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Holocaust

Biography of Nazi criminal meets resistance from small German town

Many in Karl Jäger's hometown of Waldkirch would rather forget that the notorious Nazi criminal lived there at all - after all, Jäger has been dead for decades. But one historian is trying to combat their silence.

Karl Jäger's 1953 passport

Authorities in Heidelberg issued Jäger a passport in 1953

When Wolfram Wette peers out of the panorama window in his living room, he can see over the trees and brush toward a valley and a town known as Waldkirch. The village seems to lie at Wette's feet, but in this case, appearances are deceiving.

The historian and professor has lived near Waldkirch for four decades. There, he has a reputation as a troublemaker who has been trying for years to bring the residents of this small town closer to an unpleasant truth.

Wette has published a biography of a man who also comes from this idyllic village in southwestern Germany, but whom its residents would rather forget: the Nazi criminal Karl Jäger.

A model youth

Born in 1888, Jäger was the son of a music teacher from Waldkirch. He played the piano and the violin, later becoming an instrument builder himself. He married into a family of organ makers, took part in the First World War and, in 1923, became a member of the Nazi Party.

A sophisticate and musician, Jäger would go on to become a mass murderer of Lithuanian Jews.

"He was a man from the middle class, a respected personality in Waldkirch, who was considered exemplary, brilliant, correct and cultivated. Some Waldkirch women still gush to this day about how handsome he was," said Wette. "On Sundays, he would march through town with a 100-member group of SS troops."

Meticulous balance sheet

Historian Wolfram Wette

Historian Wolfram Wette's work has attracted an angry response from locals

Shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Jäger joined the German armed forces in Lithuania as commander of a task force whose mission was to destroy the Jewish population.

"Just half a year later, most of Lithuania's Jewish citizens had been murdered," said Wolfram Wette. They were killed on the street, beaten to death in the woods, shot in military forts and starved to death in ghettos.

"Jäger kept detailed records about how many Jewish women, children and men were killed on which day," said the historian and author.

By the end of November, 133,346 innocent people had been killed, and Jäger proudly wrote: "Lithuania is now free of Jews." Lithuanian collaborators helped carry out the crimes, often with extreme cruelty - a shocking and still largely taboo chapter in the country's history.

Hell on earth

Wolfram Wette's book draws from the records and accounts of the murderers themselves, but it also gives voice to the few remaining witnesses and survivors with whom Wette has maintained contact for years.

"Germans and Lithuanians with rolled up sleeves and red faces loaded up and shot into the crowd. Their gun barrels flashed yellow. A veil of blue smoke passed over the field. It was hellish," described survivor Kuki Kopelman, who was 13 at the time. "Shrill screams, hoarse cries, sobbing children and babies, barking dogs. We had reached the grave. There were thousands of bodies on the ground, stacked on top of each other - they twisted and cried and begged the Germans to end the torment. It was hell."

The marketplace in the town of Waldkirch

Waldkirch in the Black Forest is home to around 20,000 residents

The great repression

In 1945, the former SS officer Jäger returned to his hometown, but no one bothered him with uncomfortable questions. Nonetheless, Jäger moved soon afterward and settled near Heidelberg, where he didn't speak about his Nazi membership. There, he lived for 15 years under his birth name as an ordinary citizen.

"That certainly raises a lot of questions about the state of German society at the time," said Wette.

It wasn't until the end of the 1950s that Jäger's name emerged in investigation records. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks, but the planned court proceedings against him never took place. Jäger committed suicide in his cell.

An angry response

In Waldkirch, people behaved no differently than elsewhere in the young republic; they weren't eager to dwell on the past.

"The fact that Jäger existed at all was silenced and repressed here after 1945," said Wolfram Wette. Fear and defensiveness loomed large. No one, including relatives, local politicians and residents, wanted to be reminded of Jäger.

"There were angry protests when I published about that in 1989. The majority of the local population - including city council representatives - wanted me to keep the topic quiet. Even officials in the Catholic church agreed," said Wette.

For 20 years, the author continued to collect all available information, and his biography on Karl Jäger was published in German earlier this year. According to Wette, the echo in Waldkirch has been as troubling as ever.

Cover of Wette's biography of Karl Jäger

Wette's biography of Karl Jäger was published in April

"I've gotten foul-mouthed calls and anonymous letters that aren't any less biting than what I heard in 1989 and 1990," the author said.

The historian's ethos

However, the younger generation is beginning to break the silence. At the local high school, a history project has involved inviting witnesses and survivors from Lithuania, and exhibitions relating to the topic have been organized.

Wolfram Wette, whose research has unsettled Waldkirch so thoroughly, sat at his panorama window and said, "I think there's an ethos of historians, an obligation to educate people about the past. And for me, this obligation becomes especially important when I know that others are turning away."

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

DW.DE