We Knew Nothing

Respectable Virtues, Timeless Truth Off 16

Brunhilde Pomsel, who died recently at the age of 106, was one of the last remaining members of the inner circle of the Nazi regime. From 1942 until the end of the war, Pomsel served as the private secretary of Joseph Goebbels, the notorious propaganda minister of the Nazi Party. Until three years ago, Pomsel lived in Munich, Germany, in almost complete obscurity. She never spoke of her war years until the age of 103, when she was interviewed for many hours during the creation of a documentary called “A German Life.”

Despite her advanced age, Pomsel displayed remarkable lucidity about her past, as well as about the present. Her message throughout remained consistent—she felt no guilt at all about her work because, like the rest of the German population, “we knew nothing.”

Pomsel recognized that this would be a tough sell. “No one ever believes us,” she complained. “Everyone always thinks we all knew everything.”

Her own story makes this claim even less plausible. Even among the most evil cast of murderers the world has ever known, her boss stood out as a raging madman. Joseph Goebbels headed the Propaganda Ministry, which controlled all of Germany’s media—newspapers, radio, film and rallies—spewing out a constant stream of pure hatred. Pomsel was offered a high-paying job because of her typing skills, and she jumped at the opportunity. In the plush offices of the ministry, she dutifully typed up inflated reports of the Nazis’ victories and deflated reports of their losses.

Pomsel explained that she saw Goebbels only in the office, so she was shocked when she witnessed his wild, hate-filled speech in the Sportopalast stadium shortly after the German debacle at Stalingrad. “No actor could have been better at the transformation…

In the office he had a kind of noble elegance,” she remembered, “and then to see him there like a raging midget…”

But I was amazed that this woman, who worked in the belly of the beast, could claim she knew nothing. She refused to admit she was less than naпve in believing that all the Jews who disappeared were relocated to underpopulated villages in the Sudetenland. I decided to have a closer look at her interviews, and the cracks in her story began to appear.

“I didn’t do anything but type in Goebbels’ office,” she said in the film. “And I had no idea of what was behind all that. Well, very little, anyway. No, I wouldn’t see myself as being guilty. Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us, including me.”

Well, very little, anyway. Does that mean she knew only of a million Jews murdered, not six million? Moreover, Pomsel’s account stands in stark contrast to those of other Germans who recount a completely different reality.

Gitta Bauer, a German woman who was awarded by Yad Vashem for risking her life to save Jews, bristles when she hears people claim that they “didn’t know a thing.”

“How could you not have known?” she asks. “The parks and restaurants had signs which said, ‘No Jews.’ You didn’t have to read Mein Kampf to know Hitler had it in for the Jews. You saw photos of Jews being marched through the streets carrying a sign saying, ‘I am a Jewish pig.’ And all of us saw Kristallnacht in 1938. Everyone must have realized.”

When the Gestapo came to search Bauer’s house, they looked through all the family’s books. One of them said to Gitta’s mother, “You have many books, but you don’t have Mein Kampf!”

Gitta’s mother replied, “You look to me as though you have read only Mein Kampf and nothing else!”

Brunhilde Pomsel allowed the lure of money to blind her conscience. At the other end of the spectrum were people who gave up their wealth for justice. One such person was Countess Maria von Maltzan. Her father was the count of Silesia, Germany, and her family lived on an 18,000-acre estate. As a teen she moved to Berlin, and soon afterward began helping Jews escape to Sweden. During the war, she hid many Jews in her small flat. When the SS came to search, they hid wherever they could, even in the couch.

A soldier once pointed to the couch and asked, “How do we know nobody is hiding in there?”

Maria said to him, “If you’re sure someone’s in there, shoot. But before you do that, I want a signed paper that you will pay for new material and the repairs from the holes you put in it.”

The soldier left.

Yes, Ms. Pomsel, the Germans were aware, and yes, some had the courage to do the right thing. And as for your claims of ignorance and innocence, it seems to be just like everything else that came out of the Propaganda Ministry—a pack of lies.

About the author / 

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann is a Talmid of Rabbi Leib Bakst זצ"ל, of Yeshivas Ateres Mordechai, Detroit, Michigan. After learning in the yeshivah and kollel, Rabbi Friedmann moved to the British colony of Gibraltar and studied in the Gateshead Kollel for three more years, at which time he received rabbinical ordination. From there, Rabbi Friedmann moved to London, England. In London, Rabbi Friedmann taught in the Menorah Grammar School, and was appointed the communal Rov of Kehilas Kol Yaakov, Edgware, London. Rabbi Friedmann was awarded Qualified Teaching Status by the British Board of Education in 2002, and a diploma in educational psychology by the Tavistock clinic (London) in 2006. In 2005, Rabbi Friedmann was accepted as a Fellow in Holocaust Education by the prestigious Imperial War Museum, London. Rabbi Friedmann relocated to New York in 2008 to become the Director of Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education division of Torah Umesorah. While occupying that position, Rabbi Friedmann created teaching materials, videos, and teacher training programs, including the ZYO Holocaust education fellowship program. In April 2012, Rabbi Friedmann was appointed as the director of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. The museum founded by Elly Kleinman will carry on the legacy of holocaust history. For more info about when it is expected to open read this article.

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