(Un)Covering - 24
Updated: Sep 28
By Kristina Gaddy
I enter the Westfriedhof graveyard on a bike. At the former-Gestapo-office-now-museum in Cologne, I had taken down the note:
Gestapofield - 792 Remain Buried There
Westfriedhof, Graberfeld II
Reihe 44, Grab 1-4
I need to look in the place they call the Gestapo Field. From a sign at the entrance, I know generally where the World War II victims are buried. I get off my bike and ask some groundskeepers for directions. They point the way. Most of the cemetery is open, rows of trees, graves, grass, and flowers all mix together. You can almost understand why the Victorians would stroll through graveyards to experience nature. But where the men point me is different. Behind a stone entranceway, tucked behind a wall is a field.
The grass stretches in front of me, gray blocks form a pattern, an expansive cover over hundreds of bodies. The Gestapo field has four sections. The graves for Polish victims, Soviet victims, and Germans who were killed between 1940 and 1943 all have grave markers. The fourth section has no individual markers, just a large sculpture representing 792 bodies under the grass.
I squat down to look closer at the names on the stones, and my shoes sink just a little bit into the soft ground. It feels almost wet, but it hasn’t rained in days. My shoes sunk because the ground is hollow with graves, the bodies of unnamed men and women, the victims of terror. I’m here looking for specific names, thirteen people whose bodies were buried here in the fall of 1944. I want to tell the story of how they ended up here in my book. The problem is that on one day of the story, the most important day, everyone who knows what happened is dead. I believe that finding the plot of ground where the bodies lie interred will help me find the truth.
Boxes and Lids
I go to an archive outside Cologne. The structure as big as an ocean liner houses hundreds of years of police reports, including reports from the Gestapo. I believe that the documents here will offer the truth. I want to tell the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, a loose group of teenagers who got together to resist the Nazis in Cologne and the Rhein Valley of Germany. Some of those teenagers paid with their lives and are buried in the Gestapo Field, others ended up in prison because of those who died. I pull crinkled, yellowing papers from boxes, carefully examining the pages for names and places I recognize.
“In January 1944, I met Hans Müller and Günther Schwarz in the neighborhood. They were bombed out of their apartments on 4-21-44, and that’s when we became friends.”
In this, from the interrogation report of Hans Steinbrück, I find names I am looking for. I am amazed that all the information is here, that these papers made it through the war. They might tell me the story of what happened, how these young men went from being in hiding to hanging. I’m excited.
Then I see the red pencil marks, where someone has underlined names. I see the NSDAP party seal on the papers. I know that a woman sat in a room with Hans, typing this piece of paper as Gestapo officer questioned him. She typed phrases like “On further questioning, I admit” and “Upon further pressing, I also admit.” This is code for enhanced interrogation, for torture. The now-brittle papers I flip through at the archive were the products of brutal interrogations. “Beating: The normal ‘interrogation’ procedure was to lay the victims across a chair and to beat him with chair-legs or rubber truncheon to the point of insensibility. This was carried to extreme length even when it was apparent that the person in question was quite unable to answer the questions put to him, and it was clear that the ‘interrogators’ took a sadistic pleasure in wanton brutality,” a War Crimes Unit investigation report reads.
When I first read about Hans Steinbrück, I couldn’t believe his story was real. Everyone called him “Bomben-Hans.” He’d spent time in a squad of concentration camp prisoners who defused unexploded ordnance, and claimed to be a master of bombs. He escaped from Buchenwald, befriended fatherless rebel teenagers, created a plot to blow up the Gestapo building, and hid a secret lair full of weapons and people living underground. When I first found records at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. that proved parts of the story, I was elated, and hopeful I would find more. Here, in these documents from the Nazis, I find more.
At home, when digital copies of the Gestapo reports and interrogations arrive in the mail from the archive, I slowly go through the hundreds of documents, translating each page, getting the stories in front of me. But the stories don’t line up.
