There is an extraordinary story hidden behind the latest album Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter is releasing. The album itself should be lovely and moving, because it’s a collection of songs from Terezienstadt, including lullabies a nurse composed for her charges in the days (weeks?) before she and they were shipped off to Auschwitz and death. What’s amazing, though, is the back story — the story that inspired Otter to make this recording:
Her tragic tale begins on a train, as so many war stories do. Anne-Sofie’s father, Baron Göran von Otter, was a Swedish diplomat in wartime Germany, adjutant to the ambassador. On the night of 20-21 August 1942, travelling from Warsaw to Berlin, he became an involuntary witness to the Holocaust.
Standing in the corridor because he could not get a sleeper, the diplomat saw an SS officer glancing in his direction. When the train stopped at a station, both men got off for fresh air. On the pitch-dark platform, the SS man asked for a light for his cigarette. Von Otter produced a pack of matches with a Swedish crest. ‘I must talk to you,’ said Kurt Gerstein.
‘With beads of sweat on his forehead and tears in his eyes’ (as von Otter reported to his superiors), Gerstein explained that he was head of a Waffen-SS Technical Disinfection unit, responsible for supplying poisons and gas equipment. ‘Yesterday,’ he told von Otter, weeping uncontrollably, ‘I saw something appalling.’ ‘Is it about the Jews?’ said the diplomat.
Over the next six or eight hours in the train corridor, having examined Gerstein’s papers and satisfied himself of his credentials, von Otter heard a detailed account of the mechanics of genocide, the gas chambers, the mass graves. Gerstein gave chapter and verse, the names of senior personnel, the look in a little girl’s eyes as she was shoved naked to the slaughter. ‘I saw more than ten thousand die today,’ he wept.
He implored the Baron to inform the Swedish government, in the hope of stopping the slaughter. ‘I had no doubt as to the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions,’ said von Otter, who promptly wrote a report to Stockholm and heard nothing more. Not long after, he was recalled. When he looked for his own report in Foreign Ministry files, there was nothing to be found.
Gerstein, after risking his life with further confessions to foreigners, gave himself up to the French in April 1945 and was charged with war crimes. In prison, he wrote a full account of what he had seen and a letter to von Otter requesting corroboration of their meeting. The diplomat’s reply arrived a few days too late. Gerstein was found dead on July 25, 1945, either by his own hand or murdered by fellow-SS inmates. He had originally joined the SS in order to investigate the death by euthanasia of his mentally disabled sister-in-law.
‘My father never talked,’ says Anne-Sofie von Otter with sombre concentration. ‘Not just about Gerstein, about anything. We didn’t even know that his grandfather had been prime minister of Sweden for two years. What I know, I heard from my mother who was with him in Berlin. But I had the feeling growing up that it troubled him deeply, not getting Gerstein’s information out, not being able to save Gerstein’s life. A strong sense of guilt hung heavily over the rest of his life. He was not a particularly courageous man, but he was always driven by a sense of trying to act and do right, something he tried to pass on to his four children.’
Von Otter’s career stalled, possibly because his 1942 report compromised Sweden’s blind-eye neutrality. He rose no higher than consul-general in London, and died in 1988. ‘He was not a happy man,’ says Anne-Sofie. ‘He felt a failure in his career, his family weren’t close to him and it must have preyed on his mind that millions of people were being gassed all the time when he was unable to do anything. Not to mention Gerstein’s death, a man of his own kind who was also trying to do the decent thing. He tried hard in London with me, the youngest, but he didn’t manage to be the sort of father that makes my heart reach out to him.’
That’s what political neutrality tends to mean. Not a principled stand for peace, but actively turning a blind eye to evil (or as in the case of the Swiss, playing banker for evil).
Hat tip: RD