By: Alan Gershel, Volunteer Docent –
One of my colleagues in our docent training class, who was aware that I was a former prosecutor with an interest in the Nuremberg trials, gave me a copy of East West Street. In that book, Philippe Sands, a British human rights lawyer, wrote about his maternal grandfather who fled Paris in 1939. The book blends together his grandfather’s story with that of two brilliant attorneys who introduced the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into international law. I found that each of these narratives were thoroughly researched and fascinating. I looked forward to Philippe Sands’ next book. I was not disappointed.
Like East West Street, the book Ratline (referring to a Nazi escape route to South America) involves several interwoven stories. The primary story concerns SS Brigadeführer, Baron Otto von Wachter, who served as the Governor of the Krakow District and later the District of Galicia, which is in present day Ukraine. In that capacity he oversaw the creation of Jewish ghettos, deportations, and murder. During that time, the entire Jewish population was almost entirely eliminated.
By the time the war ended in May 1945, he was indicted for “mass murder.” He was hunted by the Soviets, the Americans, the Poles, the British, as well as by groups of Jews. Baron von Wachter, following the “ratline,” went on the run. He spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps, assisted by his wife Charlotte and a former SS soldier, before making his way to Rome where he was helped by a Vatican bishop, Alois Hudal, who became one of the central figures in the book. Hudal believed that the Nazis and the Church had a common enemy in the communists. Hudal aided in the escape of Franz Stangl (the Commandant at Treblinka), Josef Mengele, and Adolf Eichmann. Wachter was never caught. The circumstances of Otto’s death in Rome in 1949 are explored and investigated by the author. This is an important focal point in the book.
Another essential figure in this book is Otto’s son, Horst, whom the author has come to know personally and likes. They spend a great deal of time together over the course of several years. Sands writes that Horst remains unrepentant and “unwilling to countenance the idea that Otto Wachter bore any real responsibility for terrible events that occurred on the territory he ruled.” Horst maintains that his father was a “good” Nazi. He refuses to acknowledge that his father was a mass murderer, claiming rather that he was a bureaucrat who was simply following orders unaware of the atrocities that took place within his sphere of authority.
Horst provides Sands with an incredible treasure trove of documents, diaries, letters, and photographs that were saved by his wife Charlotte. These documents allowed Sands to explore the life of Wachter before, during and after the war, as well as the actions of certain Vatican officials, the Soviet Union, and the United States as it concerns their post-war dealings with Nazi war criminals. In addition to the persuasive evidentiary nature of these records concerning Otto’s involvement in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, they also show the extraordinary and deep love that existed between Charlotte and Otto. She, like Horst, refused to acknowledge the horrific crimes committed by her husband. Horst, who believes his father was murdered, implores Sands to figure out how his father died.
Whenever Philippe Sands presented Horst with evidence that his father was aware and complicit in the many atrocities committed by those under his authority, Horst always had an explanation which essentially boiled down to a lack of direct evidence tying his father to these atrocities. I felt anger and frustration over his repeated denials despite compelling evidence to the contrary. His love for his father was so absolute and unconditional that he was blind to the evidence placed directly in front of him, including letters Baron von Wachter wrote to his wife about the deportation of Jews to death camps and having to select others for forced labor. Sands also locates numerous examples of Wachter’s relationship with senior Nazi officials including Hitler, who specifically selected him as the Governor in Galicia; as well as with Himmler, who became a family friend; and played chess with Hans Frank, the Governor General of occupied Poland.
Despite his fondness for Horst Wachter, the author is frustrated by the son’s blindness to the facts and evidence regarding the crimes committed by his father. Horst’s unmitigated love for his father is absolute and unconditional. By way of contrast, Sands points out that the son of Hans Frank, Niklas Frank, has openly acknowledged the atrocities his father was responsible for. In a sense, Sands compels the reader to ask whether we would love or hate our father if he had been responsible for mass murder.
What unfolds is a fast-paced story filled with twists and turns that rival any mystery or spy novel. In fact, the late John LeCarre, a former British spy who was in Italy at the time of Otto von Wachter’s death, and later a famous author, is interviewed by Sands as he seeks to determine the cause of Wachter’s mysterious death. Ultimately the reader is left to determine a cause of death on their own after being presented with a myriad of theories. Ironically and most unsettling is the possibility that if Wachter had been captured by either the American or British authorities, his life might have been spared if he agreed to provide information to them. Such was the fear of the communist threat at the dawn of the Cold War, especially in post-war Italy, that a number of Nazi war criminals found safe harbor by agreeing to cooperate. It is theorized that the “ratline” may have been used as a quid-pro-quo to incentivize and recruit them.
At the end of the book, Baron Otto von Wachter’s granddaughter, who became a devout Muslim said “[m]y grandfather was a mass murderer.” I believe this riveting and timeless story takes on additional relevance as we see a dramatic increase in groups who subscribe to the principles of Nazism along with a significant rise in anti-Semitism. I will end where I began by noting that I look forward to Philippe Sands’ next book.
The Ratline: Love, Lies, and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive is available for purchase at the Doris and Eric Billes Museum Shop at the Holocaust Memorial Center. Call (248) 553-2400 to ask about availability or to order over the phone.