Joseph Wulf

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The Creation of the Wannsee Memorialportrait of Joseph Wulf

From Wannsee House and the Holocaust, chapter 8

In May and June 1945, Soviet soldiers occupied the Wannsee Villa, followed by American troops, who used the house as an officers’ club. When the German borders were established, the Villa ended up in West Germany.

In 1947, the August Bebel Institute established a college in the Wannsee Villa, which educated functionaries of the Social Democratic Party. The ground floor was divided into lecture rooms, dining rooms, and a reading room. There were bedrooms and a library on the second floor, and work rooms on the third floor.

In March 1952, the August Bebel Institute vacated the Wannsee Villa. Maintenance costs were high, and the building needed a new roof. In April 1952, the district of Neukölln made the house into a youth hostel. Local schoolchildren spent their summer vacations playing on the park-like lawn and in the lake front garden. The historian Joseph Wulf was responsible for reawakening public awareness of the Wannsee Villa’s notorious past.

Joseph Wulf was born in Chemnitz (later Karl Marx Stadt) in 1912, son of a well-to-do merchant. When he was five years old, his family moved to Krakow. His father wanted him to be a rabbi, but Joseph Wulf aspired to be a writer. When he was 27, he published his first book, Critical Miniatures, in Yiddish. But the year was 1939, and Hitler’s attack on Poland brought Wulf’s writing to an abrupt halt.

In 1941, Joseph Wulf joined the resistance, while his wife and son hid in the home of a Polish farmer. Two years later, the Gestapo captured Wulf, and after a month of cruel interrogation sent him to Auschwitz. There, SS-guards tattooed his arm with his inmate number, 114866. He survived two terrible years and a death march before the Red Army freed him. He found his wife and son miraculously still alive, but the Germans had murdered his father, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and niece.

Wulf was one of the founders of the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland in 1945. He left Poland for Paris in 1948, where he worked at the Centre pour l’histoire des Juifs polonais. In the 1950’s he moved to Berlin to continue his historical studies. He was driven by the conviction he developed at Auschwitz, that he must do everything to prevent the world from forgetting the millions of murdered Jews.

His first in a series of books on the Holocaust was entitled The Third Reich and the Jews. He subsequently wrote books on the Nuremberg Laws, the history of the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos, and biographies of Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann (Hitler’s private secretary and close associate), and Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Jews and disappeared in Russian captivity. The German publishers Rowohlt and Ullstein issued many of Wulf’s works in paperback editions, which are still in print. He received the Leo Baeck Prize in 1961 and the Carl von Ossietzky Medal in 1964. But German historians criticized his writing as poorly organized, unreadable, and biased. Wulf responded, "I am objective, but not neutral."

Strolling down the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Joseph Wulf cut an unmistakable figure, and a casual observer could easily have taken him for a boulevardier. He dressed impeccably, carried a walking stick, and held a long cigarette holder clenched between his teeth at a jaunty angle.

In 1965, Wulf urged the creation of an international Holocaust document center. He wanted the documents to be available to everyone. A library would house references in all languages, and the remainder of the building would be open to scholars doing research studies, as well as to conferences and seminars. On August 29, 1966, Wulf, Friedrich Zipfel, and Peter Heilmann founded the International Document Center Organization for the Study of National Socialism and its Aftermath. The three men advocated that the document center be located in the Wannsee Villa.

Senator Heinrich Albertz and the Berlin Senate were not thrilled. As Albertz replied:

The Senate’s view is that the past will not be overcome by setting aside a house, worth more than a million Marks, which is now a domicile for schoolchildren. One would have to set aside many houses to isolate every building that was a venue for horrors. One should be more concerned with the people responsible for the horrors committed in these houses.

The mayor of Neukölln, Klaus Schütz, was more blunt. In his district he wanted "no macabre cult site."

Joseph Wulf suggested a compromise. The Wannsee Villa would be used for the document center, while the World Jewish Congress would provide money to build school buildings on the grounds. The Berlin Senate refused this trade-off, and instead suggested two other pieces of property in Berlin that could be used for a document center. But these two spots weren’t even available. And the World Jewish Congress did not wish to pay for any location other than the Wannsee Villa.

In fact, the German politicians did not want a Holocaust monument, and spurned Joseph Wulf. At the end of his life, Wulf believed all his efforts had been in vain. "I have published 18 books about the Third Reich," he lamented, "and they have had no effect. You can document everything to death for the Germans. There is a democratic regime in Bonn. Yet the mass murderers walk around free, live in their little houses, and grow flowers." Distraught over the collapse of his plans for a document center, Joseph Wulf committed suicide on October 10, 1974, by jumping from the fifth floor window of his Berlin apartment, Giesebrechtstraße 12, Charlottenburg.

There was no further consideration of Wulf’s document center until September 1, 1986, when Eberhard Diepgen, Mayor of Berlin, announced the intention of the Senate to place a memorial at Wannsee. Diepgen recalled that when he had first learned of Nazism as a young student in the 1950’s, nothing shocked him more than the Wannsee Protocol, which he described as "so cool and dispassionate in its form, so immensely evil in its content."

"There have been many cases of government-sponsored mass murder," said Diepgen. "But that a highly modern state, working with such brutal success, killed all the members of a race that it could capture, including mothers, children, and old people--that is unique and without any historical parallel."

In 1989, the Berlin schoolchildren finally moved out of the Wannsee Villa, and renovation began. Three years later, fifty years to the day after the Wannsee Conference, the Wannsee Villa was inaugurated as a monument to the millions of Jews who had perished at the hands of the Nazis. "In this house, on January 20, 1942, a barrier of civilization was broken and the abyss of barbarism was opened," said Heinz Galinski, an Auschwitz survivor and head of Germany’s largest Jewish organization, at the dedication.

The permanent exhibition in the Wannsee Villa is a powerful collection of photographs and texts that document, not just the conference itself, but also its background and aftermath. Visitors pass large photos of Jews being arrested, herded into trucks and railroad cars, and then marched to their deaths in the gas chambers. One room of the exhibit is devoted solely to the murders at Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the walls of the former dining room, where the conference was held, hang photographs and short biographies of the fifteen men who attended the conference. The Joseph Wulf Mediothek on the second floor holds thousands of books on Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the Jewish genocide, along with many videos, microfilm texts, and original Nazi era documents.

"Let us not deceive ourselves about what we have done," said Rita Süssmuth, President of the German Parliament, in a speech at the opening of the Wannsee memorial. "Experience tells us that whatever we repress catches up with us. No one can flee from their history."