Growing up, Mary Fulbrook and her family shared holidays and get-togethers with her godmother Alexandra Klausa and her husband, Udo. Meals consisted of typical banter: updates on the children and how work was going. But what Fulbrook didn’t know is that Udo Klausa was a Nazi.
In her recent book “A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust,” Fulbrook, a German history professor at University College London, tells the story of Klausa, a man she had always believed was involved in mundane local government work in Poland during World War II.
Fulbrook shared her experience and writing process last Thursday at the Central Queens YM & YWHA at 67-09 108 St. in Forest Hills, as part of this spring’s Hevesi Jewish Heritage Library’s Conversations with Outstanding Authors & Filmmakers series.
“I was just idly looking through some of the stuff that Alexandra’s son had put together after their death and I came across a one-page letter from Alexandra to her mother, and it was dated August 1942,” Fulbrook said. “The letter read: Today, 15,000 Jews were deported. It’s so awful here, I would have liked to have left too.”
Fulbrook found it strange that her godmother knew the exact number of Jews who were rounded up, so she did a Google search on the town Bedzin, where Alexandra was residing in when she wrote the letter.
What popped up on Fulbrook’s computer screen was a map showing Bedzin located 25 miles from one of the largest concentration camps in the Holocaust, Auschwitz. Just under that, she saw photograph of Klausa, who was listed as the town’s chief civilian administrator.
“I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, I couldn’t breathe,” Fulbrook said. “I just kept looking at the photograph and thinking about my mother’s best school friend having married a Nazi official, and I thought this cannot be.”
Soon after, Fulbrook became obsessed with figuring out who Klausa really was and what role he had played in the war.
“I just couldn’t understand how on earth, after all of these years, he never breathed a word of this,” Fulbrook said. “It was just so strange that neither of them had ever said they had lived so close to Auschwitz during the war. That’s how the book started.”
According to Fulbrook’s research, Klausa was an ordinary and “decent” German, not the beastly and horrific person one often associates with Nazis. He was a very high-level civil servant and seemed a typical person.
“When I was researching him, he came off as a decent civil servant,” Fulbrook said.
Born in 1910, Klausa found himself smack in the middle of the war youth generation in Germany. That generation, born around the time of World War I, had not seen the heartbreak, the blood and the destruction it had caused, or were too young to understand it, and only knew that Germany had lost badly and wanted to avenge the defeat. Many of those born into that generation ended up supporting the Nazi Party.
“He was also a Catholic, and Catholics were not thought too highly of either, so he was a little more of a conformist just to prove that he was OK,” Fulbrook said. “He was very good in that he studied law and wanted to be a civil servant but also because of his violent pursuits. The rationale was that murder is fine in the service of the cause.”
After reading letters and diaries, Fulbrook discovered that many Nazis, including Klausa, never felt what they were doing as wrong. In fact, many of them denied knowing what was going on.
“Udo wrote a memoir in 1980 and in that memoir—mind you by this time he was a retiree and a democrat with a solid pension—he doesn’t mention any of the terror or brutality and barely mentioned the Jews.”
In contrast, Rutka Laskier, a teenager who lived in the Bedzin ghetto of Poland, wrote of the horrors she was experiencing in the same neighborhood as Klausa.
“I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of it’s mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon,” Laskier wrote. “The baby’s brain splashed in the wood. The mother went crazy. I am writing this as if nothing has happened. As if I were in an army experienced in cruelty. But I’m young, I’m 14, and I haven’t seen much in my life, and I am already so indifferent. Now I am terrified when I see ‘uniforms.’ I’m turning into an animal waiting to die.”
Shortly after writing this entry, Laskier was taken to Auschwitz, where she died a couple of weeks later.
“There is a very distinct line of difference between the war memories of the Jewish and Polish people in the area and the war memories of Udo and other Nazis,” Fulbrook said. “This is a 13-year-old girl who can’t travel around and she knows about furnaces, which is significant because so many Germans who had the freedom to drive around and go as they pleased claimed to have no idea what was happening.”
In addition to tracking down the history of Klausa, Fulbrook’s book, available on Amazon, delves into the lives of the “everyday Nazis,” the people who did not shoot bullets into the heads of the innocent or turn on the gas chambers but who signed off on deportations and consolidations.
“What is more important than memorials and deaths is the way routine administrations would ghettoize or reduce rations,” Fulbrook said. “There were people starving to death or dying of ordinary diseases and those deaths are the effects of the everyday racism. These indirect deaths were because of the Nazi policies of indirect racism.”
Since the book’s release, Fulbrook has maintained contact with Klausa’s son, who respectfully disagrees with her analysis of his father’s role in the war.
“This is his father, so there is a level of love and respect there,” Fulbrook said. “For me though, I had so much anger not only for what Udo did but because he didn’t ever consider his role in the Holocaust. Had he said he was sorry to have done it, I probably would have left it and there would be no book.”