I’ve been thinking about the story of Elfriede Lina Rinkel, the 83-year old woman just deported to Germany for hiding the fact that sixty-two years ago, in 1944, she left her factory job to become a guard at the concentration camp at Ravensbrück.
How’s this for a CV?
went to work at Ravensbrück: 1944, age 22
went to US: 1959
married German Jewish refugee Fred Rinkel: 1962, age 39,
Fred dies: 2004, age 88
dirty secret discovered: 2006
Behind those major events in her life, Elfriede lived 44 years with a man people knew as “the love of her life,” a Jewish man who had trained in Berlin for a career as an opera singer, before the Nazis cut that short. In San Francisco, he worked in a tie shop and as a singing bartender. There is a gravestone in Colma with both their names on it.
"I never talked about this with my husband,” she said. “There was nothing to talk about. You don't talk about things like that, never. That is the past."
One can only imagine what information passed between them during the nearly half a century of their intimate relationship. She evidently knew all about how he was hounded out of their homeland, and found his way to Shanghai and eventually to San Francisco. He, on the other hand, apparently never had a clue that all the while his wife was hiding her past as a dog-handler at Ravensbrück the last ten months of the war, one of 958 women employed at a facility infamous for medical experimentations on women and public beatings which occasionally led to death.
So what’s the story behind the story? Did she marry Fred and donate to Jewish charities to atone for her crimes? Or simply because she fell in love with him? How can one live out a life of such loneliness, and possibly guilt and fear, that keeping such a secret must represent? Or is the question how is one capable of such denial? Why did she take the job at Ravensbrück? Apparently not out of any feelings that it was a good job, but because it paid more than her previous job as a factory worker. Why did she not refuse? One is hard pressed to argue she didn’t know what was going on, but was it really a question of distancing? Of “just doing her job,” the often expressed explanation for one’s participation in making the wheels of the Third Reich go round?
How is she taking the exposure of her dark little secret? She shows no remorse, insists she never hurt any of the prisoners, never used the dogs on them, only watched to see they didn’t run away. One would have to know more than I do about how the camp was run to understand the ring of that story, or how she has reconstructed the events of her life as a guard to keep her conscience from eating her alive.
It’s easy to judge this woman on surface details – the fact that she understood what she had done is evident from her decision never to apply for U.S. citizenship. Any exploration of her past might have scared up the information she wanted hidden. Because it is not yet clear whether she has broken any German laws, and is still a German citizen, she was able to make her way back to Germany to live with her sister near Mönchengladbach. There is nothing in the works as yet, but according to a spokesperson of the agency that prosecutes war crimes in the Cologne area, and has the authority to proceed, the possibility of that is open.
She was tripped up because we have entered the computer age when bits and pieces of information can be assembled by agencies such as Homeland Security and the Special Investigations Office of the Justice Department. Since 1979, they have won cases against 102 people who took part in Nazi persecution and deported 62 of them.
As a child I acquired the attitude of horror and disgust at the revelation of Nazi atrocities in Germany that marks the post World War II American mainstream culture in which I grew up. Missing from my history classes was any effort to draw parallels with the Americans who stood by and watched the genocide of the American Indian and the enslavement of Africans in their midst. All attention was focused on the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and the question was always, “How could this have happened in such a civilized land?”
The scales are fast falling from American eyes on how this could have happened as we are now daily exposed to ways in which people have been kidnapped and tortured under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Geneva Conventions have been labeled quaint holdovers from a more innocent age, and most Americans, politicians and their constituents alike, show little inclination to bring the war in Iraq to a halt – despite the fact that consensus has pretty much been built around the claim it has increased terrorism and hatred against the United States, not decreased it.
