Among my family’s many wartime secrets is the story of the SS officer who rescued my mother as a toddler. I fixated on learning more about his surprising act of kindness.
“I’m here to find an SS Officer,” I told the muscled man in uniform peering at me through the sentry window at the Berlin Archives. A plaque at the entrance read:
“During the ‘Third Reich,’ here was the barracks of Adolf Hitler’s SS Leibstandarte,” Hitler’s personal-bodyguard unit.
“The man saved my mother,” I added in German, smiling at the guard almost apologetically.
He handed me a pass and a white plastic bag with a German coat of arms printed on one side — a black eagle with red talons that looked capable of tearing out my eyes — and directed me to a building a few hundred yards to the rear of the sprawling campus.
Stepping inside a set of glass doors, I registered myself at a reception desk. A librarian, a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, told me to put my bag and coat in the locker room and bring back only what was ‘absolutely necessary’ in the white plastic bag. Five minutes later, I was back at the desk, plastic bag in hand. The librarian asked what I was looking for.
“I want to find an SS officer who saved my mother’s life in Poland in 1944,” I answered. “I know some things about him, but not his name.”
Why did I feel the need to impress on people that the Nazi I was looking for might be a ‘good’ Nazi? Was I trying to protect them from their fathers or grandfathers, or was it me I was trying to protect?
“No. We can’t help you,” she said flatly with a scowl. “You can’t find the names of these men without the permission of the families,” she explained in a these-are-the-rules tone.
Patience was my goal here, although that virtue only personally comes out on special occasions. This was one of them, I decided, and smiled as sweetly as a child. “Perhaps you can help me find a list of men who served in Radom Prison in 1944, and we can start there?” I asked calmly, hopeful there was a publicly available archived list. The truth was, I didn’t have much to go on. I knew he was of Ukrainian background, an officer, and had a reputation for torturing women, but I figured that last tidbit wasn’t going to get me very far. If I could find a list of officers, I could narrow things down by filtering for Ukrainian names, those ending with ‘-chko,’ ‘-enko,’ ‘-ovich,’ or ‘-iuk.’
“It will take us at least six weeks to find that kind of information,” she said bluntly. “You can’t just show up. You should have emailed us.”
I had emailed and was told that the archive’s researchers could not help with this kind of search, and that if I wanted to visit, I could look through reference books on my own. So, I said, that’s what I’m here to do. I showed her a printed copy of my email. She eyed me sharply, then left her desk and walked out of the room.
It was unnerving to wait near the ghosts of Hitler’s bodyguards. Why was I even here? A few months before my father had said to me on the phone, “I think you want to find the Nazi more than your mother does — you’re obsessed!”
* * *
The obsession began on a chilly New England evening in November 2011. I was pounding out the last of my work emails while snuggled on the sofa with a laptop balanced on my knee. On T.V., a young couple on “House Hunters” was deciding between a three-bedroom condo on a golf course and another with ocean views. With one eye on the TV, I googled my mother’s maiden name, Dortheimer. Clicking on a link, I opened a film that had been shot days after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, of Hollywood directors John Ford and George Stevens interviewing a Mr. Dortheimer, my grandfather Mietek.
“We are more than sure that no one is alive from our families,” he said in perfect English, staring at me through the camera, 34 years old in a striped prisoner’s uniform that hung from his skeletal 84-pound frame.
“We don’t know what will be with us. We have no place to go back.”
No one in my family had ever seen the video, but my Jewish roots had preoccupied me for years. My mother is a born-again Christian and as a child in Australia, I’d clapped my hands and swayed to upbeat pop songs at a Baptist church, then spoke in tongues and raised my arms in praise to Jesus at a Pentecostal one. I knew that my agnostic grandparents, Mietek and Alicja, and my mother were born Jewish, but never suspected that our family had secrets dating back to The War.
Mum was in her thirties when a letter arrived from a man in Canada claiming to be her real father. She didn’t tell me about the letter at the time. I was ten when we flew from Australia to Toronto to meet ‘Uncle Dick,’ a stout man with deep brown eyes, olive skin and strands of gray hair that were slicked against his bald head. I knew he was a long-lost relative, but was too young to guess the truth. A black-and-white photograph sat on the top of a bookshelf in his orange-curtained living room, of a young Uncle Dick in a Polish army uniform sporting a huge grin beneath his hard-topped cap. Sitting on his knee, I told him how handsome and young he looked. “Did you ever shoot anyone when you were in the army?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
His sternness and serious glare scared me. I didn’t know what to make of him. During the six weeks we visited, he rarely ventured outside to play with me, preferring instead to bury himself in his newspapers and books.
