Correction to This Article
Arnold H. Weiss, a Washington lawyer and former Nazi-hunter, is referred to as Albert Weiss in a headline in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance. The headline on this online version of the article has been corrected.
Page 5 of 5   <      

Giving Hitler Hell

Arnold Weiss
A 1945 photo of Arnold Weiss in Germany in front of the wreckage of a Nazi plane. (Courtesy Arnold Weiss)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity

Finally, and with great formality, he said: "You are correct. I am SS Standartenfuhrer Wilhelm Zander."

It wasn't particularly dramatic, but they had broken him. The real questioning could now begin. When had he last seen Nazi leaders Goebbels? Goering? Himmler? Who was in the bunker with the Fuhrer during his last hours? What were the circumstances of Zander's last meeting with Bormann? How did he get out of the Fuhrer's bunker? What route did he take? Trevor-Roper was particularly interested in the names of lesser officials present during Hitler's last 48 hours, support staff such as Erna Flegel, cooks, drivers, guards and so on.

Once Zander had given up the ghost of Paustin, he talked nonstop for six hours. Almost as an afterthought, Weiss asked why he had left the bunker.

"I was sent on an important mission as a courier," said Zander, matter-of-factly. "I suppose you want the documents."

Absolutely, said Weiss, even though he had no idea what Zander was taking about. "Where are they?"

That same day Zander led Weiss and Trevor-Roper back to Tegernsee, where he had originally lain low. There was a dry well at the back of the Unterholzener property, and he pointed down it. Weiss retrieved a fake-leather suitcase from the bottom. At first glance it contained only Zander's discarded SS uniform. But upon closer inspection, a hidden compartment was found. In it was a plain manila envelope.

Weiss tore it open. "Oh my God," he cried, involuntarily switching to his native German. He was staring at Hitler's "Last Will and Political Testament."

"Let me show you something," says Weiss, breaking off his narrative. It takes me a second to make the leap from 1945 to the pres-ent, to readjust to the office surroundings. I take in the plush ex-ecutive decor, the crystal tombstones that investment bankers use to commemorate big deals, the framed notice from the June 6, 1994, edition of the Wall Street Journal: $1,086,460,000, it reads in bold banner-headline print, the amount of money raised for the first of six funds EMP manages. A scale model of a Boeing 757 flying the corporate colors of an Asian airline (one of the firm's investments) sits on the window sill, competing for airspace with the real planes that cruise over the Potomac on final approach to Reagan National Airport.

"Here, I brought it with me." Weiss fishes through his briefcase, which is definitely not fake leather. Everyone dresses well at EMP's posh Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, but only the chairman -- a former prime minister of Pakistan and World Bank senior vice president -- is nattier than Weiss.

"There," says Weiss, handing me an old sheaf of papers.

They are 1946 photostats. What is startling is the simplicity of the documents. With all the pageantry that surrounded the Third Reich, these humble pages don't even contain an official seal. Printed on plain white typing paper of the sort found lying around any office, they have an almost suspect humility about them. But they are real, authenticated by the FBI in early 1946, according to America's Secret Army.

Mein privates Testament, reads the underlined heading of the first page. It is dated April 29, 1945, 4 a.m., and at the back are five signatures. The first is small and tightly wound, like a compressed thunderbolt: Adolf Hitler. The others are more expansive and boldly ambitious: witnesses Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister who killed himself and his family in the room next to Hitler in the bunker.

The same signatures grace a second, considerably longer document titled Mein politsches Testament, in which Hitler rails against his generals, expels Himmler and Goering from the Nazi Party, and appoints Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz as his successor and names the entire 17-member Cabinet. A third document had been in the package found by Weiss that Zander was to have delivered to Doenitz -- the death-bed marriage certificate between Hitler and his longtime mistress, Eva Braun. But Weiss did not get a copy of it. (Weiss received a photostat of Hitler's wills along with a congratulatory memo dated January 7, 1946, from an American brigadier general whose signature is illegible. The originals are stored in the National Archives.) "The wills were to be used to re-honor Hitler, when at some future date the Germans would rise again," Weiss wrote in his own sure hand in a 1946 memo that ends in a triumphant, "Case closed." (Weiss had reason to sound exultant: For finding definitive proof that Hitler was dead -- in his will, Hitler explains that he prefers ending his own life to being paraded around like a zoo exhibit -- he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, a citation from the commanding general of the Intelligence Services and a recommendation for the Bronze Star.)

