Demon or deliverer?: To some Holocaust survivors, Alfons Zundler was their saviour, a Schindler in an SS uniform. But a campaign to award him Israel's highest honour has angered others for whom he is the personification of evil. Suzanne Glass reports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Alfons Zundler is white-haired, emaciated, and dying of a collapsed lung, his speech barely audible. Not really the sort of condition in which to put up a fight. But the ex-SS prison guard is at the centre of a bitter and revealing controversy in the Jewish world.

During the Second World War, Zundler worked in Amsterdam, first at a deportation centre and then at Schouwburg prison, from where 60,000 Jews were sent to their deaths.

Just over a year ago Zundler, now living in Munich, was nominated by a small group of women for the greatest honour Israel can award, the honour of the 'Righteous among the Nations' - of which Oskar Schindler is the most celebrated recipient - which is given to those who saved Jewish lives. Never before has an SS officer been nominated for the honour. Never before has a nomination caused such anguished debate.

Two groups are in deep conflict: the German Jewish women who say Zundler should be officially honoured by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Foundation in Jerusalem, and those so outraged by the suggestion that they have formed an anti-Zundler group.

Zundler was 'discovered' last year by Elma Verhey, a Dutch journalist, after he had been dragged out of the archives by a historian in his thesis on Schouwburg prison, a theatre converted into a hellhole that was under Zundler's charge from the summer of 1942 to the spring of 1943.

Verhey wrote about Zundler in a Dutch daily paper. She quoted an inmate who said, 'Zundler was a wolf in sheep's clothing', but she also quoted 68-year-old Cilly Levitus Peiser, now living in Frankfurt. Mrs Peiser said Zundler saved her sister's life. Verhey made a documentary on the subject. It showed Cilly Peiser meeting Zundler for the first time in 50 years and showering him with thanks for his kindness.

Verhey gathered together the pro-Zundler testimonies and they were sent to Yad Vashem. The decision-making process was set in motion. His eligibility for the award depended on two main criteria. He had to have saved Jewish lives, fully aware that he was risking his own in the process, and he had to have refused bribes.

Cilly Peiser told me: 'He saved my sister Jutta. She was dragged out of hiding into the prison and I begged him to free her. He did.'

Jutta herself said: 'I was sitting in a red velvet chair in this huge hall with hundreds of prisoners. Someone called out: 'Is there a girl all on her own here called Jutta?' I raised my hand and he told me to follow him out of the gates of the prison. I remember there were two guards who just looked away. Later my sister told me that Zundler was one of them.'

And Carla Gobitz Caplan, who lived in Amsterdam during the war, also told me: 'Zundler came, as part of a razzia (the cleansing of certain suburbs of Jews), to drag us out of our house. He grabbed my father, ripped the yellow star off his jacket and shouted: 'We don't need any Christians round here.' He wanted the other SS soldiers to think my father was a non-Jew. In that way, he saved his life.'

The process of vetting a candidate for the honour can often take up to four years. But Zundler was in poor health and his supporters wanted to speed things up. 'Last September they told us it would only take a couple of months,' says Mrs Peiser.

Zundler was set to become one of the 11,000 Gentiles since 1953 to be honoured in this manner and to be given honorary Israeli citizenship.

Then came the stumbling block. Ralph and Miip Polack read about the proposed honour. 'I felt sick when I saw it,' says Ralph. 'My heart started racing. I was in the Schouwburg under Zundler for a year. I know the terrible things he did.'

Polack went to Yad Vashem and told Jo Michmann, a Dutch Jew, his version of the story. 'I never saw Zundler save any lives. He was drunk all the time. He used to make me go to the corner shop and get him drink. I would make sure it had as high a concentration of alcohol as possible. When Zundler was well gone, I would smuggle people out of the prison. He didn't even know what was going on most of the time. I saved many people like that . . . even my wife.

'And there was worse. Zundler would take girls of 16 and 17 up to his room. One time he grabbed a friend of mine and said to her, 'If you come upstairs with me you will be free. You won't have to go with the Nazis.' I tried to stop him and he shouted: 'Shit, I'll send you to the camps if you don't stop.'

With Willy Lindwer, a well-known Dutch film-maker, Polack formed a group of anti-Zundler activists. The group, which included other Holocaust survivors, wrote to Yad Vashem: 'Your intention to honour the former SS Unterscharffurhrer Alfons Zundler has deeply shocked us. With the help of Alfons Zundler more than 60,000 Jews were deported to their deaths through the Schouwburg. In the name of our slaughtered families we appeal to Yad Vashem to remove the stain on its reputation as the true memorial of the Holocaust before it is too late.'

The chairman of the decision-making committee, Dr Mordechai Paldiel, has refused to discuss Zundler. So has Yad Vashem's vice-president, Reuven Daphni.

Yad Vashem approached the Dutch Institute for War Documentation to dig into Zundler's past. The researcher responsible for the case, Johannes Houwink Ten Cate, came across the comments of an eyewitness from the Schouwburg. She describes a young Jewish woman dancing naked on a table, egged on by the guards. She says: 'Klingenbiel and Weber (two other prison guards) were involved in this. So was Zundler.' Another eyewitness mentioned that a certain 'Zindler' was involved.

In 1943 Zundler was tried by the Nazis. He says he was brought to court for Judenbegunstigung, favourable behaviour towards the Jews. His detractors claim he was arrested for his rassenschande, the scandal of intimate involvement with Jewish women.

But the trial documentation has vanished, apparently burnt by the Nazis. This, of course, makes Yad Vashem's task all the more difficult, as does the fact that Zundler himself is too sick to take an active role in the controversy.

Ten Cate did, however, write to Yad Vashem and say: 'While in prison, Zundler told a Dutch inmate he had been arrested for helping Dutch Jews. However, the documents I have found do not corroborate this claim.'

The anti-group believed they had won their battle. But they were wrong. 'We still have the problem of those who say he saved their lives,' says Reuven Daphni. 'What are we supposed to do? Tell them to go to hell?'

New evidence has recently come to light which helps the anti-Zundler campaign. Louis van Coevorden contacted Yad Vashem last year. He wrote a short letter saying that before Zundler was transferred to the Schouwburg he worked with him in the deportation centre. He expressed his adamant disapproval of the honour being awarded. Yad Vashem never responded.

But three weeks ago, 71-year-old Coevorden went to Israel to talk to Yad Vashem. 'I didn't want to go because I have a heart condition and it gets me so upset, but I had to.'

This is what he told Dr Paldiel: 'I used to help people escape from the deportation centre. One time I wanted to get a Communist girl out and I said to Zundler, 'Can you help?' He said no, so I said 'I will bring you cigarettes'. Then he said OK. When I brought him gin or money or ladies' stockings he would look the other way when I smuggled people out. The rest of the time you never knew what he would do.'

Van Coevorden has told Yad Vashem how Zundler would stop people from escaping from the deportation centre by rapping them on the legs with his gun when they were trying to climb out of the window. He told them how Zundler would stamp a mark on their passes and throw them back inside.

The voices and memories backing Zundler are strong. Even though emotion and evidence can often become indistinguishable over time, it is clear that Zundler's 'acts of kindness' were sporadic and the award has been refused for that reason before.

So as it deliberates, can Yad Vashem really ignore the words of witnesses like Van Coevorden who says: 'I have spent 50 years fighting to come to terms with recurring nightmares. Zundler is one of those nightmares. If they honour him I believe in nothing any more . . . absolutely nothing.'

(Photographs omitted)