While I sat on his knee, he pulled a heavy white-covered book from the shelf; it was filled with large photographs of Polish castles, palaces, and stupendously grand buildings. The words were in Polish, so he read the names of places in a rumbling baritone: Gdansk, Ujazdow, Warszawa, Piotrkowice.
“Before the war, Poland was important center of European culture,” he said, his eyes wet with tears. “Now, most is gone.”
* * *
In my teens I learned that Mietek and my grandmother Alicja weren’t really my grandparents. My head reeled as their faces rolled around my brain like chess pieces mid-maneuver, undecided where to land. Alicja’s younger sister Irena was really my grandmother. She’d been shot at age 25 by the Nazis, while hiding outside of Warsaw with her husband — the man I now knew as Uncle Dick — and their eleven-month old child Joasia, my mother.
Irena had given birth to Joasia in June 1942, at her parents’ once palatial home on Orla Street, inside the Warsaw ghetto, cut off from the rest of the city by brick walls more than ten feet high. The occupying Germans crammed around 400,000 Jews — more than 30 percent of Warsaw’s population — into 1.3 square miles, around eleven times the density of New York City. Starving children in threadbare clothes crouched on street corners crying, their stick-thin brothers and sisters lying frozen beside them, dead.
A month after Joasia was born, Nazi SS men with guns rushed into the fetid buildings, one block at a time, shoving women and children down stairwells and into the streets. Aiming their weapons at the sick and old, they shot them in their beds, in hallways. Women ran from courtyards screaming. Old men hobbled. Some carried bundles and suitcases holding a precious pair of shoes, a shawl, or a last piece of silver. A confused toddler stood alone, crying for his mother. The streets seethed with SS whipping the crowds toward the Umschlagplatz, a large square on Stawki Street.
A week of rain and wind did not delay the loading of the trains. “Where’s the roundup today?” people asked anxiously.
Thousands waited on the Umschlagplatz, often overnight, surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns, in the stinking shit of those who had waited the day before. Two hundred policemen lined both sides of a path to the trains that would cart Mietek’s father, Alicja’s parents, brother, friends, aunts and uncles, to their deaths at Treblinka and Majdanek.
Dick crushed two sedatives he’d acquired from a doctor and forced Joasia to swallow them. The doctor warned that the pills might kill her. But when she was asleep and limp in his arms, Dick tucked her gently into a backpack and headed for the checkpoint gate at Leszno Street, where Jewish workers deemed sufficiently strong left the ghetto each day for hard labor on the Aryan side of the city, their names on the ‘deportation’ lists having been deferred. Sliding into the column of haggard, sunken-eyed men, Dick handed over a pre-arranged bribe and marched out of the ghetto with Joasia on his back, asleep and buttoned up in his rucksack.
On the other side of Leszno Street, hawkish blackmailers — Szmalcowniki — scanned the street for darting, nervous eyes, for dark hair pushed under hats; frightened Jews who could be extorted and robbed under threat of being turned over to the Germans. Dick passed along another bribe and glanced over to where his friend Roman Talikowski stood on a curb. Exchanging glances, Roman began walking away. Dick fell in, not far behind, rounded a corner and followed him to an apartment, where he crouched behind a bookshelf in the dark.
* * *
After secondary school, I traveled for a year and lived with Dick in Toronto. In the evenings after he’d downed a Scotch or two, I listened to his stories as we sat around a laminate table in his tiny kitchen. I visited him again in my late twenties and then moved to New England for a job opportunity with my husband. Suddenly I was surrounded by Jews. Neighbors and work colleagues celebrated holidays I’d never heard of: Yom Kippur, Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah. Alicja and Mietek had assimilated with my mother into a middle-class Melbourne neighborhood — far from the Jewish suburbs of pickled herring and yarmulkes — where straw-haired, freckled Aussie children slathered black, bitter Vegemite onto thin white sandwich bread and people were welcoming, but not overly curious at the green numbers tattooed on Alicja’s wrist. So when my neighbors in Boston invited me to eat matzo to remember how Jews overcame the impossible, the itch to find out what happened to my family became a fixation.
Returning to Australia for vacation, I somehow convinced Alicja to let me interview her. When I was growing up, she had barely mentioned the war. That all changed with “Schindler’s List.” We’d planned to watch the movie together, but instead she’d gone with a friend and phoned me a few days later.
