Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Normality of Evil


Imagine two young women exchanging pen-pal letters: one a German increasingly shaped by Nazi indoctrination. The other, a New Zealand woman who, unbeknownst to the first, is Jewish. In fact, it is a true story.

Ann Goldstein grew up in New Zealand and later moved to Israel where she lives today with her family. She has made available these letters. I am posting the complete text as to my knowledge they are not otherwise available on line. The originals have been donated to Yad ve-Shem for preservation .

As we compare the aggressive and hate-filled ideologies and dictators of the present to those of the past, it is easy to believe that historic movements like those of Nazism and aggressive leaders like Adolf Hitler wore neon signs warning of their evil intentions and boundless ambitions. This was not, of course, true. They appeared relatively normal, at least to outsiders. Journalists interviewed them and covered their speeches. Foreign leaders engaged with them. Intellectuals celebrated them or at least made excuses for them.

You could call it the banality of ignoring or apologizing for evil...until it is too late.

– Barry Rubin

Here is an introduction by Ann Goldstein's daughter:

“On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, and on the day when Ahmadinejad can stand up in Geneva at a UN conference on racism and be given an international podium to lash out his hate against Israel and America, I feel it is important to send you 4 letters written by a 20-year-old German girl to a penpal, my mother, in New Zealand, between the years 1933 and 1936. She did not know that my mother was Jewish, thus we have a rare opportunity to see the reaction of the "ordinary "German to the rise of Hitler. I have made bold these parts in blue, and you can see how the mundane chit chat of a young girl becomes more and more entwined with the overtones of the Nazi doctrines. The change in tone over the years in the German woman’s letters is telling and chilling as she describes her adoration and support of Hitler."

Letters from Ilse Gerngrofs, Leipzig, Germany- June and December 1933, July 1934, May1936.
To Bessie Goldstein, Stratford, New Zealand.
Transcripted by Ann Belinsky (Goldstein)

Leipzig, Germany, June 11, 1933.

My dearest Bessie,

I am so sorry to have answered no sooner to your lovely long letter. …Thank you very much for your good wishes to my birthday; I'm sorry if I think of it because I become 20 years then! 20 years! I cannot imagine that I am already so old!
…My brother's name is Udo, he will become 16 on July 12th. …Udo is very much interested in nature, he gathers all sorts of plants, insects, butterflies…., wood and so on, he only reads books about such things. Then he is interested in politics, a bit, as boys are; he rows and shortly said, he is a nice boy. …

I'm curious to see a picture with you with such a beautiful dress. I make my dresses myself and so simple as possible, but they are always very nice and please everybody. Now I am going to let my hair grow. It has grown a nice piece. It is really a bit more trouble, in the beginning, with long hair, but I am inflamed for long hair, suddenly. I'm sorry that I don't play basketball, I really don't know it. It is not played in Germany, I believe. It's nice, that you are so brown. I have much pain to get brown, it costs much oil and crème and then it is not much at the end.

It was very interesting to me to read your explaining of the school. I think this is an institution full of blessings for these children. And how happy you must feel to help in such a work!....
I intend to go into a family as kindergartener perhaps… I should be very happy, if we could see each other one day! I'm sure we would be yet better friends than we are! …
-It is late now and tomorrow I must be fresh for my dear children!

With much love,
Yours Ilse.

Letter #2
Leipzig, December 28, 1933

My dear Bessie,
Now Christmas is gone and I have enough time to write to you. We had very much to do in school. We sewed frocks for children … and made toys, also for poor children. And then there were Christmas-plays in some kindergartens and in our school, and I must play violin even there. …

I think you have very much work indeed! And, have you some holidays? We learn the same, I believe, because we also learn the systems and rise of Education on the different countries, especially of Germany, of course. Yes Froebel was a German. You must write some of what you learn, perhaps I know it too (or not) and that's very interesting…

Now I will answer you last questions. You want to hear of the political events in Germany.
Adolf Hitler is the Chancellor of the Reich and the leader of National-Socialism. He has been nominated to the place of Chancellor by Reichsprasident v. Hindenburg … He is supported by the confidence and love of the whole German people. He never abused his power to persecute communists, democrats or Jews. I think, finally the other countries will understand it and will not publish such lies as: The Jews are crucified in Germany …. And those who have gone abroad and say they must fly, if they wouldn't be killed in Germany; those are, as our Chancellor said, thieves and ?trundlers, who knew that they did better to fly away before justice reached them.

