Israel, to the camps and places of remembrance in Poland and the Czech Republic are also offered.
Finally, it should be stressed that, contrary to certain rumors, the villa never belonged to a Jewish family. The Nazis purchased it from some German industrialists entirely legally at the going price on the property market, 1.95 million Reichmarks. The choice of this villa for the conference was a simple matter of convenience. In fact, since 1941 the villa had been transformed into a guesthouse for senior police and SS officers serving abroad, who were in Berlin on official business or for a break. The house provided bedrooms, recreation rooms, an excellent kitchen and a good wine cellar. It should be mentioned that household work was carried out by young Jews, who later on were deported. A circular dated 15 December 1941 urged officers to make use of the villa when on trips to Berlin, so that this house would become “the center for comradely relations between members of the Fuhrer SS, the SIPO and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) – the security service – coming from abroad”.
In conclusion, we must mention that at the entrance to the villa is a book in which visitors can express their feelings at the end of their visit. Two reactions struck us. The first was that of a young, 24 year old South African, who wrote, “I cannot find the right words to express my emotions. How human beings could do this to other humans is beyond my comprehension. I am so proud of being Jewish and of being here, standing proud, half a century after these events and able to say loud and clear, “Le’Chaim – to life – to peace – to Israel!”
The other said, “I am back! And the ovens are smoking again”, with, as though a signature, a swastika!!!
Food for thought.
Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz
Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58
Tel.0049 30 805 00 10
Open every day from 10am to 6pm.