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Uncovering My Family’s History—or a Clever Scam—75 Years After Kristallnacht

A woman in Germany claimed to have photos that could solve a mystery about my great-uncle’s death. But was she telling the truth?

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Leopold Müller’s identity card, issued in 1939. (Courtesy of the author)
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This is a story of my own foolishness. I got scammed on the Internet. I lost some money—not a fortune, but enough to sting a little. I didn’t offer assistance to a deposed Nigerian government minister or try to collect winnings from a lottery I never entered. I went looking for a movie of my great-uncle Leopold being marched to his death by the Nazis, and someone in Germany took advantage of me.

To start at the beginning is to go back exactly 75 years, to Nov. 9, 1938. That night, the night we now call Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass,” the Gestapo arrested my grandfather Felix at his apartment and hauled him off to Buchenwald. While that was happening in Frankfurt, the window glass was shattering on his brother Leopold’s drygoods shop in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Kissingen. Leo was arrested but spared the trip to a concentration camp. They held him in the local jail instead. He emerged a few days later, in time to sell his shop’s inventory to a neighbor who saw an opportunity. They said the sale was of Leo’s own free will, but the buyer paid pfennigs on the Reichsmark, and Leo had to hand over a hefty transaction fee to the Nazi Party’s District Economics Adviser.

My grandfather was released from Buchenwald after a few weeks and fled to Switzerland. Leo stayed behind. Three and a half years later, Leo was dead. It was all quite orderly. He was seized in Bad Kissingen, taken to nearby Würzburg, marched through the streets with 800 other Jews from the region, put on a train, and deported to Poland. I lose the thread of his story as the train leaves the station on April 25, 1942. I am desperate to know whether he was killed on the train trip to the Polish ghetto, or if he died of disease or starvation in the ghetto, or if he was shot on the way to the death camp Sobibor or was gassed there and incinerated. It’s one of those. I’ll never know which.

But I do know what the death march to the train looked like, because the Gestapo took pictures. A photo album of the deportation survived the war and was seized by Allied forces. It was used as evidence at Nuremberg and at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. I’ve examined these photos with a magnifying glass, looking for Leo in the masses. He is not to be seen, but in a couple of the photos you can see a movie camera. Yes, the Nazis actually made a film of their crime. We know that Gestapo officials screened it, but it disappeared and is presumed lost or destroyed.

Fast forward to my foolishness.

After years of gathering the scattered traces of my great-uncle’s life, with some surprising successes, I decided back in June to hunt for the film. Of course it probably burned in a bombing or was destroyed by some nervous German official as the Allies closed in. But things you think would be gone survive somehow. Last year a guy in England found a coded military message from 1944 on the skeleton of a carrier pigeon in his chimney. Maybe this movie is in an old box or a long-unopened suitcase in some German attic.

I can’t go crawling through the attics of Germany. But this summer, it occurred to me that I could use the power of the Internet to ask Germans to go crawling through their attics for me. I made a short video in German, describing Leo’s well-documented deportation and asking people to help me find the missing film. It’s not about assigning blame, I assured them, or seeking reparations. It’s just about finding Leopold, rescuing him from oblivion. I posted the video on YouTube and created an email address to receive suggestions. The video didn’t exactly go viral, but the website of Der Spiegel, a leading German magazine, picked it up. For a couple of weeks, my inbox was filled with sweet but unhelpful suggestions from Germans who were moved by my plea. These soon trickled off, leaving only a steady stream of spam.

Months went by. And then, on Sept. 30, an email from a German email address appeared. In grammatical, conversational German, it said: “Hello. We are in possession of 17 original photos of the deportation to Poland. Would you like to buy them? But only if you can guarantee absolute discretion. Thank you!—Susanne.”

I was excited and intrigued. I wrote back to confirm that these were photographs of the deportation in question and that they weren’t simply duplicates of the well-known photos that had been around since the war. Susanne replied: “These are never-before-seen photographs of the deportation from Würzburg to Poland. We’re in possession of a photo album of my grandfather’s. My grandfather was in the Gestapo there. That’s why discretion is so important to me.” She went on to say that the album contained 17 photographs of the April 25 deportation, 26 other pictures having to do with Jews in Würzburg, and 90 other photos of her grandfather’s Gestapo service, all of them inscribed with dates and explanatory notations. “Naturally,” she said, “the photos have only been in the family’s possession, and I inherited them when my grandfather died.”

