|Deidre Berger in The New York Times|
The New York Times
By Alison Smale
BERLIN — For all the efforts Germany has made in coming to terms with its Nazi past, the fate of one of the prime architects of the Holocaust has long eluded the authorities and historians.
Heinrich Müller — the chief of Hitler’s dreaded Gestapo, or secret police — was one of the most senior Nazis to escape capture or certified death at the end of World War II. Holocaust historians say that Western investigators, at the very least, looked for him intensively for years after 1945, and there were reports placing him everywhere from Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union or even Brazil.
Now, the question of Müller’s fate has taken a disturbing twist, as Prof. Johannes Tuchel, head of an association that watches over memorials to German resistance fighters, claims to have uncovered a document indicating that he was killed, probably on May 1, 1945, hastily buried in a provisional grave near the Nazi Air Force ministry, and later reburied in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery in Mitte, in the heart of Berlin.
While the claim is not definitive — lacking, for instance, any forensic verification — it was credible enough to stir a mixture of sorrow, outrage and shock in this city where so much blood and treasure have been spent, and beyond.
The news, first reported on Thursday by Germany’s best-selling newspaper, Bild, “makes my stomach turn,” said Dieter Graumann, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “It is devastating for everybody, but especially for a Jew.” He expressed complete bafflement that the apparent fate of Müller — “a technocrat of terror,” senior even to Adolf Eichmann, the war criminal tried and executed in Israel in the early 1960s — could have gone unreported for so long.
Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was incredulous when reached by telephone. “I can’t think of a worse desecration of a Jewish cemetery than to bury Heinrich Müller there,” he said.
Professor Tuchel said in a telephone interview that he stumbled on the discovery after investigating Müller’s role in the suppression of a rebellion in the Moabit district of central Berlin on April 22-23, 1945. As the Nazi Reich was crumbling under sustained Allied bombing and Soviet tank and infantry advances, the Gestapo leader apparently fiddled while Berlin burned, Professor Tuchel said, finally ordering 18 resistance fighters in Moabit shot.
His interest piqued, Professor Tuchel said, he scoured archives and found out that Müller was killed in the dying days of the war in May 1945, and buried and reburied, he said.
An estimated 70,000 civilians and soldiers are said to have been killed in the last three weeks of the war in Berlin. In the months after fighting ended, each city district organized nonprofessional teams of gravediggers to collect corpses and bury them in mass graves, Professor Tuchel said, adding that there were 16 such graves containing an estimated 2,700 bodies in the Mitte Jewish cemetery, which is the resting place of the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn but was not used for burials after 1829.
Müller was among the Nazi commanders who planned the Holocaust at the infamous conference at Wannsee lake in Berlin in January 1942. Mr. Zuroff, who has a doctorate in Holocaust history, called him “one of the leading lights of the Third Reich” and said it was hard to believe that investigators who were hunting for him in the 1950s and 1960s did not know what Professor Tuchel said he had uncovered.
The professor said he had found a document stating that a gravedigger, Walter Lüders, had approached the local police in West Germany in 1963, saying he had buried Müller, and was then interrogated — just once — by more senior investigators after Bild reported Mr. Lüders’ appearance.
Upon being shown a picture of Müller by the senior investigators, Mr. Lüders, according to a document found by Professor Tuchel, stated, “I have compared this photo with the face of the corpse” that he had reburied in August 1945.
He added, “I can say that the person pictured on the photo was in appearance identical with the corpse.”
Asked why nothing more was done, Professor Tuchel speculated that it was because the Jewish cemetery was in East Berlin. He said he had found no evidence that the West Germans ever asked the East Germans, or that the Western allies inquired of the Soviets what had happened.
Mr. Zuroff said of the reported discovery: “This would solve a very perplexing mystery, if it’s true. But again, I’d feel a lot better if there was forensic evidence.”
The cemetery, which was handed over to the Jewish community in 1948, is now a leafy site of remembrance in the heart of one of Berlin’s trendiest districts. In this, it is typical of the German capital, and of its turbulent history. The “perverse” story that unfolded on Thursday, noted Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee in Germany, shows “how little respect there was for human lives.”
“It is not possible even in death to disentangle the victims from the perpetrators,” she added. Date: 10/31/2013