At seven in the morning, the second Monday after New Years, it is time to wake up the kids. Outside the window behind my computer, the sky is cobalt blue. My knee is still traumatized from the indignity of surgery two weeks ago, and I can feel it as I swing my feet over to the floor.
I turn on the computer, peer at the screen to check my email. A Dr. Tobias Hermann has contacted me. First I think it’s spam, that something about buying Cialis without a prescription will follow, but no, it’s in German, and I suddenly realize the Bundesarchiv in Ludwigsburg, Germany, has written me back.
To recap; Selinger saved my family. I want to know why he wasn’t a monster like other Nazis in his position. I’ve contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation, who found a mention of him in the book Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II and then told me to contact the United States Holocaust Museum. I buy the book, a wonderful document of partisan activity in and around Wlodawa. I read the entry. It’s definitely the same Selinger. Werner describes the labor camp in Adampol, repeats that he was not as brutal as other SS men. The clincher is when he writes that Selinger didn’t wear a uniform, only civilian clothes.
I write to a historian at the Holocaust Museum. A researcher with a German last name writes me back, attaching two documents. I read them eagerly; one of the documents is from the Encyclopedia of Righteous Gentiles, and I am almost relieved; my job is done, someone else did the legwork, Selinger already has the distinction of being designated Righteous Among the Nations.
But it’s not about Selinger. It’s about Falkenberg.
Bernhard Falkenberg was another SS officer stationed in Wlodawa. It was he who signed papers of passage for my grandmother to take my Mom, who was dying of an illness she could only name in Polish, to a larger town to see a real doctor.
I picture my grandmother driving the horse and wagon at night on a rutted country road through Nazi-controlled Poland. The papers worked; no one bothered them; my Mom reached the town, the doctor gave her an injection, she was cured.
Apparently, his job was to run a drainage project in the forest, which he managed to drag on and on and on. Every time there was an Aktzia, he saved his workers from selection and deportation, telling his superiors that his Jews were necessary to the project. I am proud that this brave man is part of my mother’s story.
Now I come to the paragraph on the page with Selinger’s name on it. It is underlined.
A German by the name of Selinger, the commandant of the labor camp at nearby Adampol, denounced him to the Gestapo for providing food to the partisans and hiding Jews in his house. Falkenberg, who strongly denied the charges, was subsequently incarcerated in the infamous concentration camp of Mauthausen until its liberation by the Allies.
I sit back and stare at the screen. Selinger? My Selinger? Selinger, who liked my grandfather, who sent the wagon for them so that they could hide in his castle, who swung my Aunt Esther up into his arms? Selinger, who informed my grandfather every time an Aktzia was imminent? That Selinger denounced Falkenberg for hiding Jews?
I’m curious to see how this pans out.
People are complex. I have German relatives who did wonderful things, and who did horrible things, and were the same person. No, not in WWII — they came over in the mid-1800s and settled in West Texas, where they also sent German POWs after the war. Some stayed.
I am not so much shocked by what happened in WWII as I am curious that it hasn’t happened more often — and of course, it has. We just don’t pay as much attention to Africa and Asia, even today.
Or perhaps the shock is numbed by the ubiquitousness of WWII footage on cable TV, and the use of German-accented bad-guys in video games. I have probably killed more virtual Nazis than ever existed.
Here’s a letter you may find interesting.
I’m curious too.
I’ve translated a bunch of documents, I have more to go, and it feels like the answer I am seeking, what really happened, recedes further away into the distance. In the fog of war, good and bad are slippery, ambiguous terms, and the story is told differently by everyone who was there.
Thanks for the link–now I have to read Slaughterhouse Five.
You know, now that I think of it, that connection was not random. There will probably be some common, fertile ground between your undead/Holocaust fantasy, and his alien/WWII soldier story. Hmm.
I actually got to meet Vonnegut at a writer’s thing in college, back in the 80s. Very cool. He did this 45 minute lecture on how Hamlet and some Innuit folk tale have the same plot line… and how that’s pretty much flat (from his perspective).
You know, you’re inspiring me to get off my butt and start writing again. Funny how life/kids/work both get in the way of, and shape, that.
Thank you for sending this to me! I’ve been dying to know Falkenberg’s story! This is another missing piece of my family puzzle. Incidentally, Selinger denied that he ratted on him. It’s a great mystery to me; why would Selinger give him away to the SS, if he was hiding Jews himself?
Do you know any more, like what he did after the war, or what year he died? (Or if he’s still alive, though that’s pretty unlikely.) How is it you are interested in Falkenberg and Wlodawa?
Wow. Thank you for sharing this.
My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and
And have her testimony Falkenberg Help
Is someone can help me find the grandchildren of Falkenberg (address + email + phone)
Does anyone survivors from Wlodawa you know
Can check the name Greta Burger (my grandmother)
Hi, Nir! Thanks for writing to me! I have forwarded your questions to a historian who has been doing research on Falkenberg. We’ll see what he says. Yes, I know two Wlodawa survivors, my uncle, and another man who was a partisan. What about you?
Hi near, please contact me shraga.elam(at)gmail.com.
We have a new list-serve for Wlodawa at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Wlodawa/ for Jewish descendants of the town. Please join.
Thanks, A! All the Wlodawa related articles on my blog are under the cloud category “Looking for Selinger.” As you’ll see, my family are survivors from Wlodawa.