As to why Zander failed to deliver the documents to Doenitz, Weiss's memo, now yellowed with age, hints that such information was above his pay grade. Trevor-Roper, however, had access to further debriefings with the wayward SS courier. "A half-educated, stupid, but honest man," he wrote in his final report, published in 1947, "Zander only wished by a silent death to end a wasted life and expiate the illusions which it was too late to shed." Apparently, the loyal SS man had begged for permission not to carry out his last mission. An idealist, he wished to die alongside his Fuhrer. But, according to Trevor-Roper, Hitler refused his request and ordered him to carry the succession documents. Once he thought Hitler was gone, Zander no longer believed that Nazi Germany had any future and simply ditched the documents instead. Weiss never found Bormann, whose skeleton was discovered in Berlin in 1972, prompting speculation that he had killed himself not long after leaving Hitler's bunker.

Weiss still marvels at Hitler's mix of naiveté and arrogance for thinking that the Third Reich could survive defeat or that his orders would be carried out after death. "Can you imagine?" he says. "Hitler was still trying to run Germany from the grave. Talk about chutzpah!" But more mundane matters also preoccupied Hitler's last thoughts: He wanted his paintings donated to a picture gallery in his home town of Linz and some personal mementos distributed to his secretaries, particularly Frau Winter. "As executor, I appoint my most faithful Party comrade, Martin Bormann," Hitler wrote. "He is given full legal authority to hand over to my relatives . . . especially to my wife's mother . . . everything which is . . . necessary to maintain a petty-bourgeois standard of living."

Hitler's final written words, however, commanded Germany's future leaders to "mercilessly resist the universal poisoner of all nations, international Jewry." It is, thus, one of history's ironies that the first person to read those words was a young German American Jew who had survived the Holocaust as a victim of Nazi persecution and was now acting as an instrument of justice.

Weiss was born Hans Arnold Wangersheim to a middle-class family of assimilated Jews that had lived peacefully in German Franconia for nearly four centuries. Weiss's father, Stefan, covered the sports beat for the Nuremburg Acht-Uhr Abendblatt, and his flashy, opinionated columns on the rising or falling fortunes of the local soccer clubs lent him an aura of minor celebrity enjoyed by the contemporary likes of a Tony Kornheiser. Sportswriters in those days didn't have production deals with ESPN, and the Wangersheims lived modestly in a working-class neighborhood where the nascent forces of fascism and communism competed fiercely, and often violently, for the residents' affections.

Weiss's earliest memories of his father are of a muscular man in a crisp, white gymnastics uniform, swinging gracefully from the parallel bars. "He cut a dashing figure, or so it seemed to someone who was very young."

Weiss was 6 when his parents divorced in 1930.

His father apparently preferred the sweaty company of fellow sports lovers, and long, languid evenings in beer halls, to ministering to his three children. There might have been another woman in the picture, but the subject was too painful, and Weiss never raised it with his mother. By all accounts, the divorce proceedings were messy and bitter. Weiss's mother, Thekla Rosenberg, an avid athlete and tennis player herself, got custody of young Arnie and his two sisters, Beate and Evelyn, but no financial support from Stefan, who walked away from all parental responsibility.

At the time, the Great Depression raged on both sides of the Atlantic. In Weimar Germany, the added burden of war reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI made the situation particularly dire. Weiss's mother had a difficult decision to make. On her bookkeeper's salary, she could not afford to raise three children. "There was just not enough money to feed all of us," Weiss recalls. "The girls needed to be more protected, so I was the candidate to be placed in an orphanage."

