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August 04, 1995 - Image 32

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-08-04

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

claim their home. But their trials were far from over. Star-
vation and poverty were rampant in war-crippled Germany.
Else Steffens slowly traded most of their expensive furni-
ture, rugs, paintings and clothing for food. She even ex-
changed Liesel's favorite dollhouse for a Christmas goose.
Fritz suddenly reappeared in 1949. He had escaped his
sinking ship and spent the remainder of the war as a British
prisoner.
Soon after, Wilhelm Steffens returned home, too, but he
was no longer the father Liesel remembered. Her proud,
handsome hero was replaced by a sagging, broken old man
who brooded often and had much less time for her. She
did not know he had been indicted and was awaiting trial
in Nuremberg.
In 1950 the family took a
trip to the ocean to help Wil-
helm Steffens regain his
strength. Liesel and her father
resumed their long walks to-
gether. One morning he turned
to his 8-year-old daughter and
recited a familiar theme.
"Germany will be strong
again," he promised her. "It's
up to you to make it so."
As Liesel skipped happily
ahead, he crumpled into the
sand. Liesel ran to help him,
but the heart attack her father
suffered had been brutal and
swift.
"My father, my hero, my idol
was dead," she said softly, eyes
glistening.
The next few weeks were a
blur for Liesel. With her father
gone and her brother too old to
live at home, she became the
focus of her mother's attention.
They rented rooms in their
sprawling home for extra mon-
ey. Slowly life regained some
semblance of normality.

6

Liesel and her
mother during the
war, before she
found out her
family legacy.

32

You Are Murderers'

I

n the spring of 1951, Liesel's life changed forever. The
heavy winter snows had finally melted, and 9-year-old
Liesel took advantage of a warm, pleasant day to play
hopscotch. Absorbed in the game, she barely noticed the
stranger walking toward her.
"Kleine, wo wohnst du?" he asked. "Little girl, where do
you live?"
Liesel looked at him curiously and wondered if it was safe
to respond. The stranger reminded her of her father, she de-
cided, with his blue suit, briefcase and strong, kindly face.
But she was puzzled by the strange little cap he wore on
the back of his head.
She smiled at him and pointed to her house. The stranger
nodded as if he knew it well. He had lived in the house next
door, he said. His parents had run a clothing shop down-
stairs. A great man had saved his life there during Kristall-
nacht, he added.
"Kristallnacht?" Liesel repeated silently. The stranger
must have noticed her blank expression because he paused
beside her.
In November 1938, Adolf Hitler ordered all Jewish prop-
erty destroyed, he explained. As Liesel contemplated the
meaning of "Jewish property," the stranger painted a grue-
some picture of a hateful mob that broke into his house and
slaughtered his parents in front of him. They dragged him

onto the second-floor balcony and flung him into the air as
if he were a paper airplane instead of a 9-year-old boy. He
was sure he was going to die.
But at the last moment another neighbor rushed forward
and caught him. As furniture, glass and clothing rained
down on the cobblestones around them, the man smuggled
him to safety.
"Now I live in Israel," finished the stranger. "But I came
back to thank the man who saved my life."
Liesel's mind was spinning. This was the first she had
heard of Israel, Kristallnacht or little boys being killed in
her beautiful homeland. But she was sure of one thing.
"That man was my father!" she said excitedly, grabbing
the stranger's hand. Wouldn't her mother be proud to see
one more example of what an incredible man Wilhelm Stef-
fens, the great humanitarian, had been?
Happier than she had been since her father died, Liesel
burst into her living room with the stranger in tow. Her
mother was whispering furiously with Frau Lauder, a nosy
old woman who rented one of the Steffens' rooms. They
stopped when her new friend entered. Immediately, Liesel
felt the stranger stiffen behind her. She sensed her mother
and the man with the funny hat had met before.
Liesel started to explain the fantastic thing her father
had done, but before she could finish, Frau Lauder scooped
her up and rushed out of the room. Liesel was dumped un-
ceremoniously in her bedroom and the door was locked from
the outside. Liesel banged against it angrily for a few
moments, and then she scrambled onto the windowsill. She
watched in silence as the stranger hurried down the street,
his head bent and shoulders sagging.
Finally her mother opened the door. "Don't you ever bring
people like that into our house again!" she screamed, red-
faced.
Liesel was completely bewildered. "People like what?"
she asked.
Her mother sputtered in anger, and Liesel was sudden-
ly overcome by the awful suspicion that her parents were
somehow connected with the stranger's terrible story.
"Mutti," she said slowly. "What did we do during the war?
Did we not save this man?"
Else Steffens grabbed her little daughter and shook her
until her teeth rattled. "Your father was a good man! He be-
lieved right! Why should he have saved a Jew!"
It took a moment for her mother's words to sink in. Liesel
stared at her in disbelief. Her generous, loving, wonderful
parents were part of those evil stories people whispered in
which children were cooked in ovens and torn from their
mommies and daddies? Suddenly, she wanted to be as far
from her family as possible.
Liesel had never stood up to her mother before, but now
she turned on her hatefully. "You are murderers!" she spat.
"Don't you ever touch me again!" She raced to her room and
slammed the door.
"It was the end of my childhood," Ms. Appel remembered
sadly. "I never touched her or called her 'mother' again."
Liesel spent the rest of her youth fluctuating between in-
tense feelings of shame, guilt, anger, self-hatred and lone-
liness. But she was not really alone. Many other Nazis' sons
and daughters suffered through similar experiences. In
1991, former Wall Street lawyer Gerald Posner published,
Hitler's Children: Sons and Daughters of Leaders of the
Third Reich Talk About Their Fathers and Themselves. The
book articulated the struggles of Rolf Mengele, son of the
notorious "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele; Wolf Hess, son
of Deputy Fiihrer Rudolf Hess; Ursula Donitz, daughter of
Adolf Hitler's hand-picked successor, Karl Donitz; and oth-
ers.
Although some adamantly defended their parents' inno-
cence, many children fought to cope with paralyzing night-
mares and guilt. Rolf Mengele constantly apologized to

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