The two German authors probably best known in the United States are Günter Grass and Bernhard Schlink. I met Günter Grass in 1963 when he came to talk to a group of us at the SS barracks in Berlin where I was stationed. It was now the home of the American occupiers of the city, and Grass was touted, thanks to his novel Tin Drum, which had made such a splash when it appeared five years earlier, as a representative of the new denazified Germany. In 1999 he received the Nobel Prize for literature. I was still living pretty much with the good German/bad German framework under which I was raised.
If that framework were still intact, he might have slipped dramatically back into the bad German category after the shocking revelation last month that he had hidden his membership in the Waffen SS all these years, while flinging mud at his countrymen who had not managed to keep their past sins a secret. That framework gave way years ago and was replaced by an awareness of the power of peergroup persuasion, the concept of zeitgeist, the understanding through life experience that we are far more likely to bumble our way through life one day at a time than become heroes, and the realization that the current American culture war is not a battle between red states and blue, Republicans and Democrats, or even conservatives and liberals, but between those whose black and white thinking cause them to condemn tout court people living with human complexity on the one hand and those with a more compassionate take on the human race, on the other. Benedict XVI, incidentally, has suffered the same abuse for his youthful association with the Nazis, although Hitler Youth membership is a considerably less alarming skeleton in the closet than Waffen SS membership. For all the reasons to oppose this man, his following the pack as a youth, it strikes me, should not be one of them.
The second-best-known German author, at least to American audiences, after Günter Grass, is Bernhard Schlink, possibly due to his being featured on Oprah. Schlink’s most famous novel is The Reader (Der Vorleser), a powerful story about a young man who falls in love with Hanna Schmitz, a woman much his senior who turns out to have been a concentration camp guard. No doubt the parallels are being drawn all over the place between Hanna and the case of Elfriede Rinkel. In the fictional version, at least we have details sufficient to justify condemnation of the woman. In Elfriede’s real-life scenario, we are left to speculate, and that provides a Rohrschach test to identify at least three types of personalities: those with a greater willingness to throw stones; those who feel as Agent Eli Rosenbaum, the man who ended Elfriede’s last years in hiding, apparently did, that there can be no statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals; and those – probably the majority of us – who want to get on with our lives, avoid selecting one evil to prosecute while so many others still stand, and allow a lonely old lady to mourn her husband and find some quiet at the end of her life.
The power of Schlink’s novel lies in the complexities of character and motive. Hanna, who liked to be read to, both by concentration camp victims and by her young lover years later, turns out, was illiterate, and found the challenge of swimming against the current of Nazi values beyond her capacity. We get to wonder now whether Elfriede, or anybody else, should use innocence or ignorance as an excuse. Although morality is not entirely a function of education, moral action often is. When we learn that more than 30% of those who watch Fox News believe Bush administration statements which are demonstrably false, in contrast to only 11% of those who watch PBS, it is not too big a stretch to understand how morality is not simply about knowing right from wrong, but about knowing how to identify what is right from what is wrong and how to avoid believing only what you want to believe. I am referring to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as well as Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda.
The plethora of recent evidence of human folly as so many of us line up behind one ideology or identity or another should give us pause in our urge to judge the Elfriede Rinkels of the world. Like Günter Grass, who has split the world in two between those who say his story is one of hypocrisy and those, like the Polish mayor of Gdansk (Danzig), where Grass was born, who refused recently to withdraw the city´s recognition of his lifelong contribution to democracy in his present and former homelands, Elfriede will have her detractors and her defenders.
At present, it is a matter of degree. Only those with a zero tolerance for human folly and an inhumanly rigid code of justice can fault the pope. Grass, too, while he may never regain his moral voice, was probably more about being a macho kid than a sinister racist. Elfriede, ironically, is the hardest to defend. And yet she may be the most innocent of all three.
To the split between conservatives and progressives, the red and the blue, the open minded and the closed, we may now add the standoff between those for whom a respect for justice and the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust is a primary value, and those who feel it should come second to pity for a lonely, depressed, and tired old lady.
And yet… it would be nice to hear her say she’s sorry.
September 26, 2006