The Orthodox Jewish orphanage to which Weiss was sent in 1930 (or 1931 -- he no longer remembers) was in a suburb of Nuremberg known as Furth. The routine was harsh: up before dawn for morning prayers at the synagogue next door, then off to school and three hours of Hebrew lessons, followed by two more hours of Talmudic studies before evening prayers. The food was lousy; privacy was nonexistent; and between the hazing from the older kids and the harsh discipline meted out by orphanage administrators, beatings were a regular feature of life.

Weiss described the details in an oral testimony he gave in 1996 to the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It was pretty grim," he said in the taped testimony, "even before the Nazis came to power."

Asked by the curator if he felt a sense of abandonment, Weiss responded, "Yes," after a long pause. "I would say that's a fair comment."

The separation from his 2-year-old sister, Evelyn, was the hardest to bear. "I simply adored her. She was like a toy." Weiss still got to see his mother and sisters for a few hours every few months, but it wasn't the same. They inevitably grew apart. But the orphanage was within walking distance of his maternal grandmother's apartment, which afforded him at least one decent meal a week and generous helpings of affection.

Still, he says, orphanage life wasn't all bad. You always had someone to play with, so you were never lonely. Those hidings thickened the skin, and you learned quickly to fend for yourself. "Community living, once you got used to it, had all kinds of pluses, which came in handy at later stages in life." Weiss credits his upbringing in the orphanage for his ease in institutional settings, whether the military, in which he enlisted in 1942 as a gunner on B-17 bombers before being recruited into intelligence, or the Treasury Department, which he joined in 1952 after getting his law degree on the GI bill, or at the helm of the big international development banks and law firms where he spent the bulk of his Washington career.

"One of the things it taught you," he says of orphanage life, "was to internalize your feelings, to surround yourself with walls and, above all, never to show emotion or weakness."

That mental toughness was a critical survival tool in Furth, as Weiss had the added disadvantage of being small for his age. "I was a shrimp," he explains in the Holocaust Museum tapes. "I don't think I ever reached more than 5-foot-4 or 5 inches. The Aryan race seemed a little better set up in our neighborhood."

With his yarmulke and distinctive side-curls, Weiss was a natural target for local bullies, particularly the young toughs from the Hitler Youth, who were all too eager to practice on Jewish orphans what their adult leaders preached. "Did you try to fight back?" the Holocaust Museum interviewer asks. "I ran most of the time," Weiss replies. "But they'd still catch me sometimes and beat the tar out of me."

It was from this unhappy vantage point that Weiss watched the Nazi ascendancy. By the mid-1930s, the ranks of the orphanage had doubled, as Jewish parents began disappearing into the growing network of Nazi prison camps. Weiss vividly remembers the last time he saw his own father in 1935. "He came to the orphanage, which was odd since I had not heard from him in over two years. We went for a walk along the canal, and I remember he did something very strange. He put his hands on my head and said a prayer. This was very unusual because my father was not a religious man. 'We will probably never see each other again,' he said, 'I'm going to try to leave Germany.' That was the last I ever saw of him." Stefan Wangersheim was arrested soon after visiting his son.

There were other ill omens that not even an 11-year-old could miss. By 1937, food at the orphanage had become scarce. The orphanage was financed by Nuremberg's shrinking Jewish community, and as more and more Jews fled, were arrested or had their businesses seized, there was less money available for the orphans. "To earn a few extra marks, we were rented out at funerals to say the mourner's prayer," Weiss recalls. "None of us particularly looked forward to that."

At the same time, there was a massive influx of new students at Furth's sole Jewish school, as Jews were expelled from all other academic institutions. The transfers included Henry Kissinger and his younger brother, who was in Weiss's class. (Kissinger many years later at a dinner party told Weiss that, alas, he had no recollection of him.) By 1938, the orphanage's ranks had almost tripled, and the children's diet was reduced mostly to potatoes. Some of the kids' teeth started falling out from malnutrition, and Weiss's gums and molars were badly weakened from vitamin deficiency.

