Saturday, March 12, 2011

by Christiane Kohl

When the Nuremberg trials were about to begin, in 1945, the people who were testifying needed a place to stay. The Americans requisitioned a house (the owner and her son had to sleep in the basement) and supplied all of the food. Due to the tenuous and strained circumstances (Germans high up in the hierachy and former Holocaust survivors) somebody had to come in and manage the household. Countess Ingeborg Kalnoky took the task and was able to keep everything running smoothly even though the tension was extreme.
Some people stayed for a couple of days, while others stayed for weeks. When they left, they signed a visitor's book. There were soldiers posted outside the villa. A few of the guests were under house arrest and not allowed to leave the premises. One such man was Rudolf Diels, who was the former head of the Gestapo. (All of the women found him quite charming.) Journalists, lawyers, resistance members, Goring's private secretary, Hitler's personal photographer and the Messerschmidt airplane constructor were just some of the fascinating folks that resided at the house.
I have read plenty of books on the Holocaust but I've never seen a story quite like this one before. How everyone lived together in close circumstances under one roof and were civil to one another is amazing in itself.
The author, who is German, found out about the "witness house" from her parents' boarder (he had been an interpreter during the trials) and was shown the visitors' book with all kinds of comments. She became intrigued and wanted to know more and by doing quite a bit of research was able to create a tale that almost seems more like fiction than fact.
The Witness House is quite a book. There are some great photographs of the guests, the villa, the Countess, the courtroom, Himmler, Goring, etc.
A very good and different read.