BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Witness House’: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors in the Same Boarding House During the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Witness House': Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Were Housed in the Same Villa During the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials
It sounds like an idea only the U.S. Army could come up with: Requisition a villa in Nuremberg, Germany to house both witnesses and victims of Nazi war crimes, along with the accused perpetrators of the crimes, but, as Christiane Kohl writes in “The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa During the Nuremberg Trials” (Other Press, 272 pages, trade paperback, $14.95, translated from the German by Anthea Bell) it actually happened during the Nuremberg war crimes trials.  The book has an excellent bibliography, as well as brief biographies of the people mentioned in the book. Among them is Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer, who made a fortune from his work.

This earthbound equivalent of the fictional “Ship of Fools” (by Katherine Anne Porter, later made into a 1965 hit movie directed by Stanley Kramer)  was 24 Novalisstrasse, a villa on the outskirts of Nuremberg, which housed the trial witnesses, the prosecution, and the defense.

The Americans recruited a 36-year-old German born Hungarian countess named Ingeborg Kálnoky, a beautiful blonde who looked like the late actress Jean Harlow. She was separated by the chaos of World War II from her Hungarian husband, and moved into the villa to run it, which she did with elan. She lived in the villa with her young children.

Kálnoky, who spoke four languages, was told to “keep things running smoothly”, a feat she accomplished, often entertaining the inhabitants of the suburban villa with practical jokes and amusing anecdotes. She had as a frequent visitor a U.S. Army Catholic chaplain Major Fabian Flynn, which cause a lot of gossip, and at least one of her guests, the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, who apparently was having an affair with an aristocratic woman in a much more luxurious house not far away. Diels figures in a book I recently reviewed, Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” about the Dodd family in Germany. Diels, a notorious womanizer, was apparently having an affair with the beautiful Martha Dodd, daughter of American ambassador to Nazi Germany William E. Dodd. (Link to my review:› Entertainment).

Kohl heard about the villa through her reading of Kálnoky’s ghost-written account of the “Witness House” entitled “The Guest House” published in 1975 by the American publisher Bobbs-Merrill.  Kohl tracked the  countess to a small apartment in Cleveland, Ohio; she and her family moved to the States in the 1950s and the countess talked to Kohl there. Ingeborg Kálnoky was born 1909  and died in Cleveland in 1997.

Kohl was inspired to write a complete account of the “Witness House” because Kálnoky’s 1975 book glossed over many details. Kohl, an experienced journalist, doesn’t make this mistake; she recounts the discovery of a document that listed in detail the elements of the “Final Solution” hammered out in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference that resulted in the Holocaust. Notorious English Holocaust denier David Irving should read this book!

Among the people living in the Witness House was Willy E. Messerschmidt, whose firm used slave labor to construct the Me 262 jet plane and the V-2 rockets. A journalist housed in the villa testified that Messerschmidt worked the inmates of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp to death. Despite this, Messerschmidt was acquitted of war crimes and died at a comfortable old age in 1978. Unlike another employer of slave labor, Werner von Braun, he didn’t even have to emigrate to the U.S.

In “The Witness House” Kohl focuses on the guilty, the sympathizers, the undecided, and those who always manage to make themselves fit in.  She explores and explains the social structures that allowed the Nazi regime to flourish and serves as a symbol of the blurred boundaries between accuser and accused that would come to form the basis of postwar Germany. The ghosts of the past are still present in Germany.

I didn’t see any reference to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” in Kohl’s bibliography, but her powerful book shows that the Germans had more than enough “willing executioners” who got along by going along. This outstanding, very readable book should be read by everyone. It’s a painful book to read, but it’s necessary as incidents of Neo-Nazi violence have surfaced in Germany, as well as recent anti-Semitic incidents in New York City and elsewhere.

Editor’s note: The Nuremberg War Crimes trials began Nov. 20, 1945.

About the Author

Christiane Kohl, born in 1954,  has worked as a correspondent to the Cologne Express, a press officer for the Environment Ministry in Hessen, and, from 1988 to 1998, an editor with Der Spiegel. She worked for several years in Rome for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently the newspaper’s correspondent for eastern Germany. Her book, “Der Jude und Das Mädchen” (2002), was the basis of Joseph Vilsmaier’s feature film “Leo and Claire”. She lives in Dresden.

About the Translator

Anthea Bell is a freelance translator from German and French, specializing in fiction. She has won a number of translation awards in the UK, the USA, and Europe. Her translations include W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (and other works by Sebald), a large selection of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and stories, and Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, “The Pianist.”

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