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Nov 2010 Journal

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Bringing war criminals to justice (review)

HITLER’S WILL
by Herman Rothman
edited by Helen Fry
The History Press (tel 01453 883 300; www.thehistorypress.co.uk), 2009, 192 pp. hardback, £18.99

The title of this book doesn’t really do justice to a fascinating autobiography. Herman Rothman grew up in a middle class, modern Orthodox Jewish family in Berlin and the early part of the book describes his family background. His father was born in Austrian Poland and had had a very adventurous life as an officer in the Austrian cavalry during the Great War. After the war he moved to Berlin, where the author was born in 1924. The family relationships in Berlin were warm and caring and young Herman led a sheltered, happy childhood.

In 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power, life changed but, until 1938, this was surprisingly perceived more as a very unpleasant experience than an actual threat to one’s existence. Herman continued to go to school and synagogue and in 1937 celebrated his barmitzvah in style. In 1938, however, it became obvious that the Nazis were becoming more aggressive, culminating in Kristallnacht. Herman’s father had a friend in the police, Inspector Belgart, and it is probably due to him that the family was able to escape the worst excesses of Nazism. The book is dedicated to him.

Events forced the family to conclude that Herman should take advantage of the Kindertransport escape route, and the 14-year old moved to a new life in England. Here, the youngster had to get used to doing manual agricultural work, poor living conditions and, most important of all, losing contact with his parents and brother. Fortunately, he was a strong, athletic young man and good at making lasting friendships.

Towards the end of the war, he was able to join the British army and, although he saw no active service, was able to use his language skills in dealing with German POWs and gathering intelligence. At one stage, he was put in charge of moving large numbers of Germans to the rear even though he was still only a private.

Herman Rothman’s full contribution to bringing to justice those responsible for war crimes began after the war. Initially, he acted mainly as interpreter for senior investigators, but later became one himself, when not only his knowledge of German but his ability to interview and assess potential criminals came to the fore.

The title of the book relates to the most dramatic event in his intelligence work. During a routine search, a corporal became suspicious of bulging shoulder pads worn by one of the prisoners, ripped them open, and discovered documents which turned out to be copies of Hitler’s personal and political wills and an addendum by Goebbels. Interrogations revealed that the prisoner was Heinz Lorenz, who had been Goebbels’s press attaché. The author describes not only his own role in translating and assessing the documents, but the dramatic story of how they had been entrusted to Lorenz in Hitler’s bunker and his escape to the West. The most interesting aspect of the wills relates to Hitler’s reaction to the betrayal, as he saw it, by Göring and Himmler. The wills and Goebbels’s addendum are, in my view unnecessarily, given in three appendices.

Although this was clearly the highlight of Mr Rothman’s work in this field, there are many other descriptions of encounters with suspected Nazi criminals. One was with a shady character with an English name who has a separate chapter relating to him.

A very interesting chapter recounts the remarkable stories of how the author’s mother and brother, and separately his father, survived the war. He discovered these only in detailed letters written by his brother which he partly quotes.

There are many interesting photographs in this very readable book. It is to be commended for demonstrating yet again how individual refugees used their talents in fighting the Nazis and helping to bring at least some of them to justice.
 

George Vulkan

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