I know almost immediately that Bomben-Hans’s interrogation will not bring me closer to the truth. The second sentence in his interrogation is a lie: “My parents died when I was young and when I was six I was sent to the Osterburg orphanage.” His parents weren’t dead when he said this.
This is a strategic lie; maybe if the Gestapo thinks his parents are dead, they might not use their arrest as a threat. When another prisoner’s mother shows up asking for her son, she’s arrested. Are the other stories Bomben-Hans tells strategic lies, or lies that the Gestapo forces him to utter, or the truth?
Bomben-Hans claims that three of the teenagers who called themselves Edelweiss Pirates got guns on their own. They were arrested before he was; they say Bomben-Hans gave them the guns. He admits he stole seventy or eighty pounds of butter and wanted to sell and trade the butter for weapons. He and the teenagers steal a car for their next robbery. They raid a weapons depot to steal bombs. He plans to blow up the Gestapo building. This is an amazing story.
But contradictions riddle the interrogation reports. Teenage Barthel Schink denies even knowing about the Edelweiss Pirates and says he never went on hiking trips with other kids. The Nazi deemed the group illegal and subversive, and admitting you were part of it was a crime. I know here that Barthel is lying. As I look at my screen and the scan of the report, on the wall in front of me is a picture of Barthel, holding a guitar on a trip with his friends, dressed in high boots and a jacket with a pin-- classic elements of the Edelweiss Pirate un-uniform. For many Pirates around Cologne, singing songs, going on unauthorized hikes, and wearing these distinctly anti-Hitler Youth outfits was their form of resistance. Barthel’s went farther. He had been part of Bomben-Hans’s plots to take down the Nazis. But on the days leading to the arrests that will lead to murders, what Barthel says happened doesn’t match Bomben-Hans’s statement, none of the people who were there agree as to what happened. I have too many facts, facts that don’t line up.
For each interrogation, I write the name of the prisoner and the date of interrogation at the top. I note the differences in the stories as time goes on. People appear and disappear from the timeline of events. Who has a gun? Who shoots? Who is in what car? Who tries to steal the bombs? Who came up with the idea? I’m asking myself the questions the Nazis asked before and after they arrested Barthel, Bomben-Hans, and their friends. I draw a diagram to keep all the names straight and how they know each other. In the middle is STEINBRÜCK. No one denies that Bomben-Hans was in the center of what happened in the fall of 1944. In a maze of lines and stars and dotted lines are other names. The words “Neighbors,” “Friends,” “Classmates,” “Through Buchenwald,” “In camp together,” connect these people. Next to some names are stars: those are the people I looked for in the graveyard. But the stories, the interrogations, don’t answer my questions.
Two men sit under the crumbling gateway to the city as rain pours down. They look straight forward, eyes wide. One mumbles, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.” A third man appears and hearing the mumbling, and wants to know what they don’t understand. A man is dead, but that’s not what is disturbing. Men and women die everyday, they say. Under the Rashomon gate, the priest and the woodcutter tell the story of the murder trial, and four versions of the murder.
The violence that starts the chain of events is never questioned: the bandit tricks the samurai and ties him up, then rapes his wife. But how does the samurai end up dead? His ghost, through a medium, says he commits suicide in his grief. The woman says she kills her husband in a fit of horror. The bandit says he killed the samurai in a fair and honorable fight. The woodcutter reveals he saw the murder, confirming the bandit’s story but upending other parts of the wife and samurai’s stories.
The title of the film Rashomon has become shorthand for when accounts of the same event are not reported the same. Do a search for “Rashomon effect,” and you’ll see it’s been used in ethnography, sociology, world affairs, history, education, international securities law, environmental history, and health care. What is the absence of facts? Lies? Untruths? What is the presence of too many facts?
I write to three leading experts on forced confessions. I say: Historians have taken these interrogation statements as truth, and I know I can’t go that far. I ask: What can be considered true?
“You never take something as truth, just because someone asserts it,” Dr. Richard Leo tells me. Yes, you must corroborate stories.