“You must still go,” she pleaded. “The scene in the shower room where they push in all the women, and they look up at the showerheads wondering what is going to happen to them, thinking they will be gassed?”
I had paused on the other end of the phone, not sure what to say.
“That was exactly what [it] was like for me.”
In the movie, guards shouted orders in Polish and German at dozens of razor clipped, shoeless, naked women scuttling into a concrete-floored room. Biting their trembling fists, they huddled in groups sobbing, clinging to a mother, a daughter, legs tangled, breast jammed against breast, grabbing at the ribs of a stranger while staring up at the pipes. Suddenly the light shut off. Dark curdled screams turned to a wretched moaning.
I heard the Holocaust. For the first time, it took on shape and form. It had been forced onto someone I loved. I was unable to speak about it for days.
A week later, Alicja asked to meet me in a restaurant. We ordered red wine and a rich risotto. Dessert arrived and my grandmother was unleashed. She described Dr. Mengele on the assembly Platz at Auschwitz, his white-gloved hands, and how he flicked his whip at women who shivered in the cold next to her, pushing them from the line, off for killing, or experimental, mutilating surgeries on his operating table.
It was strange that she told me — not my mother — about this and the vermin-ridden barracks of Birkenau. She must have known that years later I would be like a dog digging for a buried bone, looking for evidence to round out memories that had been shaped by the unimaginable wickedness inflicted on her.
My tape recorder spun as we sat in her lounge room on her blue velvet sofa set, a porcupine Sputnik light pointing at us from the ceiling. Her shelves were filled with books, with titles such as Survival in Auschwitz that had terrified me as a child, when I’d been too busy building sandcastles on beaches and leaping bareback onto horses to process her horrors.
While perched on the edge of her sofa, I learned about the Nazi who saved my mother. He’d interrogated Alicja in Radom Prison in central Poland — after her arrest in January 1944 at a sawmill in a small town 25 miles away. She and her husband Mietek had been masquerading as Catholic Poles with false papers. To blend in, she’d attended mass, touching her forehead and tapping her chest in the sign of the cross. She combed back her wavy auburn hair and tucked tight braids into the nape of her neck. Instead of city-girl heels and hip-hugging dresses, she wore shapeless shirts and aproned skirts, offsetting her slender cheekbones and beguiling smile.
Seven months earlier, Dick paid a Catholic woman to bring Joasia to Alicja. “Everyone was afraid to keep her,” Alicja explained. “So I took her.” Walking to town with nineteen-month old Joasia in a stroller, Alicja covered the child’s face with a blanket, her hair a dangerous jet black, her eyes as dark as bittersweet chocolate.
The day the Polish police arrived, Alicja ran from the house screaming onto the street, begging the police to shoot her instead of handing her over to the Nazis. In town squares across Poland, bloodied, dismembered bodies were hung up as a warning of how Germans extracted information. Joasia was left howling in her cot, clinging to a white teddy bear.
Radom Prison was surrounded by a brick wall topped with barbed wire more than thirteen feet high, an abyss of torture largely under the control of the Sicherheitsdienst, or SiPo, part of the security police and Gestapo that belonged to the intelligence agency of the SS and Third Reich. Most prisoners did not survive. Some who did described sadism as typical as that inflicted by SS Obersturmführer Ferdinand Koch. His initiation rite was to whip prisoners with a large bunch of metal keys, then a fire brand, then a broom, and if the prisoner was Jewish, to kick them with his metal tipped shoes. Koch’s favorite was to push Jews to the ground and kick their heads, not stopping until the body was still and blue.
In Alicja’s cell on the first floor, stone walls exuded dread and the air was thick with the smell of unwashed bodies. During the night when guards switched on the light, a dense black carpet of lice, fleas and cockroaches slithered on the ceiling, dropping onto women who were curled up shivering on corners of straw mattresses. A single window screened with thick steel mesh restricted light and air. Men screamed from the courtyard behind it, where Koch and others beat prisoners with bats, slashed them with whips and ordered them to crawl and jump barefoot on razorsharp shards of iron ore slag.
Alicja was handcuffed and driven a mile to Gestapo headquarters for interrogations — an imposing building where, in a labyrinth of airless stone-walled basement cells, women and men were chained to pipes and lined up for torture.
The Ukrainian officer was her interrogator, “a terrible fellow who was beating everyone,” she said. “He was always saying ‘pray to God that the war is finished and we all be safe’, so maybe he was against [the war] a bit, but he was still beating people — ach, he beat women!”
