Michael Gieleta Wannsee

Burnt Offering - 80 år etter Wannsee-konferansen

For 80 år siden i dag, fant nazistene sin "endelige løsning" på "jødespørsmålet". Denne teksten er skrevet av Michael Gieleta, gjenlevende familiemedlem etter Holocaust.

Skrevet av: Michael Gieleta, med innledning av Birgit Amalie Nilssen.

For 80 år siden i dag, fant nazistene sin "endelige løsning" på "jødespørsmålet". Utryddelsen av uønskede mennesker gikk ikke fort nok, men etter et 90 minutters møte i dette praktfulle bygget, kunne møtedeltakerne slappe av med et bedre måltid og skåle for sin egen briljans.

Med godstog, gasskammer og krematorier skulle de skape et hvitt, raserent, heteroseksuelt og funksjonsfriskt samfunn.

Ondskapen og kynismen som gjennomsyret Wannsee-konferansen 20. juni 1942 er så vond at vi helst vil glemme dette beksvarte kapitelet av historien vår. Men vi kan ikke glemme. Det er vår plikt å minnes. Minnes - og å holde historiene levende. Heisingen av naziflagget ved ARKIVET 9. april 2018 viser at vi ikke kan la være. Det som skjer i Telemark tingrett akkurat nå, viser at vi ikke kan la være. Det rohingyaer, yazidier og uigurer daglig opplever viser at vi ikke kan la være.

En av mine eldste venner Michael Gieleta, er snart det eneste gjenlevende familiemedlemmet som kan fortelle hva hans slekt opplevde under Holocaust. Vi er like gamle. Men mens jeg har et helt nettverk av tanter, onkler, fettere og kusiner, har han ingen. Ingen andre enn seg selv. Nettopp fordi så mange ble utryddet, er det så få igjen som kan fortelle. For å holde familiens historie levende, har Michael valgt å tilbringe dagen i dag i Wannsee. 80 år etter møtet som utryddet nesten hele familien hans, har han skrevet disse ordene til oss ved ARKIVET freds- og menneskerettighetssenter. Han deler dem med oss for at historien skal leve videre. Ved å lese, hedrer du alle dem som ikke lenger kan fortelle.

Burnt Offering Wannsee 20 January 1942 by Michael Gieleta
Wannsee 20 January 2022

In 1941 it became clear to the Nazi leadership that mass executions of Eastern European Jews by the method of shooting proved to be a strategic and statistical failure; they could only “process” 100 000 Jews a month.

The 12-hour-long execution rotas also had a negative impact on the mental health of the participating SS staff.

On the 29th November 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office, sent the following invitation to the Third Reich Secretary of State and the chiefs of SS main offices:

Considering the extraordinary importance which has to be conceded to these questions, and in the interest of achieving the same viewpoint by all central agencies concerned with the remaining work in connection with the final solution, I suggest that these problems be discussed in a conference, especially since the Jews have been evacuated in continuous transports from the Reich territory to the East.

The meeting took place here at the Wannsee Villa exactly 80 years ago. It lasted for 90 minutes during which - “the final solution of the Jewish problem” was unanimously reached. The meeting was followed by a formal I lunch and fine wines. Of the 15 officials in attendance, 8 of them held Ph.D.s in law.

The fate of the estimated 11 million European Jews was determined: the start of the industrial-scale killings would start in Nazi-occupied Poland, the home of 3 million Jews. Short distances to the yet-to-be-constructed killing centres and high concentration of the victims in the already functioning ghettoes made the process simpler. Meanwhile, concentration camps in Western Europe would be getting set up. Little resistance was expected from the Western countries and the Balkans. Norway and Denmark were the last on the list as the Nazi anticipated that either country would be willing to release its citizens without objections.

My name is Michael. My mother lost 99% of her family as the result of the Wannsee Conference.

I am here wandering around the grounds of the villa reflecting on what it must have been for the likes of Heydrich or Eichmann to enjoy pudding after “talking shop”. Heydrich, the son of a composer, played some Schubert on the piano as cognacs were being served. The subject of the “shop-talking” being the biggest ethnically-motivated genocide in the history of mankind.

Paradoxically, the word “genocide” did not even exist then. It was only invented for the needs of the Nuremberg Trials. Such a term was not needed up to that point in history.

Nobody at Wannsee talked of killing: my family as well as the mere 11 million European Jews were to be “evacuated to the East”, “treated accordingly”, subjected during a “Special Action” to “an executive measure”. Their home town, Lemberg, now known as Lviv, was to be “cleared up of the Jewish question”. The whole area was to become “free of Jews”.

By 1945 only 6 million of the projected “evacuees” were “liquidated”. 6."