Then one day in February 1938, salvation. Weiss was handed a cardboard suitcase and told to pack. "You are going to America," he was informed. How and why he, out of all the children at the orphanage, had been selected for evacuation he does not know. Luck of the draw perhaps, or maybe the good will of some distant family relation. How it was that Weiss was chosen for the small American allotment was even more of a mystery, since compared with Britain, Russia and other havens, the United States placed tight restrictions on Jewish refugees.

Weiss didn't care about the whys and hows of his rescue. He just wanted out. "Since I didn't have any real attachment to my mother or sisters anymore because we had been apart for eight years, I saw this as a big adventure, and was delighted to go."

The street smarts he had developed in Furth served him well in the United States, where he landed to a decidedly frosty reception. He couldn't find a place to live in New York when he got off the boat, and he was put on a train to Chicago, where there were fewer refugees competing for homes. "We got into Chicago at 3 a.m., and I noticed a train departing for Milwaukee," he remembers. "I'd heard they spoke German there, so I got on it and locked myself in the bathroom." In Milwaukee, he lived with the homeless at the train station and ate in soup kitchens until the police picked him up. He was sent to an orphanage, but kept running away. "I shined shoes and picked up a paper route." Eventually a shop-owning family in the small town of Janesville, Wis., took him in. He went to high school and then watchmaker's college because his foster father believed that everyone should have a trade. "That period was among the happiest of my life," Weiss recalls. "I had a loving home and a completely normal teenage existence, which I never took for granted."

The soldier who returned to Nuremberg in 1945 with the 45th division was a different person from the refugee who had left seven years before. He had a new name, for one, borrowed from the back of the jersey of a fleet-footed University of Wisconsin football star; a new family back in Janesville; and a new nationality and mother tongue, which he spoke with a flat Midwestern accent. Nor was he a boy any longer, forced to run away from Nazi bullies. He was a man, part of the most powerful army the world had ever seen, and it was his turn to do the chasing.

Advancing through sniper-filled Nuremberg, Weiss barely recognized the city he grew up in. Its narrow streets were too littered with rubble for U.S. tanks to pass. The block where his parents had lived was a smoldering hulk; his old orphanage stood silent and empty. Virtually everyone he had been close to was dead: the stern but kind-hearted orphanage director, the kids he had bunked with, the friends he had gone to school with. His uncles had shot themselves rather than face deportation to the death camps. And his grandmother, the person he was probably closest to in the whole world, the warm, loving woman he would sneak out of the orphanage to visit, had been sent to the ghetto at Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, and then to Auschwitz in Poland to become one of the 6 million.

His mother and sisters, at least, had managed to bribe their way out of Germany, then to England and Portugal, and eventually, with Weiss's help, to the United States. But Weiss had little time for reflection or sorrow. Orders had come from 7th Army head-quarters for advance elements of the 45th to rush to Dachau, to liberate the camp before a group of highly valued political prisoners held there was moved or killed. (As Weiss recalls, the VIPs included Leon Blum, the French prime minister; Austria's former chancellor; the deposed head of state of Hungary; some bishops and cardinals; and a German relative of the British royal family.) What he remembers most about Dachau, though, was the smell. "I still have dreams about it," he says. A revolt had broken out in the camp before the 45th's arrival, and while the SS retained control of parts of the peri-meter, the crematoriums had not worked for some days. Bodies just piled up, or lay decomposing between the long rows of low, wooden barracks. Where SS guards still manned the watchtowers, near the main rail embankment, an entire trainload of corpses rotted. "The SS had prevented anyone from unloading it. The people locked inside the cattle cars slowly suffocated or died of thirst," Weiss says.

Even though the camp was technically liberated, the prisoners were so weak and skeletal that they perished at a rate of several hundred per day. Some would crawl on their hands and knees to get outside through holes cut in the barbed wire, so that they could die free. Others were "hell bent" on finding and killing kapos, the club-wielding prisoner turnkeys who, in exchange for extra rations, were as brutal as the SS guards they worked for. "Mobs would descend on them and rip them limb from limb."