But, she claimed, the Nazi never beat her. Once, during an interrogation to uncover the source of her false papers, he left the dank cell where she had been handcuffed to a chair. He returned cradling a bowl. The sweet smell rising from it would have tormented anyone thin and gaunt from the prison rations of watery soup. The officer lowered the bowl onto the table. Alicja stared at it in disbelief. It was thick with carrots, grains, potato and cabbage.
“I’m sorry, but there is no meat today because it’s Friday,” he said to her.
Back in her cell, she scribbled messages on tiny pieces of paper — gryps, as the prisoners called them — and rolled and stuffed them into pieces of bread. A Polish guard delivered her gryps to Mietek in his crowded cell. Later, Mietek sent word to the Nazi. He had valuable information, he said, but he and Alicja needed to see him together. The inmates learned of the meeting and rumors spiraled. “You are spying for the Germans!” they said.
One morning at Gestapo headquarters, an officer led Alicja and Mietek into a room. Unlike the sparse interrogation rooms — where whips were lined up on a table in order of size, ranging from small sticks to large rubber and leather whips as well as electric cables of varying thickness — this room was more office-like. A few empty chairs were arranged in front of a wooden desk and behind it a larger, more comfortable chair.
The Nazi told the guard to leave. Motioning to the chairs in front of the desk, he directed Alicja and Mietek to sit. Alicja pulled at her dress awkwardly. Hampered by her handcuffs, she slid her fingers up her leg to the top of her stocking. She unraveled the corset that was wrapped around her upper leg, yanked hard and pulled it off like whip. She passed it to Mietek.
“I want to give you something,” Mietek said to the Nazi while fumbling at the cloth. Enormous diamonds emerged from slits in the fabric, earrings embellished with delicate filigree. Mietek held the sparkling stones in his palm, then lowered them onto the desk. Next to the earrings he placed diamond rings, carats large.
The jewels had belonged to Alicja’s mother. Irena was wearing them the day the Gestapo came banging on the door to kill her. She’d hurriedly removed her bust halter, along with the diamonds sewn into its seams. Hours later, Joasia crawled on the floor among the dead, dragging the diamonds behind her. That’s what Dick saw when he entered the house. He fled with Joasia, who was later sent to Alicja, along with the jewels. Now Alicja hoped that the only thing left of her family would help Joasia.
“When he saw those earrings he nearly fainted,” Alicja said of the Nazi. “He said he would promise anything.”
“What do you want?” the officer asked.
“We want you to promise to save our child.”
The Nazi drove to the town where Alicja was arrested, found Joasia and took her to a convent. “Don’t harm a hair on her head,” he commanded — or so the legend goes, as some of the sisters of the Order told me recently. It’s a mystery as to who cared for the Jewish toddler until then, and how the Nazi knew where to find her.
Later, during an interrogation the Nazi informed Alicja of where he’d taken Joasia.
“He kept his promise,” she said. “He didn’t have to, but he did.”
* * *
In Berlin, I waited among the neatly stacked shelves, hoping to find a list of Radom officers hiding on a page somewhere. If I could match the Ukrainians on the list with officer’s interrogation cases, I’d find Alicja’s name and prisoner number. I’d brought her prison file with me that I’d had sent from Poland.
Eventually the librarian marched through a door up the back with a manila folder in her hand that included my printed email. She added a few more notes to the file and asked me again what I was looking for. I took the black book she handed me from a rack that contained reference numbers and descriptions of archived content, and sat at a table. She logged me onto a computer and then left me to it. Opening the book, I let the ends settle flat on the table to land on an arbitrary page, somewhere in the middle. My eyes bulged when I saw Kommandeur den Sipo und des SD Radom. But my stomach lurched. What was his name?
I noted a few reference numbers with my pencil. Hunched close to the computer screen, I keyed in the numbers and scoured dozens of documents with titles like ‘Criminal proceedings against polish citizens.’
I told the librarian that I had been unable to find anything meaningful besides what I handed to her on a piece of paper, reference numbers for documents not viewable on the computer, with descriptions such as ‘relatives of Ukrainian criminal police under command of the Sipo and SD, 1944.’
“Maybe my colleague can help you,” she said. She wandered over to a man with a shock of neat jet black hair and a thickly-bristled moustache. After she mumbled something to him, he glanced back and looked me over. They both returned to the reception desk. The man told me in a polite tone to come back the next day at two p.m. He’d have documents for me to look at. I nodded and thanked both of them.