I found myself perversely overjoyed. It’s odd to be thrilled at discovering pictures of a death march, but when the death march is your great-uncle’s and you’ve been searching for him for years, it’s a big deal. I also knew that whether or not Leo appeared in the pictures, this was an extraordinary historical record. Most of all, I was thrilled that my hunch was right: One simple YouTube plea and German attics were flying open, disgorging their secrets. How many other photo albums were out there? Would the film itself turn up?

I was also a little disgusted. Susanne, the granddaughter of a perpetrator of my great-uncle’s murder, was offering to sell me evidence of the crime. It seemed tone-deaf, mercenary, oblivious to the enormity of my family’s loss and her own grandfather’s guilt. But I didn’t begrudge her the desire to see a little profit from her inheritance.

Our correspondence continued. I assured her that I’d be discreet and asked her whether she had scanned a photograph that she could send me. I also asked her what she wanted for the album.

She wrote back with embarrassment, asking me what “scanned” meant. “Pardon the question but my husband and I are not the youngest and we really don’t know all of the new terms,” she said. Rather than answer my question about a price, she asked if I might possibly have the opportunity to go to Germany to have a look at the album and take it from her.

It was also at this point in our correspondence that Susanne, without my bidding, brought up her discomfort over what the photos showed. “I’m sorry for what happened to your family but what’s to be done about it? It’s awful when you think about what your own grandfather unthinkingly participated in. That’s how it must have been, even though by then he was already pretty high-ranking. But when I remember the stories he used to tell I still get shivers down my spine.”

The word “unthinkingly” sent shivers down mine. Here was the tired, bankrupt narrative of German innocence: Everyone was a little ignorant cog in a big terrible machine, just following orders. I thought this German illusion of innocence had been shattered decades ago, but apparently not, at least for Susanne. I said nothing about this to her, though; I didn’t want to make her regret reaching out to me.

I explained to her what I meant by “scanning”: Could she send me an electronic copy of one of the photos so that I could make sure it was of good quality?

“Unfortunately we haven’t made any copies,” she replied, “and for us it’s not too pleasant to send something having to do with the Holocaust by email. But the photos are all in good condition and of good quality.” She also asked again whether I could come to Germany: “At least that would make it easier to discuss a price,” she said. And then she asked what I planned to do with the photos. Did I want to publish them? “If so,” she said, “that would be OK with us so long as you don’t reveal our names.”

I wrote back. Planning a trip to Germany would be very difficult, I explained. But if I bought the album, I assured her, I would promise not to reveal any names.

“That sounds good,” Susanne replied. “You don’t absolutely have to come to Germany if it won’t work for you. But it would have been interesting to meet someone who has a connection to this. Maybe another time.”

We were now four days and six back-and-forths into our correspondence, and I was still elated. I imagined myself opening the album and spotting Leo in one of the photos. I imagined a trove of primary source materials that I could publish—a coffee table book that readers would pore over and Holocaust scholars would mine for new insights. It was enough to make me want to hop on a plane to pick up the album immediately, so I went back to my calendar and found a long weekend in November when I thought I might be able to make a trip work. I wrote to Susanne, inquiring whether she’d be available that weekend.

“I can’t tell you today what I’ll have going on that weekend,” she replied. “But I can look into how to ship a package to the USA. Or do you have experience with that? DHL or some other company?”

She still hadn’t said anything about a price. But she seemed willing to move ahead without my traveling to Germany, so I decided to go the DHL route. I told her that I’d had good experiences with DHL, and that I’d be happy to pay for the shipping. To supply a little of the personal contact she seemed to want, I attached a photograph of Leo with his dog from before the war and a photo of myself with my wife and daughters. I thought maybe this personal touch would help her feel comfortable going ahead with the transaction.

Susanne replied the next day: “Yes, shipping through DHL will work. Thanks for the pictures. What price do we want to set for the album? You can certainly make an offer!”

This plunged me into uncertainty. Some of it was about obvious things: Was it wise to send money to someone I’d never met, without first seeing what I was buying? How could I put a price on such a priceless historical artifact? I couldn’t exactly hop onto eBay to find out what similar never-before-seen photo albums of Gestapo atrocities have been going for.