Weiss never found the prisoners his unit was sent to rescue. They had been moved by the retreating German regular army, so that the SS would not senselessly butcher potentially valuable bargaining chips. But sifting through an unofficial record of Dachau's victims that had been secretly compiled by prisoners since the mid-'30s and hidden in hollowed-out rafters, Weiss came across a name he immediately recognized: Stefan Wangersheim, his father. (Weiss would learn many years later that his father had survived and immigrated to Brazil with a new wife. He died before Weiss had the chance to reconnect with him.)

When the war ended, Weiss's real work began. The vast death machine Hitler assembled had untold parts and myriad accomplices, and most of them did not simply vanish with Hitler's suicide. The job of identifying and accounting for those with the blood of millions on their hands would be neither quick nor easy. Weiss had a daunting list of thousands of wanted Nazis to find. He remembers one in particular, a man who had not even bothered to move from his pre-war address or take on an assumed name. Weiss had simply looked him up in the Munich phone book and knocked on his door early one morning in 1946.

Why the man had not bothered to conceal his tracks was a puzzle. Perhaps he thought that after all these months no one would come looking for him. Or maybe he believed he could hide beneath his low rank. He was an enlisted man; there were plenty of bigger fish for the Americans to fry. But he had belonged to the SS Death's Head, the notorious battalions tasked with liquidating Europe's Jews, and Weiss, if he could help it, wasn't going to let the even lowliest private from any of those killing squads go free.

"This guy was walking around Munich without a care while most of the people I knew were dead," he says. "And at the time we still didn't even comprehend the enormity of what they had done."

Of all branches of the SS, it was the Death's Head, and specifically its Einsatzgruppen and sonderkomandos units, who ran the death camps and herded entire villages into synagogues to be burned alive. They were the ones who dug the mass burial pits on the outskirts of towns and dumped truckloads of earth on women and children gasping for air. It was the Death's Head that was responsible for devising ever more efficient ways of killing. At Auschwitz, the pinnacle of their industriousness, they "processed" 60,000 people a day.

The man had been a guard at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. It said so in his military service ID record, which, astonishingly, he was still carrying when Weiss nabbed him, as if these posts were somehow marks of distinction. Nor did he make an effort to deny who he was or where he had worked, once Weiss had him in a concrete cell flanked by two MPs.

"I had interrogated some very bad people," Weiss recalls, "but there was something about this guy, an utter lack of remorse. He was oblivious, like he'd done nothing wrong."

The man was in his mid-forties, unshaven and pale. He'd been drunk when Weiss picked him up, but two days in the cell had sobered him up sufficiently for the realization to start dawning that he was in trouble. It was clear to Weiss that the man had probably never gotten beyond elementary school, and his German was of the guttural Bavarian dialect spoken throughout the lowest ranks of the blue-collar class.

Weiss says he spent less than an hour in the cell, getting the information he needed: names of superiors, other guards and so on. "I just wanted to get out of there and take a shower.

"I guess what got me was the complete absence of humanity. To him, Auschwitz had just been a job. The fact that more than a million people were killed there didn't seem to faze him in the least bit. He didn't see Jews as people."

Weiss thought of his father, his friends at the orphanage, his grandmother. The SS man had worked at the same two camps where she had been sent. He was only a lowly cog in the killing machine, and that meant he was of little value to intelligence headquarters in Frankfurt. Unlike Zander, he didn't have to be kicked up the intelligence food chain. In that sense, the man had been right about not needing to go into hiding. No one at Allied Command was particularly interested in someone of his status. But if he believed that his low rank would somehow spare him from justice, he was dead wrong.

"How did you do it?" I ask Weiss. "The kapos," he explains, "that's where we got the idea. We had seen what the DPs did to the kapos, and we realized they could do us a favor."