At two p.m. the next day I stepped up to the reception desk at the archives. The anticipation of a discovery was killing me. I looked around for the librarian with the moustache. Dipping his head in my direction, he scuttled back and forth across the room as if in an awful rush to go somewhere. But he didn’t seem to be fetching my books.
Finally, he directed me to sit at a table. But by three p.m. there was still no sign of any documents, so I began to rifle through books on shelves close by…Aktion… Konzentrationslager… Juden…Großrosen… I typed a message to my husband on my phone:
“I’m in Berlin archives looking for a murderer… weird looking at Nazi files describing arrests and killings. Not sure why I’m doing this?”
His message back was tonic: “…because it is important. Because in some way it will make a difference, even if you don’t know what that is yet. All of this is taking you somewhere you need to go. Be patient. Stay passionate.”
It’s true the Nazi saved my mother, but I am the beneficiary. My life was handed to me on a platter. There was little chance this man was still alive, but I felt some irrational responsibility to thank his children. It had nothing to do with forgiveness — not after what the Reich did to my family — I wondered how a man who whipped and disfigured women would treat his own children. Knowing about his kind act might help them bear a past that was not their choosing.
The librarian placed two reference books on the table in front of me, like a waiter with a platter of roast chicken. He returned with a piece of paper and pencil and pulled up a chair. Removing the prison files from my plastic archive bag, I repeated the ‘good Nazi’ spiel and pointed to Alicja’s prisoner number at the top of a page, hopeful he could match it to an officer. The librarian asked questions and scribbled notes in immaculately straight lines. Then his face turned hard — grim even. “This is very complicated. It will be very difficult,” he said.
“But the man I am looking for is of Ukrainian descent,” I told him. “There can’t have been too many Ukrainian SS and Gestapo serving in Radom Prison?”
“Yes that’s a good clue. Let me ask my colleague,” he said.
In hushed tones, he talked with another man at the back of the room. Sliding into the chair next to me, he whispered, “but there were many Ukrainians. I will try, but I don’t hold much hope. You see, it’s impossible to search by prisoner number. The records are kept under the name of the officers, and their case numbers [of interrogations] are recorded against their names. What you are looking for is the other way around.”
But, I thought, I have the prison files — let’s do a reverse search — I can see when they entered the prison and when they left. I can see their false names on the first few pages and their correct names on the last. There must be records of interrogations somewhere. Out the back maybe? What did they do with all that information?
Of course, I realized with a thud, in 1944 and 1945, in order to eliminate evidence of atrocities, the Gestapo and SS tossed hundreds of thousands of files into fires as the Allies and Russians approached. For a second, I wanted to give up. But I couldn’t. Lurking in online forums, I had thrown names of Radom SS men at war buffs and collectors of Nazi memorabilia. I had pestered historians across the United States, Israel, Poland and Germany. I had traveled through Poland and now Berlin. Besides, just before I pressed STOP on the tape recorder at the end of my interview with Alicja, she had asked, “You think someone will want to know all of this? We should never forget what happened.”
I’d promised her that I would tell her story, but I didn’t think I could truly understand it unless I knew more about the Nazi. She may have left out details that were too harrowing to tell, but he could have taken the jewels and killed her. His training should have sent him to kill Joasia too. Whatever his motivation, he risked his life and saved a Jewish child.
“It will be difficult, if not impossible,” the librarian said gently, with me too sour to notice that he was trying to help.
“We don’t know what we would do if we were alive at that time in those circumstances,” I said. “This man deserves to be remembered for one good deed, despite his bad ones.”
“Ja,” the librarian nodded, his lips turning upward ever so slightly. I thanked him for his help.
When I pushed open the glass doors to the outside, the cool autumn air blasted through my hair. I pulled my coat tighter, pressing my arms around my waist to seal in the warmth. The entrance gate of the former Leibstandarte loomed up ahead, like the eye of a needle. Nodding at the guard, I felt deflated at leaving empty-handed, but vowed to myself that I would not give up until I’d thanked the Nazi’s family.
But as I walked back to the train station I thought about Alicja. “You remember everything,” she’d said years ago from her blue sofa chair as she stared past me, somewhere beyond my shoulder. “You might forget the names, but you don’t forget what happened.”
Although I was in Berlin to find a Nazi, it was Alicja’s courage that overwhelmed me. The Nazi had been in a position of absolute power, wheras Alicja stared death in the eye, and instead of using the jewels to save herself, she gifted life to another woman’s child.
* * *
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