Court Orders Historian to Return Documents, Tapes on Riga Ghetto

A bitter legal battle waged by Holocaust survivors against a renowned German historian appears to be nearing a conclusion this week, but it may be harder to heal the emotional wounds.

A Berlin court last Tuesday ruled that Wolfgang Scheffler must return all remaining tape recordings and documents loaned to him by the Society of Survivors of the Riga Ghetto when they hired him earlier this decade to write a book about the ghetto.

Scheffler did not produce the work, and since he was hired, some 70 members of the New York-based survivors group have died.

During the four-year legal battle for return of fees and documents, Scheffler suggested he was the victim of the “machinations of a Jewish group.” Herman Ziering, a member of the survivors group, compared Scheffler’s behavior to that of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

“A man like that should be totally wiped out” from positions of respect, Ziering, 72, said in a recent interview. Ziering was deported from Germany to Riga, Latvia, when he was 14.

More than 22,000 Jews were deported to the ghetto, and most were killed in two mass shootings on November 30, 1941 and December 8, 1941. Some 600 were selected for work, with Ziering among them.

Scheffler signed a contract in 1992 to write a book about the ghetto within 28 months. The lawsuit against him was launched in 1995, after 36 months had passed.

In 1997, Scheffler repaid the more than $100,000 he was given, plus legal fees. However, he denied that he had been given any documents or cassette tapes.

Then, last February, after another lawsuit was launched against him, the historian returned a bag of documents and 98 cassette tapes of interviews with survivors.

“I said, ???He is lying. He always denied having anything, and now he is coming with documents we didn’t even know he had,” Karl-Georg Wellmann, Berlin-based attorney for the survivors group, said.

At least 60 cassettes are still missing, as well as other documents, he said. Wellmann is now preparing for the possibility of a legal search of Scheffler’s home.

Scheffler’s lawyer, Paul Hertin, refused to comment.

Jan Philipp Reemstma, the founder of the Institute for Social Research in Hamburg, is now working on the Riga book with two assistants.

Scheffler has had an illustrious career as a historian specializing in the Holocaust.

He was sent by the German government as an observer to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, and in 1994 was given one of the nation’s highest awards for his work toward “reconciliation with the Jewish people.”

He is on the boards of the House of the Wannsee Conference, a memorial museum and archive in the building where the Holocaust was mapped out, and of the “Topography of Terror,” an archive and archeological site of the former SS headquarters in Berlin.

“It makes me bitter that this man is still in such a position,” Ziering says. “He wanted to rob us. He knows more about the Holocaust than anyone else, and he took the money and didn’t do anything.”

During the legal fight, Scheffler, who turns 70 this year, had responded to such reports with the comment, “As if that’s my responsibility.”

“So much time has been lost,” Bernhard Press, author of “The Murder of Jews in Latvia” published in 1992, said. “The book would undoubtedly be very valuable.”

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