We have not very much Jews in Germany, only 2%. But they ruled over all. They had the banks, they were judges, they owned and did the theatres, the newspapers, no important place in Germany, where you didn't find Jews. Dear Bessie, if you understand, what a great difference is between German and a Jew, you can understand too, that we could not bear this Jews-regime any longer. The average Jew is in his feelings and in his estimation of everything a contrast to the average German. And a mixing of Jew and German is very dangerous therefore, because the children of them are heirs of both the qualities.

No Jew is hindered to remain in Germany, to have his business etc. here; but Jews are drawn back to the part in every position; which corresponds to their number in population. I think, that is a sound defence of a people against " Ubenfreunding", that's: been overflowed by a foreign people and drawn back from places where no foreigners settle. ... not in the meaning of persecution. It's only a spiritual defence, which has visible consequences, of course. [Some numbers: in Berlin in a hospital there were 60% [procent] Jewish medicins, in Berlin there were 75 or 80% Jewish solicitors, 40% of all Berlin medicines were Jews, but only 9.3% of all German inhabitants are Jews! ] You see that's no proportion.

Meanwhile you will have heard of the election of the Reichstag and the vote for Geuf and you will have seen, that the German people stands united behind his Chancellor. You asked why the League of Nations would not stop Hitler's procedure? Because he is right, Bessie! Who can deny that Germany always wanted disarmament and that the other countries did nothing in their parts to realize it. Germany is disarmed, but the other countries raise their armament immoderately. And that the other countries see, we are no fools who believe all which is not true, therefore we must leave the League. Because it is not to unite honour and conscience to play with such sincere problems.

And people knows that Hitler has the true will to help and not only the will but the ability to do it. During one year, 1/2 millions of unemployed got work.

{The}People is happy because it trusts and can trust. Security has returned and this is a good factor to work with. The will to work is nearly unlimited because everybody wishes to help in the great work of the Rebuilding of the Nation, as it is called. Common welfare before own welfare [Gemneuiunk vor] that's the principle for everybody and everything. Some people must yet learn it but most have already understood it and act it. – Everybody has to sacrifice much money for many things every month, that is a difficulty but they do it, mostly, without being angry or something like that, because they know, that it has use to do it, They know that their money is employed to help others and they understand, that they are helped by this too. As Hitler said once: You must not think, that you become rich and wealthy, if the others are poor you are it too. That's the same with the countries. If the country is poor, then the countries cannot sell their wares there and that's a lack for them". These are not his own words only the {meanings} if I know it from one of his speeches.

Now, my dear Bessie, I've given you a glimpse of what is happening in Germany. I hope you have understood it. It's so difficult to say this in English.

And now, I wish you happy new year! Remain such a nice girl as you were in the late year and write soon! Don't work too much, but don't be lazy and make a frock!

With much love,
Yours Ilse.

Leipzig, July 13, 1934

Dear little Bessie,

I was very astonished when I received your letter! Really, for I thought you would never write again! But I was also most happy!

First let me answer you questions:

Yes, I love music over all. I play violin since 14 years and had lessons in violin-playing nearly 7 years (with interruptions of some years always). I think music the most spirituel art, don't you! No art can express feelings as she can. And often when I am sorry or annoy I take my violin and play and while I play I forget all my sorrows. I should like to learn piano too and some other instruments. My father has promised me to have piano-lessons in winter. But there is one condition. I must finish then my violin-lessons which I still have. Do you know works of German composers? I think you'll do, because they are the greatest, aren’t they. I like most of them. Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach too.

Now I have holidays for 4 weeks. The kindergarten is shut during this time. It is nice that you learn dancing now. I had dancing lessons when I was 16 years. Have you dancing with boys? We had. Yes, I dance well; I only know it from those who have danced with me. Which dances do you learn? Tango and waltz? I don't like fox-trot and quick-step and all these nigger-like dances. And in Germany they are not danced very much.

Now I will answer your most important question: about Germany! You may be right, that much money has passed with the Jews, but firstly we aren't sorry for the money, because the Jews have gone with it!! And secondly, most of them sent their money to foreign banks in former times too, so we Germans had not much use of it.

