The Jewish Chronicle

A tale grimmer than Grimm’s

Hester Abrams welcomes the brave uncovering of an appalling secret. Alun David is moved by evidence of Gulag shame

- By Dieter Vaupel and D. Z. Stone Vallentine Mitchell, £18.95 Reviewed by Hester Abrams

A Fairy Tale Unmasked: The Teacher and the Nazi Slaves

First comes forgetting. Decades of silence wrapped around a contaminat­ing shame. Then a dog dies after falling into foul-smelling water: the contaminat­ion has a real-world counterpar­t. A high-school project asks: “What happened in our town in the Nazi era?” A not-so-simple question in a German town betting its tourist reputation on its earlier historical links with Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But the search for answers takes students and their teacher on a journey through suppressio­n and denial to evidence and empathy, as English readers can now discover through A Fairy Tale Unmasked.

In this new English edition from German, D. Z. Stone records how, in the 1980s, with his students at Freiherr-von-Stein high school, Dieter Vaupel establishe­d that Hessisch Lichtenau, south-east of Kassel, had hosted the largest German munitions factory of the Second World War. Among its more than 4,000 workers were 1,000 Hungarian Jews, male and female sent in 1944 from Auschwitz.

Emaciated and dressed in sacks, some with skin turning green from chemicals, the women and girls were force-marched every day from a camp in the town to the factory and back again, unmissable to local inhabitant­s.

The Nazis had only partly succeeded in demolishin­g the 400 concrete buildings built half undergroun­d and hidden in forest. By the time the students looked into it, Hirschhage­n was still an industrial complex, its ghoulish bunkers home to ex-refugees. Ground-water still contained traces of TNT and other poisons. If it was anything, it was a chocolate factory, locals said.

Vaupel’s sober account of the historical evidence is paired with a moving and detailed memoir by the then 15-year-old slave worker Blanka Pudler. It culminates in a film of her experience, and townspeopl­e forming a human chain in 2019 across the town’s slavemarch route. The story has taken as long to come to internatio­nal notice as it had previously been hidden since the Nazi era.

The book is a step-by-step reckoning with a significan­t element of the Nazi war apparatus, and a tribute to its women victims. Vaupel met 200 survivors in Israel, provided evidence for their compensati­on and encouraged Pudler to return from Hungary to tell her story in German schools.

This effort rescued the women’s

In this Grimm’s Fairy Tale town, a school project asked: ‘What happened here in the Nazi era?’

experience from oblivion and restored to survivors parts of themselves. American Judith Isaacson had previously travelled back to the town only to be told that the factory had never existed; her husband had thought the idea that plagued her was her trauma speaking. Vaupel was the first person ever to hear an Israeli mother tell what happened to her. To be shown full evidence of being caught up in what was probably Europe’s largest wartime explosives operation — and to be believed — was an act of repair and vindicatio­n.

The courage and the decency needed to press through the fablelike enchantmen­ts of a German town and seek the explosive truth are remarkable; empathy trumps indifferen­ce. But today’s students are still emotionall­y disconnect­ed from Nazi times, according to one of the young actors in the film of Blanka Pudler’s story: “I believe they would change their mind if they had a chance to see the moments of true agony and despair women had to experience

70 years ago.”

 ??  ?? Hester Abrams is Curator and Head of Heritage at Willesden Jewish Cemetery.
Dieter Vaupel
Hester Abrams is Curator and Head of Heritage at Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Dieter Vaupel

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