DPs, or displaced persons, were the survivors of death and POW camps -- Jews, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, refugees of virtually every nationality who either could not return home or no longer had any homes to return to. They numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Europe, and they were housed in huge temporary DP camps. Several such refugee camps, converted German Army barracks, were near Munich.

"We studied up a little on military law, and there was nothing on the books preventing us from delivering suspects for additional debriefing to the DPs," Weiss recalls. He says he's not sure where the idea originated, who first put it into motion, or how widespread it was. "Whoever first came up with this, I honestly don't know. I don't think they'd own up to it anyway."

While it was perfectly legal under military law to hand over suspects for further questioning to DPs, says Benjamin Ferencz, who was a lead U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals in 1945 and 1947, knowingly delivering suspects for execution was not. And of course the DPs were not interested in extracting information.

Ferencz, who today is 85 and lives in New York, cautions against making sweeping armchair moral judgments. "Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was," he says. "I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?"

Ferencz -- who went on to a distinguished legal career, became a founder of the International Criminal Court and is today probably the leading authority on military jurisprudence of the era -- cannot specifically address Weiss's actions. But he says it's important to recall that military legal norms at the time permitted a host of flexibilities that wouldn't fly today. "You know how I got witness statements?" he says. "I'd go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I'd say, 'Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.' It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid."

Weiss says that his unit had its own system of ethics when it came to handing former death camp guards over to the DPs. "You couldn't do that by yourself," he says. "You consulted with the other CIC agents, and usually there was a duty officer. We would have never done this," he adds, "without at least some nod from a superior."

The key was to make certain that there were no cases of mistaken identity. The SS men would have to own up to their participation in mass murders of their own volition, never as a result of torture, since people tend to admit to anything under such circumstances, says Weiss. As a backup, "I'd make them write out a detailed history of their war record, including who they served with, when and under who." This was double-checked against captured Nazi records to make sure that the person was indeed who they claimed to be. Only then was the decision taken, Weiss says.

Weiss remembers the panic in the SS men's eyes when they finally realized where they were being taken. "We never told them where they were going," he says. At the sight of the old German Army barracks, they grasped their fate. Some would try to cling to the jeep, but the reception committee would forcibly remove them. Weiss says he never looked back in the rearview mirror to see what happened next. Nor did he need to.

In all, Weiss recalls being involved in about a dozen such cases. There were similar instances in other CIC units, Weiss says, but he does not know the circumstances of those cases or how many there were. Weiss says he no longer remembers most of the names of those handed over to the DPs, and that even if he did, he would not divulge them because their descendants might seek recourse.

He says he has never, however, had any moral qualms about his actions. "I never gave it much thought after the war," he says. "The point is: What do you do with these guys? The war crimes courts were already backlogged with more senior Nazis. The jails were full. They were going to slip through the cracks."

The overwhelming majority of the lower-level SS guards did in fact escape justice.

Ferencz prosecuted members of the Einsatzgruppen. "There were 3,000 members of these killing squads who did nothing but kill women and children for three straight years," he says. "These 3,000 men alone were responsible for almost 1 million murders. Do you know how many I brought indictments against? Twenty-two. The rest were never tried.

"I remember talking to Soviet officers," he adds. "And they were baffled. 'You know they're guilty,' they'd say. 'Why don't you just shoot them?' There was a lot of that kind of feeling in postwar Germany."

Weiss, for his part, says he never went to Germany bent on revenge. "Whatever anger I might have had was dissipated by the devastation and destruction I witnessed of German society. The German people paid dearly for their infatuation with Hitler. But there were times when justice just had to be done."

Matthew Brzezinski last wrote for the Magazine about a Chechen rebel leader. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


<                5

More From The Washington Post Magazine

[Post Hunt]

Post Hunt

See the results from our crazy, brain-teasing game.

[Date Lab]

Date Lab

We set up two local singles on a blind date.

[D.C. 1791 to Today]

Explore History

3-D models show the evolution of Washington landmarks.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity