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Hunting a Dead Nazi

S.S. Sturmbannfuhrer Hermann Mueller was the Gestapo chief who commanded the deportations and exterminations of Galician Jews in the Tarnopol region from 1941 to 1943. His name is cursed like Amalek by Holocaust survivors, and my journey into Jewish genealogy prompted me to learn more about him. Most important, I wanted to know, what had happened to this butcher known as "blutiger Judenfeind" (bloody enemy of the Jews) who orchestrated the deaths of thousands in my ancestral towns.

I came across Mueller's name in "The Encyclopedia Judaica" the first time I looked up my grandfather's birthplace, Zbarazh, a town not far from Tarnopol, and read that the roundups, mass slaughter and deportations were all directed by him. Subsequently, I pursued my investigations in history books and Yizkor books, and online at websites including and I also met with Carl Modig, an archivist (now retired) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and found the birth date of the fiend I had begun to call "my Nazi," and which narrowed down my search immeasurably. Modig also provided rich biographical material about Mueller's military service and fanatical loyalty to the Nazi party.

At the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD, I uncovered additional information in the vast collection of World War II papers that are part of the Berlin Documents File. The files also reinforced my belief in the essential need to save historical records as proof of their authenticity.

Born in Essen, Germany in 1909, Mueller was an uninspired school dropout when he joined the up-and-coming National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi party) in 1927. In subsequent years, he was jailed repeatedly for "agitations" and participation in violent riots. His 1938 SS personnel file describes him as "Catholic," "conscientious," "ambitious," "strongly bold," "articulate" and a "good organizer" and "enforcer." His "Nordic" appearance is borne out by his pale, austere face in a photograph. With his officer's cap tipped jauntily to one side, Mueller stares hard at the camera. It is a face that could easily haunt your dreams.

At war's end, Mueller evaded capture, changed his name and slipped into the British zone in Berlin. Hiding in plain sight in the northwestern city of Espelkamp, he married his third wife who bore him a son, and sold food in a small market operated under her name. Altogether, Mueller enjoyed 15 years of freedom until he was arrested in 1961. Five years later, he and other former Nazi henchmen were tried in Stuttgart for the murders of Jews in the Tarnopol area.

Mueller's name is on almost every page of the lengthy trial report. My knowledge of German is scant, but with the help of a German-speaking member of my synagogue, I understood most of the material. We read about Dr. Jakob Wolf Gilson, who had survived imprisonment in a slave labor camp under Mueller's control, and testified that Mueller "would shoot children, women, any Jew he would chance upon, like one might shoot rabbits." His statement reminded me of another survivor's story about how Mueller ordered his soldiers to herd Jews awaiting transport into impossibly crowded areas and shoot anyone who couldn't sit down.

On the 38th day of the proceedings, Mueller broke down in tears, shocking everyone in the courtroom, and admitted (at least) some of his guilt. Facing Gilson, whose parents had perished in the Belzec gas chambers, Mueller begged for forgiveness. "It was everything terrible, what we did," he wept. Found guilty, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

But few convicted Nazis served their entire sentences; had Mueller? Or did he die peacefully at home, in the warm embrace of his family? The answer required a lot of digging,but when I finally learned that he had died in prison, 22 years after being sentenced, I felt a grim satisfaction.

There is world history, and there is personal history. Recently, I visited the Zbarazh section in Beth David Cemetery in Queens, to say Kaddish before a monument for the 5,122 Jews murdered in my grandfather's town, including his first cousins. The prosecutors in Stuttgart had called them "Jews of Zbarazh," but were they? As Jews, they had always been outsiders, and although they had lived there since the 15th century, were they ever really from Zbarazh?

Susan J. Gordon is a frequent contributor to the Back of the Book space.

Copyright (c) Susan J. Gordon
Published in The Jewish Week of New York, November 19, 2010.