And then you say: have not enough intelligent men who can take……. sides of the Jews! Dear Bess, …We are happy to sat our capable doctors etc into these positions which were often bought by the Jews by good relations. (I want to say that by means of good relations to a Jewish director i.e. they got their positions). In fact Jews mostly are intelligent and intellectually well educated, This lies the way of their nature. Mostly they hate hard work. You know that most of the Jews in the world are merchants, medicines, solicitors etc. Do you know Jewish farmers? I don't. Perhaps there must be some (farmers), i.e. in their motherland, but in Germany they don't exist. – And because in the late Germany intellect and education were the only measure for a man in the eyes of most of the people (not in all!), Jews played a great role, especially because they possessed besides their brains much money! They had come during the War when our men fought and died and they made much money and got positions. Character and real human worth and personality played such a subdued role that it was nearly a shame. You must not think this was the fact in all circles of the population but in the intellectual circles it was mostly so.

Can you understand that a people wants first to give work to his own sons and then to foreign races? How can we do this? We must dismiss the foreigners because our people has to go first …Therefore we must also take them away now … The follow was that the Jews went to France, England etc, not only because some of them were really driven away, but because they must seek a place to work.-

Perhaps you have heard and read of the most sad affair of Rohm and Schleicher. [These were leaders of the storm troopers who helped Hitler take power but whom he purged for a combination of reasons including his fear of rivals, their corruption, and their population—BR] Did you hear the great speech of our leader in the broad-cast? What a great man he is! You cannot imagine the love we feel for him! He is great in righteousness, in love, in faith, in courage, he is pure and noble, selflessly working for his Germany and his people. "Einer fur alle, alle fur einer" (one for all, all for one!). he lives and works for us but we thank him in doing the same for our people and therefore for him!

Can you understand how great he is? We Germans are blessed to have such a leader! You must not think that we love him less because he judged hard the faithless! On the contrary! We admire his courage to go face to face with them with only few men, in spite of knowing that they were ready to kill him if he resisted their plans! –

Heil Hitler!
With love,
Yours Ilse.

Leipzig, May 5, 1936.

My dear Bessie,

I was very glad to get a letter from you after such a long time. And I am not angry with you, because I am so glad that you have written again to me. I have a lot to tell you. First I shall answer your questions.

The film "Anna Karenina" is played now in Leipzig, but I have not seen it. And I must say that I did not see Greta Garbo in any film. …

Now you want to know what I have done in the meantime. As you know I am kindergartnerin; when I had made my practical year in a kindergarten, I was in an educational establishment for a month as educator; then in a "Hort", that is something like a kindergarten, but for schoolchildren; this was my best time! But it was an engagement for only 4 months, and I was very sorry when I must say to farewell to my children. In November-December I was with boys in the "Erzgebirge", in the south of Saxony, where they were sent by the NSV, this is a national-socialistic institution, which is to provide for all these who are poor and ill and need anything, meubles or clothing or, in the case of the boys, health. They were sent there for recovery. This was a very nice time for us all, boys and leaders. I had a group of 25 boys in the age of 14 years, and we made fine trips in the surroundings; and the best; we had snow! We sledged and skied (with snowshoes, I don't know the right word) the boys and I too learned it very soon. These 5 weeks we all shall never forget!…..

Today I heard from my friend which has a cousin in America, that even now people does not believe that we live in the best order in Deutschland! Dear Bessie, do believe me: Deutschland is the one country which is really in order! You can see it, e.g. by the number of unemployed: in 1933, at the beginning of the new regime, we had 7 millions of unemployed and now we have not yet 2 millions! This is a mighty success of Hitler's work!

March 26, when Hitler was in Leipzig on account of the Reichstagswahl, to hold a speech, I was so happy to see him for the second time! My mother and I went to the Chief-Railway-Station because we had heard that he would arrive there. When we came to the station, thousands of people stood already before the hall and waited. We arrived there at half-past four and waited till---half-past seven! Some people already waited six or seven hours --- and only for the present of one moment: to see Hitler! We saw him very very well –first when he came out of the hall, then – what a luck- he spoke with a leader of S A, about 10 meters away from our place and face to face! Then he returned, standing upright in his motorcar! These moments I shall never forget in my life! I know a lady in our National –Socialist-Women – Organization, in the group n21, who has spoken with the Fuhrer! She met him by chance in a parc near Bayreuth. First she was so troubled that she could not say one word. And then she wept by joy to see him so near, him, who we all love with all our hearts power! You must not think I only write this because I fear to be punished by anyone. No, Bessie, these are only the foreign newspapers which write such lies. I wanted that you could come to Deutschland and see with your own eyes, as many foreigners already did, how it is really here! We are so proud to be Deutsche, to have such a wonderful Fuhrer, that we don't wish to live in any other country! When the Fuhrer comes to any village, through any town, old and young run to see and greet him. Old people often weep about the great luck to have seen the Fuhrer once before their death, and my grandmother, who is 76 years old, drove to Berlin two years ago, when the Fuhrer spoke in a hall, to see and hear him. She has unfortunately not seen him because it was impossible to come in to Berlin. She had driven with a motorcar--- and the streets were full of motorcars which also had no chance to come in.—