From Dr. Steven Drizin, I get a quickie version of what defense lawyers spend years perfecting, the questions I need to ask myself when reading these confessions: What did the Nazis know? What did they think? Do the confessions match that? Are the confessions too consistent? “There's such a thing as too much consistency,” he says. As I read his email, the ghosts of forced interrogations rise between the lines on the reports I’ve been reading, warning me of what shouldn’t be real. Rather than too many facts, I start to see a lack of facts. He leaves me with: “That's why experts rarely opine about the ground truth of a suspect's statements. It is often -- in the absence of other powerful corroborating evidence of guilt -- unknowable.”
I have no powerful corroborating evidence. I have the words on these pages, tainted by the Nazis. I have the words of the Nazis.
I become the skeptic the legal experts told me to be. Nothing is true. Nothing is a lie. When I re-read interrogations, I make notes like “contradicts earlier statement,” “that sounds coerced,” “different,” “also not previously stated,” “total lie,” “same language,” and “this sounds more like a fear of the Gestapo than reality.” Without corroborating evidence, without stories that don’t come from duress, will I find the truth?
I know how the men in Rashomon feel. As I read and translate and re-read the Gestapo files, I am not disturbed by bodies and graves, by photographs of hangings and bloody beds, by forced confessions and Gestapo documents. Those are just a part of my landscape. No, I am disturbed by the fact that none of these things have lead me any closer to the truth.
Released just five years after the United States unleashed death and destruction on Japan in the form of two nuclear bombs, the movie reflects a society in chaos, struggling to understand and survive a destroyed world. Shock and trauma inhabit the characters in the film; each account of the events a consequence of how they react to the violence. In watching each story unfold, you don’t feel like one is less true or more false than another. Director Akira Kurosawa asks us to believe each person, even the ghost. He wasn’t concerned with which story was the most accurate, that wasn’t what the film was about. However, even though there is no truth at the end of Rashomon, there are facts: one woman is raped, one man rapes her, one man is killed, one person killed him. Facts can exist in the absence of complete truth, and I can still tell the story of the Edelweiss Pirates even if I don’t know exactly what happened moment by moment in the fall of 1944.
I know this: something on the night of October 1, 1944 led to massive arrests. I can add my own commentary about what doesn’t seem true. I can focus on the accounts of those who survive. I also know that on the morning of November 10, 1944, Bomben-Hans and twelve others were loaded into a truck and taken to a gallows right outside the house where he had been amassing an arsenal in the basement. Bomben-Hans was the first out of the truck, 16-year old Barthel Schink spotted his younger brother in the crowd. A Schutzstaffle officer read the judgement. Other officers led the boys and men to the wooden structure and secured nooses around their necks. Hanging usually works by the fall breaking the victim’s neck, but this drop wasn’t tall enough for that. The noose would strangle them instead, which can take up to twenty minutes.
Barthel’s mother went to the gallows later that day. The bodies still hung. She didn’t recognize her son. The bodies were taken to the Gestapo Field. No one bothered putting the thirteen murdered resistance fighters in separate graves. Later, Barthel’s mother and her daughter Caroline went to the graveyard to search for Barthel. They couldn’t find him, just like I couldn’t. It was just a field of holes with bodies. By the time I visited seventy-three years later, researchers had figured out that the thirteen were buried in row forty-four, graves one through four, just like I had written down in my notes. There were still no grave markers, just the large memorial for all the victims.
The truth of what happened in those days in October and November lies deep underground, in a place no one will find. Even if we had a medium to conjure the spirits of those bodies, after being tortured and killed by the Gestapo, their stories might not be the same.
“Men want to forget things they don’t like,”
the stranger tells the woodcutter and priest in Rashomon. I don’t want anyone to forget what happened to Barthel and Bomben-Hans and the 792 bodies buried with them and the millions more the Nazis killed. So even if I cannot find the singular truth, I still have to tell the facts of how they died and where they now lie.
Kristina Gaddy is a writer based in Baltimore, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Bitch Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Narratively, OZY, and others.