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In the Devil's Den

By Fritz Gluckstein

In Berlin, during the fall of 1943, the devil’s den—that is, Adolf Eichmann’s headquarters—was hit by a bomb from an American plane, and the SS decided on immediate repairs. My parents and I had just been bombed out for the second time and were staying temporarily at the Jewish Hospital. One morning, on my way to work with the demolition and cleanup crews, I was stopped by hospital officials and told that I had been selected to be part of a Gestapo-ordered “catastrophe mission.” Together with about a dozen other “selectees” I climbed aboard a moving van; the doors closed, and off we went in complete darkness.

After half an hour’s bumpy and swaying ride—no wonder, I realized, that so many things are broken during a move—the doors opened again; we climbed out and found ourselves in front of Kürfurstenstrasse 115-116; the infamous headquarters of Adolf Eichmann. We stood around for a few minutes until a man wearing the Yellow Star—the foreman of a group already working at the headquarters, as I learned later on— and an SS officer came out of the building and looked us over. The officer pointed at me saying, “I want him; he looks strong.” He motioned me to follow him, led me into the basement and told me to wait for the building caretaker.

SS Second Lieutenant Hardenberg—his full name was Ernst Henning von Hardenberg, I later learned from a list of SS officers in the library of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—was always polite, never raised his voice, never threatened me or made an antisemitic remark. Frankly, I still wonder how he got into the SS, let alone into Eichmann’s headquarters; he definitely did not seem to belong there. I believe it is quite likely that he was a descendant of Karl August von Hardenberg, a steadfast champion of Jewish causes. Karl August von Hardenberg, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, was the Prussian chancellor who, in 1812, was instrumental in enacting the edict concerning the civil status of Jews.

My first job was to help the building caretaker clean and straighten out the basement. After that I was assigned to various kinds of work inside and outside the building, alone or with a group of others. Lt. Hardenberg came by from time to time and occasionally spoke to me. I soon realized how lucky I was to have him as supervisor. Most of the other officers, I was told, were quite nasty. One day I was told to help Captain Stuschka, who lived at the headquarters, move some furniture. He was barely civil, but at least he did not live up to his reputation as one of the most malevolent and aggressive officers. Several times I saw the notorious Major Rolf Gunther, Eichmann’s deputy. Either he was marching around leading a big German shepherd dog and scowling at every Jewish worker, or he was standing on a courtyard balcony cursing us. They told me that he liked to sneak up on Jewish workers in order to catch them taking a rest.

The head devil I saw only once. Working in the courtyard, I heard, “Eichmann is coming.” I knew who Eichmann was. Every Jew in Berlin knew who Eichmann was—the driving force behind the deportations, or evacuations as they were called. I wondered how he would look. I did not know what to expect. Then I saw him—ordinary, nondescript; nobody would have noticed him in a crowd. He approached with a group of civilians, apparently demolition experts, stopped right next to me, and discussed whether a side entrance ought to be cleared of rubble. He decided not to have anything done, if I recall correctly, and left without another word.

One day a group of about six of us had to clear the rubble that had been thrown out of the top floor windows and had landed right in front of the main entrance. We loaded the broken bricks, plaster, and other debris mostly by hand—there were only two or three shovels—into wheelbarrows and moved it down the street. Two enlisted SS men alternated in guarding the main entrance. It was a rather pro forma guard duty; they did not have to stand in one place or walk a prescribed number of paces. They just had to be somewhere in front of the headquarters.

One of the two guards was short, in fact quite short for an SS man, stocky, and had a distinctly ruddy complexion. The other was taller, perhaps six feet, pale, and had a sullen expression. The two men exchanged places every two hours, but we always knew right away, without looking, which one was on duty. The taller guard was constantly standing behind us, frequently cursing, sometimes under his breath to himself, other times loudly, directly at us. Whenever we tried to take a brief rest, he truly let go, “You damned, lousy gang get going, or I’ll give you a kick.” He really seemed to enjoy his crude tirades. In fact, he appeared to be just waiting for us to take a break so that he could cut loose. We, of course, did not so much as look at him.

How different it was when the short guard was on duty. He mostly paced up and down in front of the building; occasionally he looked at us but never said a word. Whenever we took a breather, he always found something across the street that needed his attention; even today I can clearly picture his face. It was obvious that the man made a point of not harassing us. Why? As in the case of Lt. Hardenberg, I wondered how he got into the SS. For four days the moving van brought us to the Kürfurstenstrasse in the morning and returned us to the Jewish Hospital in the evening. However, at the end of the fifth day we were told that our special assignment had ended and to get back to the hospital on our own. The next morning on the way to my regular work, I did not leave the hospital through the main entrance. I climbed over the back fence, just in case. In retrospect, I find it noteworthy that, even in the devil’s den, there were two apparently decent men, Lt. Hardenberg and the short, stocky, ruddy guard. I still wonder what became of them.

©2003, Fritz Gluckstein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.