My dear Bessie, I hope you are not tired by my long epistle—it is possible that you are, because you don't know HITLER –I myself can hear and speak of him day and night!! Often I dreamt that he had visited us and we said – in dream: O, now you are really here: often and often I dreamt it and now it is true! So we spoke in dream and when I awaked it had been yet a dream!

Now sommer begins, it was very warm today. I took my sommer- dress and shoes. In our garden the trees are blowing, the flowers begin, some have blown in spring, and everywhere is joy! When your winter is beginning, our sommer begins!

Dear Bessie, what do you play, piano or violin? And do you give music-lessons now? When shall I get the picture of you in your nice wedding dress of your sisters marriage? I hope soon! Certainly you are sitting and sewing often now, is it true? I shall also sew some dresses and make some old "new"! One evening in the week, I play in an orchestra of students, it is very nice. In June we play a little Opera of Haydn, I play violin and we have very good singers, also young people.

It is a pity, dear Bessie, that you cannot speak or understand Deutsch. For it is often so difficult to explain things in a foreign language. I hope you have understood all, and I hope you will deny all lies about Deutschland which are told to you and which you know better ----because of my instruction!!!!!!!

Meanwhile you have perhaps found a new position, and I hope a nice one. I send my best wishes to your dear mother; she will soon be of better health if her daughter takes care of her! Isn't it? My mother and I always change with work: one week, I have to cook and the other week I have to care of the rooms. …. Often I am a bit lazy, for instance if I have found an interesting newspaper or a nice book! Then I must read it first before I can go on with my work…

Dear Bessie, Is it really four years ago that you wrote to me? I think I must have written a letter to you about 1933! Did you not get it? Perhaps I wrote about Deutschland very fine things and the letter has been opened in your post-office? And your office did not want that you hear the truth about Deutschland? So they did not send it to you, my poor! Please write to me if you have got my last letter!!! Your last is stamped 28th May 1934. This is only two years ago!

My dear, of course we shall be friends always and you must not think I am angry if you don't write so soon. I know how it is to have few time, and this letter I began two days after I had got it, this was one and a half month ago! …

Now, my dear, it is late in the evening and I think to go to bed! Tomorrow I must stand up first because I have to cook the tea for my father and the porridge for my brother! The "cook" has always to stand up first! In spring I am always so tired, that I might sleep nearly the whole day! It is a shame, you will think!! Some days ago, the swallows came!

I am curious if you get my letter! Do you live yet in the same apartment" Are the two ladies to which you give English lessons, Jews, because they come from Palestine and Poland?

Please write as soon as you can! Perhaps you can tell me what is written about Deutschland in your papers! If you are allowed to do it, I should like to send you a book, but you will not understand it. Please write to me if you want anything, pictures or something, as I shall send it.

With best wishes and a friendly Heil Hitler,
I am yours Ilse.


  1. The fact Ilse had good relations with a Jewish girl in New Zealand does not change the way the Germans saw the Jews in general during the Nazi time. The same thing is true today of individual Palestinians, Arabs or Iranians who may have good relations with particular Jews. It has no affect on popular hatred for the collective mass of the Jews. One must be careful not to draw any sweeping conclusions from warm contacts between individuals and apply to social phenomena at large. Otherwise one may get the impression anti-Semitism is not the serious problem that it is in societies consumed by a hatred of the Jews.

  2. Thanks for sharing these letters. What's interesting, beyond the content, is the cadence. It makes them so real to me, if not a lot like Anna Karenina.

  3. It is frightening to see how easily some people accept the dogma that is fed to them. I can't say that I am particularly surprised by it, saddened me, but surprised no.

  4. Hello, thank you for making those letters available online. Indeed extraordinary interesting.
    "Einer fur alle, alle fur einer"
    should read: "Einer für alle, alle für einen", "Gemneuiunk vor" would be "Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz" and "Ubenfreunding" probably should read "Überfremdung".

  5. Please note that Ilse did NOT know that her pen-pal was Jewish.

  6. Thank you for posting this. It is chilling.


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