Part of my worry came from something else entirely—an ugly, ancient anxiety I did not even know was my own. I felt as though I was being tested: the Jew being asked to set a price. Would I offer too little and prove how cheap we are? Would I offer too much and show how rich we are? I bounced back and forth in my mind, low to high and back again, trying each number on as a defensible expression of the Jewish attitude toward money. I wondered: Is this what Leopold went through when he had to sell his shop’s inventory after Kristallnacht?

I ultimately settled on an offer of 450 euros (about $600) plus shipping costs. Susanne accepted it the next day. “The shipping costs for the package are 17.90 euros,” she said. “Let’s just make it 470 euros including shipping and that’ll be OK for us.” She gave me her name, her street address, and her grandfather’s name, reminding me to keep these all to myself: “It has to stay private that I’m his descendant and that we are the ones who sold you the album.” She gave me all of the necessary wiring information for her account at the German bank Targobank, including the IBAN and Swift numbers. She told me she was going to buy a box at the post office and pack the album up well. She asked what sort of description she should list for the U.S. customs form—“just ‘photo album?’” And again she stressed the need for discretion in the wiring transaction. “It’s important not to write anything about WWII or anything like that. We don’t want our bank to potentially ask us what we sold because the people down there all know us very well.”

And that was that. On Monday, Oct. 7, a week after she first contacted me, I wired her 470 euros. While we waited the couple of days for the transaction to clear, I asked her something I’d forgotten to ask earlier: How exactly had she found me? She explained that it was by chance. She likes to read Der Spiegel online, and a couple of months earlier she had seen the link to the video about my search for the film. She watched it and then she and her husband spent a long time debating whether to write to me because of their worries about disclosure. “But then we decided to go ahead and do it because it might help you learn a little more on the subject of your family,” she said.

On Tuesday, she told me that she planned to send me the album on Saturday when she went to the market, and that she’d let me know when it would reach me.

On Thursday, she confirmed that the money had reached her bank account, and again said she’d ship the album on Saturday.

I wrote her on Saturday afternoon to say that I hoped everything had gone well with the shipment and that I’d appreciate a tracking number so that I could monitor the shipment. Late that night she answered that she had gotten to the post office too late. There was so much going on at the market, she explained, that she hadn’t managed to get the package off. She apologized and said she would take care of it on Monday.

That’s the last I heard from Susanne.

I wrote her on the Monday she was supposed to ship the package and asked her to confirm the shipment and send me the tracking number. No reply. I wrote her twice on Tuesday, morning and evening, with the same question. No reply to either. I wrote her on Thursday that I preferred to believe she was having second thoughts or some sort of problem with her email than that she was defrauding me. I asked her to write back or call me immediately. No reply. On Saturday, still unwilling to admit I’d been had, I sent her one final email:

“I’ve read what you wrote over and over again. It gives the impression of being the truth and not an inducement to fraud. But I haven’t had a word from you in 10 days now. It would surprise and appall me that a German of today could be so staggeringly cruel to the Jewish descendant of a Holocaust victim. Can it be?”

No reply.

It can.

***

I suppose I could point out a few moments in the story where it doesn’t look like Susanne was a thief. She didn’t pretend to have the thing I was actually looking for (the film). She asked if I could show up for the deal in person. She accepted my opening offer instead of pressing for more. And she kept writing to me for a couple of days after my money hit her bank account.

But the truth is that I put too much of myself into searching for something, believed someone when she said she had it, paid her for it without seeing it, and have nothing to show for it but disappointment and indignation.

I look back now and ask myself where my mistake lay. At the simplest level, it was in trusting someone I met through the Internet, but there’s more to it than that. My mistake was also in believing that my great-uncle Leo’s murder by German hands decades ago would protect me, his descendant, from hurt at German hands today. I thought this sort of cruelty would be outside the bounds of contemplation in German society. That is a mistake my family has made before.

One other possible mistake occurs to me, and that is the search itself. At the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht I continue to look for my great-uncle Leo. I continue to harbor the fantasy that if I can find him in a film or in a photo, it will help me know this man who is unknowable, and that by knowing him I will rescue him from his fate.

Foolishness.

***

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Uncovering My Family’s History—or a Clever Scam—75 Years After Kristallnacht

A woman in Germany claimed to have photos that could solve a mystery about my great-uncle’s death. But was she telling the truth?