SS Chieftain’s Private Letters Revealed

“I am off to Auschwitz. Kisses, your Heini.”

Heinrich Himmler’s private correspondence, published in January by newspapers Die Welt in Germany and Yedioth Ahronoth in Israel, show the Gestapo and SS chief balancing family life with mass murder. The 700 letters, dated 1927 to 1945, document in eerie detail what political theorist Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil.”

In mid-1941, knowing her man is busy planning a war, Margarete Himmler leaves her Heinrich a note. “There is a can of caviar in the ice box,” she writes. “Take it.” In July, preoccupied with invading Russia, he apologizes for forgetting their anniversary. (In his letters to Margarete, Himmler sometimes used endearments—“I kiss your dear, good hands and your sweet mouth”—that he repurposed in mash notes to secretary and mistress Hedwig Potthast, who bore him a son and a daughter.)

Himmler never gets specific about the Final Solution in letters home. But he and his wife are on the same page. “All this Jew business, when will this pack leave us so that we can enjoy our lives?” Margarete writes after Nazi thugs destroy Jewish businesses in the 1938 rampage known as Kristallnacht.

The letters, authenticated by the German Federal Archives, spent decades hidden in Tel Aviv. No one knows how the collection got to Israel. One explanation has an aide to SS official Karl Wolff making off with the cache. Another has American soldiers filching the letters from Himmler’s residence in Bavaria.

Whatever the archive’s provenance, Israeli collector Chaim Rosenthal obtained the letters and eventually passed them to the family of a documentary film producer, Vanessa Lapa, who made a film based on the epistolary archive. The Berlin International Film Festival screened The Decent One in February.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, hopes to obtain the collection. “These letters, which we understand and assume are authentic, have historical significance in that they open a window into the life and thinking of one of the key architects and implementers of the Holocaust,” said Haim Gertner, director of the Yad Vashem archives. “As humanity continues to grapple with the questions of how such an event could have happened, these types of documents provide important additional information to our understanding of the events.”

Awaiting trial at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity, Himmler killed himself on May 23, 1945.

Japan Remembers a Mitzvah

World War II might not seem the most promising tag for promoting Japan to visitors, but the Japan National Tourism Organization opened a March tourism fete at New York’s Grand Central Terminal with a video about how a Japanese diplomat and a seasick tourism clerk helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis. The 10-minute documentary, Transit to Freedom, was produced by faculty at the New York Film Academy.

During the war, Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, deliberately issued transit visas to help thousands of Jews escape advancing German troops. About 6,000 of the refugees reached Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast. There, after initial hesitation, the quasi-official Japan Tourist Bureau transported the travelers by ship to Tsuruga, Japan. Tourism clerk Tatsuo Osako escorted the passengers. When not battling seasickness, Osako collected photos of fellow passengers, often inscribed with thanks in languages ranging from Norwegian to Polish. He assembled the pictures in a scrapbook in which he also affixed a poem describing the “people without nations” he was helping.

Though nominally allied with Germany, Japan allowed the Jews to stay after their temporary visas expired. Most made their way to third countries, usually the United States. Eventually Japan deported about 1,000 to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where they stayed until the war’s end.

World War II remains touchy for Japan. Many of its Asian neighbors say the former Axis power has yet to accept responsibility for Imperial Army atrocities, including a 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese at Nanking and the practice of forcing Korean, Chinese, and other foreign women to serve as sex slaves.

Smile, You’re on MI5’s Candid Camera

The British intelligence agent who inspired John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley fooled Nazi sympathizers in Britain into thinking he was a Gestapo agent and revealing their efforts to undermine the British government, newly released documents show.

Working for intelligence agency MI5 under the pseudonym Jack King, John Bingham befriended Marita Perigoe, whose husband, a British fascist, was in prison. Perigoe told Bingham about hundreds of fifth columnists siding with Hitler and working to subvert Britain’s government. Bingham made contact with many of those individuals, persuading them to tell him what they were planning. Details of Bingham’s counterespionage coup appear in files Britain’s National Archives released in February.

One extremist was trying to alert the Germans to secret British efforts to build a jet plane. Another offered Berlin details on an amphibious tank. Others wanted to help the Germans pick bombing sites. According to an intelligence report, one woman “expressed great pleasure with the number of new graves in Hastings Cemetery, the result of the raid on the Silverhill district. She said the Germans had done a very good job on this raid.”

Many of Bingham’s contacts had belonged to the British Union of Fascists, founded by English politician Oswald Mosley, but lost faith in the group, thinking it insufficiently extreme. Despite the neo-Nazis’ seeming nuttiness, an MI5 agent warns in one document against dismissing them: “It is dangerous to disregard extremists merely because they can be dubbed neurotics.” The government did not prosecute the Nazi sympathizers Bingham rolled up.

POWs’ Charleston Chimney Stirs Ruckus

A brick fireplace and chimney, the last vestige of a POW camp in Charleston, South Carolina, are at the center of a bitter dispute that arrays city officials and historical preservationists against a prominent Charleston family. The Aberman-Pearlstine family is so eager for the structure, built during the war by German POWs, to be gone they have offered to help pay for its removal from their property in the West Ashley neighborhood. The Abermans and Pearlstines are Jews who see the brickwork artifact as a reminder of Nazi butchery. Charleston officials want to declare the POW campsite a “landmark overlay zone” protected under law, an effort making its way through municipal review channels.

The West Ashley chimney, built by some of the 500 POWs held at the camp that stood in the district during the war, features a prisoner-cast concrete plaque reading, “German Prisoners of War 19.1.1945.” As the war’s end neared, the West Ashley POWs were almost part of the community, playing softball against a local team and forming a country band. But some remained Nazis at heart, slicing swastikas into tomatoes they picked at area farms on work details, the New York Times reported.

Family members say they dislike having to maintain a relic of a regime that murdered millions of Jews. Mickey Aberman, for instance, says the chimney reminds him of stories told by an older relative who described fleeing into the woods while German soldiers executed her parents and siblings.

Charleston journalist Brian Hicks calls it “lunacy” for Charleston to insist that a Jewish family maintain a shrine associated with Nazidom. In his column in the Post & Courier, Hicks wrote that the Aberman-Pearlstine family “would rather give up land than be forced to preserve a fireplace that used to provide comfort to a bunch of Nazis. And no one with any sense could blame them.”


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.