An Irishman’s Diary on Wannsee and the ‘Final Solution’

Where the Nazis planned the systematic extermination of European Jews

The Wannsee Villa in Berlin, where on  January 20th,   1942, Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich met with others to plan the ‘Final Solution’

The Wannsee Villa in Berlin, where on January 20th, 1942, Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich met with others to plan the ‘Final Solution’

 

Holocaust Day is on January 27th, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, but the day almost coincides with the anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, on January 20th, when in 1942, Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich met with others to plan the “Final Solution”, the systematic extermination of European Jews.

The Wannsee Villa in Berlin, the conference venue, opened as a museum in January 1992. Three months later I attempted to bring a school group there on a Monday morning, only to find the gates locked. I was tapped on my shoulder by a bespectacled, breathless gentleman.

He introduced himself as Gerhard Schoenberner, the museum’s director, and said that looking out the window of his home nearby he saw our coach pass slowly. Anticipating our intentions, he had rushed to greet us. He apologised that the museum was closed but as we had come so far he would oblige us with entry. He explained that the entrance sign had been vandalised with far rightists suspected, as generational unease then at wartime memories was still prevalent.

He opened a side gate onto a loose gravel driveway. In front the house loomed. If a building could frown! There was an entrance portico to the front door. I could picture the black cars of the SS and the Nazi Party grandees, sweeping up to the large wooden double door, with vassals heel-clicking as their bosses emerged.

My host brought me inside to turn off alarms and put on lights.

Gerhard was delighted that my school had made the trip, as we were the very first school group, foreign or domestic, to visit. He then showed me something a little unusual. He opened a small door and invited me into a tiny two-person lift. Explaining that the house for years had been used as a young persons’ residence, the lift had been sealed off, only recently reopened, and was in its original condition. Furthermore, the officials of the conference would have used it. We took the lift to his office on the third floor. There, Gerhard gave me his keys and invited me to fetch my group. I took the lift back down.

In it I felt quite overwhelmed, alone, but surrounded by a sense of the malign presence of its previous occupants, Heydrich and Eichmann. The lift was mahogany and brass, and had a narrow ledge seat, on which sat a frayed, red velvet cushion, with a worn red beading trim. The descent took seconds but the memory is timeless.

I assembled the group and walked back, crunching the gravel driveway to the front door. The key was old and the polished brass escutcheon was well worn. We began our tour of the exhibition.

Eventually Gerhard brought us to the conference room, bright, yellow walled, with parquet flooring. In the centre was a glass-topped table, and mounted on one wall were the names and photos of the 15 participants. Eight had doctorates, including six in law. They were not unsophisticated Nazi thugs, but men of considerable learning. They were secretaries of government departments, concerned with methods and legalities, and other “technical” aspects of the “Final Solution”.

Under the glass table top, two fading buff documents were laid out from “the Wannsee Protocol”. These pages were the conference conclusions. “Europe will be combed through from west to east”, resulting in “a haul of 11 million Jews”, including 4,000 from Ireland.

Gerhard was extremely passionate about remembering the past. He stated that even Fascist Italy should be recognised for refusing to deliver up its Jews to the Nazis. He urged us to visit the Rykestrasse Synagogue in old East Berlin, where a working-class community’s pressure managed to sustain a Jewish school until 1942.

Gerhard Schoenberner was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit in 2002 in recognition of his efforts to keep history alive, through the opening of the Wannsee Museum, and his earlier work on the Topography of Terror Documentation Centre at the former Gestapo site on Wilhelmstrasse.

He died in 2012.

The group from CBS Kilkenny spent two hours that morning in the Wannsee Villa. Fifty years earlier, the conference to decide the “Final Solution” took 85 minutes.