Capitalizing on Loss

In the waning days of April 1945, options for escaping Hitler’s Berlin bunker were quickly disappearing. The constant thumping of Russian artillery shook the ground, and the the Allies continued their inexorable march eastward.

For the Fuehrer himself, the chance to escape by air was feasible, until the very end. Hitler, ym”s, had a personal pilot by the name of Hans Baur who boasted that he could “fly the Fuhrer anywhere in the world.” This was no empty promise; the Luftwaffe did have the capability of using strategically located U-boats to refuel a flight to virtually anywhere.

But Hitler refused to leave. Instead, his loyal secretary, Martin Bormann, made plans for the evacuation of the Nazi elite from Berlin. On April 22, a convoy of ten aircraft departed from a nearby airfield, carrying dozens of Nazi insiders and countless boxes of classified documents. The last airplane to lift off carried ten chests of these papers, under the supervision of Hitler’s personal valet, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt.

The first nine airplane arrives in southern Germany safely, but the last one did not make it; the large transport plane crashed in the Heidenholz forest, not far from the Czechoslovakian border. When Hitler learned of the crash, he reportedly was extremely distressed. He had a particular liking for his young valet; and about the lost papers he exclaimed, “They were extremely valuable documents which would show posterity the truth of my actions!”

A bizarre comment, to be sure, but the story only gets wilder. A plane carrying highly sensitive material that crashes in a forest provides the perfect scenario for deception and forgery. It took several years, but a career German counterfeiter and forger by the name of Konrad Kujau eventually cashed in on this event.

Kujau, whose parents were members of the Nazi party, was a small-time criminal who was imprisoned several times for counterfeiting Deutschmarks and operating under a false identity. By the early ‘70s, he had discovered his true calling. Using his forgery skills, he purchased Nazi memorabilia and then created notes by prominent Nazis linking them to the item. A simple German helmet from World War I turned into a valuable artifact after Kujau forged a note stating that Hitler had worn it in the Flanders campaign. Flags, daggers and other inexpensive memorabilia became priceless treasures, keeping the cash flowing into Kujau’s crafty hands.

Almost as an afterthought, Kujau hit upon the idea of creating a diary written by the Fuehrer himself. After a month of practicing the Gothic German script used by Hitler, he purchased a few cheap black notebooks and sat down to write. Using a blend of historical archives and his imagination, he wrote volumes of mostly boring accounts of meetings, but he always included some personal notes to spice up the otherwise tedious work.

To give the diaries an authentic worn look, he sprinkled the pages with tea and banged the notebooks against his desk. He was now ready to launch the greatest con job of his career. Kujau carefully leaked his discovery to the press, claiming that the diaries had been found in the wreckage of the tenth plane from Berlin.

A major German news outlet swallowed the story hook, line and sinker, paying millions for the forgeries. The outlet conducted only a minimal investigation, including visits to the crash site and the graves of the flight crew. Many notable historians, including the heretofore distinguished Hugh Trevor-Roper of Britain, vouched for the diary’s authenticity.

Soon, however, reporters from other media outlets began asking for more details, and the diaries were submitted for forensic testing. In a matter of days, experts concluded that the diaries were a complete forgery; the paper proved to be just a few years old, and the binding of one folder contained polyester, which had not been produced before 1953. In the words of one analyst, the diaries were “bad forgeries but a great hoax.”

The fallout was tremendous. The German media group that promoted the fraud fired several editors, and it took a decade to restore any semblance of its former credibility. Trevor-Roper, once a respected historian, was “permanently besmirched.” And let’s not forget about Kujau, who was tried and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

In my opinion, it makes little difference if any more German documents surface, authentic or otherwise. We all know what happened during the war, and we all know the identity of the perpetrators and their motives. Though there are some who have tried to capitalize on our loss, let us not forget the ultimate truth: Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker – Hashem and His nation are eternal.

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann is the director of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, located in Brooklyn, NY. To learn more or to donate artifacts, visit amudaish.org. You can also contact the museum at info@amudaish.org or at (718)759-6200.



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