Nazi's failed libel case opens up can of worms

 

GERMANY:Erich Steidtmann was appalled when he heard that Lisl Urban, a one-time girlfriend, had published her memoirs.

Her book, An Ordinary Life, tells of her childhood, her time at art school and the war years, when she worked as a secretary in the Gestapo.

In one of her boyfriends, named only as "Eike", Mr Steidtmann recognised himself and sued Ms Urban and her publisher for libel for claiming, among other things, that he suggested she have an abortion after she became pregnant by him.

The case was thrown out by Leipzig state court yesterday - but now it could have consequences for the 93-year-old Mr Steidtmann.

Ms Urban's publisher claims that, during research to prepare his defence, he uncovered proof that Mr Steidtmann joined the feared SS in 1933. Mr Steidtmann denied the claim at first but then admitted it after documentary evidence was produced showing his name, date of birth and SS number.

Further research produced documents suggesting he may have been involved in the 1943 liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and other Nazi atrocities. Mr Steidtmann was posted to Warsaw in 1942 as captain of the protection police (Schutzpolizei) that watched the outer perimeter of the ghetto walls erected to house Warsaw's Jews.

Mr Steidtmann admits this, but says he was moved to Lublin in March 1943, a month before the start of the ghetto liquidation. In his lawsuit, however, he says he was "involved in taking care of the uprising of 400 German deserters" in the ghetto.

"That's when my ears pricked up," said Joachim Jahns, head of Dingsda Press, publisher of Ms Urban's book. Warsaw Ghetto archives, detailing the doom of more than 400,000 Polish Jews who lived there, show no record of such an incident.

In January 1943, thousands of Jews fought - and hundreds died - during a rebellion against the first "relocation" transport that would end in concentration camps.

Mr Steidtmann declines to say now whether he was referring to this incident or the April-May 1943 uprising and subsequent liquidation, when some Ghetto residents disguised themselves in Nazi officer uniforms.

"In the Heinrich Himmler archive I found a picture that clearly shows Mr Steidtmann and others during the visit of leading SS officer Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger to the ghetto, a visit which other sources date as May 2nd, 1943," said Mr Jahns.

Mr Steidtmann claims he was in Lublin by then, heading the Police Battalion 101. Between the summer of 1942 and winter 1943, this battalion massacred about 30,000 Jews. Again Mr Steidtmann denies involvement. "I was thousands of kilometres away. It's all lies what Jahns said, I have nothing to hide," he told The Irish Times yesterday.

He now has to pay all legal expenses incurred for his failed libel suit and says it is a "cost factor" whether he pursues the case further. Asked whether he regretted starting his legal battle, the energetic 93-year-old replied: "Well, you know, all humans make mistakes."