Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

German Officials Offer Reward to Find Vandals Who Attacked Wwii Memorial

September 10, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A team of crime experts has been asked to investigate a recent series of attacks on Jewish and anti-fascist memorials after what is being described as the worst anti-Semitic attack on a Holocaust memorial in a decade.

In what one Jewish leader called a clear act of Holocaust denial, vandals last week firebombed a museum commemorating the April 1945 death march of 45,000 concentration camp inmates deeper into Germany as the Soviet armies approached at the end of World War II.

They also scrawled a swastika and SS symbols outside the museum at Belower Wald — German for Below Forest — near Berlin.

Germany is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the attack, which occurred Sept. 5, the night before Rosh Hashanah.

The attack was similar to one in 1992 that nearly destroyed a barrack at the site of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

That crime also took place just before Rosh Hashanah.

The barrack has been partially reconstructed as part of the Sachsenhausen memorial museum, but some of the charred original structure remains as a reminder of the physical and psychological damage vandals can inflict.

Local political and religious leaders joined in condemning the latest attack. Some 500 people attended a demonstration last Friday to show their disgust with the incident.

The attack took place against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitic incidents in the former eastern German states of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the number of such crimes registered during the first half of 2002 nearly equaled the total for the entire previous year.

In a few of the incidents, vandals placed pigs’ heads on Holocaust memorials.

Some observers say the increase in such crimes may be related to anger about the continued Israeli-Palestinian violence.

But Peter Fischer, a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who oversees Jewish communities in the former East Germany, said he believes Holocaust denial was behind the latest attack.

“It fits with a whole series of attacks against locations that have to do with remembering the death march and other Nazi-era crimes,” Fischer told the German Press Agency.

Original items belonging to prisoners were destroyed in the fire, according to Gunter Morsch, director of memorials for the state of Brandenburg.

In addition, vandals defaced a memorial stone with swastikas, SS symbols and the statement, “Jews have short legs.”

Fischer said the graffiti was a play on the expression “Lies have short legs,” a saying frequently used in Nazi-era anti-Jewish propaganda.

“The idea was that Jews were notorious liars and one should not believe them,” Fischer told JTA.

“It is a clue that this is not a spontaneous act by a bunch of idiots, but rather a clearly symbolic act.”

The fact that the crime was committed on the 10th anniversary of the arson attack on the Sachsenhausen memorial was evidence that the perpetrators “knew exactly when and how they should commit their act,” Fischer said.

He said police found similarities in the handwriting and paint used in the graffiti in this and other incidents in the area this year.

“What impresses me is that in the 10 years since the attack on Sachsenhausen not much has improved, and in fact it has gotten worse,” Fischer said. “It is common for them to attack the weakest — in this case, the dead. But those who are hurt most are the living.”

If anything has changed, it is the readiness of local people to stand up against the neo-Nazis, he said.

Fischer added that he was “deeply moved” to see local residents coming “on bikes, in cars, and buses” to the last Friday’s demonstration.

“It was clear that they were not going to let this incident go with comment. This is a difference from 1992. The people are really ready to stand up,” he said.

The museum at Belower Wald was created in the 1970s as a memorial to the concentration camp prisoners who were forced by the Nazis on death marches at the end of World War II.

Throughout the states of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, there are markers showing the routes along which Jews and other prisoners were herded.

Thousands died of exhaustion or were shot by their Nazi guards.

Two sites along the death march routes were vandalized earlier this year. Those incidents may well be linked to the attack at Belower Wald, officials said.

Investigators said the latest attack was most likely committed by members of a small circle of violent right-wing extremists who timed their act to coincide with Rosh Hashanah.

Investigators said they doubted that local skinhead groups were sophisticated enough to have planned an attack to coincide with the Jewish holidays.

The governor of the state of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, interrupted a session of the state legislature to visit the scene.

He called the incident “extremely disgusting.”

The head of the Communist Peoples Democratic Party in Brandenburg, Ralf Christoffers, said the case made it clear that politicians still have much to do in the fight against right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism.

Recommended from JTA