"Putting it in more mundane terms, my family and hundreds of thousands of others, had to purchase a one-way third-class ticket to the Death Camps (children under 10 received a 50% discount). If you didn’t have the money, the Jewish Councils were to cough up for the transport bills.

My whole body aches as I pace around the villa. My mind is fuzzy.

My lungs lack oxygen.

I try to focus on the exhibition.

Yet the concept of the annihilation of the entire ethnic group, rooted for over 2000 years in the history of Europe, whose 4000-year-old religion gave birth to Christianity, has not become any less incomprehensible to me.

I still don’t get it. Why? Why them? 80 years ago I could have been on one of those trains. I would have been on one of those trains.

On 20th January 2022 I am staring at the Wannsee Lake which looks the way it must have looked on 20th January 1942. I think about my grandad returning from a slave-labour job outside the Lemberg ghetto walls to find everyone gone.


That means: there was no one in his life left.

Fixing my eyes on the gloomy expanse of the dark lake, I think about the Nelly Sachs’ poem:

We who are saved beg you:
Show us your sun, but slowly.
Lead us step by step from star to star. Let us learn to live again, but softly.
Otherwise, the song of a bird, the bucket filling at the well,
might break open the weak seals of our pain and foam us away –
We beg you:
don’t show us – yet – a dog that bites – we might, we might
crumble to dust – crumble to dust before your eyes.

The use of Zyklon-B in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau was yet to be concocted.

The death camps in which my family perished did not have the eye-catching train ramp framed by the red-brick Hell’s Gates. There was no selection on the ramp. There was no chance of survival. Everyone was killed upon arrival. Usually within an hour.

They did not pass out within minutes gasping for air from the blue fumes evaporating from the Zyklon-B pellets. They suffocated from the exhaust fumes produced by a petrol engine.

It was more economical than Zyklon-B.

That is how the three Death Camps on the Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, the terminus for 1 700 000 Jews, operated.

The petrol engines often failed to start. Or some of them failed to start.

That’s how the Head of Technical Disinfection Services of the SS described one of those glitches:

Unterscharführer Hackenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn't go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster. Yes, I see it all and I wait. My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chambers. In vain.

They can be heard weeping 'like in the synagogue', says Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to a window in the wooden door. Furious, Captain Wirth lashes the Ukrainian assisting Hackenholt twelve, thirteen times, in the face. After 2 hours and 49 minutes—the stopwatch recorded it all—the diesel started. Up to that moment, the people locked in those four crowded chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic meters.

Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp inside lit up the chamber for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive.

Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead ...

Why do I imagine my mother’s grandparents, aunts and uncles with their children dying on the day the Head of Technical Disinfection Services of the SS inspected Belzec? Was it them whose agony lasted for 3 hours 21 minutes? Perhaps it was. I’ll never know.

The Head of Technical Disinfection Services of the SS later pleaded with the Swedish Ambassador to Berlin to inform the free world of the scale of the killings. The British Daily Telegraph ran an article. The New York Times ran an article. Both described the killing methods with surprising accuracy. It was early in 1943. By that time 50% of European Jews had been murdered. The crematoria in Auschwitz were not switched off until October 1944 following an infernal summer during which nearly half a million Hungarian Jews died in the gas chambers.

These are the sentences given to the perpetrators at the Belzec Trials:

Josef Obernhauser: Accessory to 300 000 cases - 4.5 years imprisonment and loss of citizen’s rights for three years.

Erich Fuchs: Accessory to 90 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Heinrich Gley: Accessory to 170 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Werner Dubois: Accessory to 360 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Karl Schluch: Accessory to 360 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Heinrich Unverhau: Accessory to 360 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Robert Jührs : Accessory to 360 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Ernst Zierke: Accessory to 360 000 of collective murder - acquittal on grounds of acting under duress.

Now that I wander thought the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin in the middle of the night, despite reason, time and history, I am hoping that some familiar face, a spectre, a spirit of one of my people crop up from behind one of the labyrinthine stone slabs.

I wish I could placate my racing thoughts, my pacing heart, my compulsive imagination. I wish I could pass some of that consolation on to my mother.

But all I find is emptiness. The cold dark slabs. The silence which keeps oozing more and more darkness into my soul.

After the war, the West called it “The Holocaust”: “A burnt sacrifice offered whole to God”, “Burnt Offering”.

I don’t understand whose offering my family was. On whose altar? Offered by whom? To which god? In whose name? And why?

All I know is that my offering lies in keeping their memory alive, keeping their stories retold and not letting them slip into one of history’s tragic episodes that become more and more distant as the time passes.

That is why I am telling this tale. For them.

For you.

For the peace of my heart that it yet to find its nest.