I am part of the generation born before or during the war. Growing up after it, many of us were very struck by what had happened and tried personally, professionally, and in politics to build another Germany; a Germany that’s tolerant, democratic and not antisemitic. I always feel I am just one of those people. The reason I’m more known is due to my father.”
Hilde Schramm is talking about Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect in 1933, minister of armaments and munitions from 1943, and the father she barely knew when the war ended. With his intensive workload that included designing the Reich Chancellery and performing ‘armaments miracles’ with increased slave labour, Speer did not see much of his six children. As they played in the Alpine countryside, Hilde and her siblings were oblivious to the murderous machinations of the Third Reich and the decimation of the Jewish population. Ironically, ignorance of the Final Solution was Speer’s defence at Nuremburg. This later proved to be a lie, but the reality of being Albert Speer’s daughter has shaped Hilde’s life – curiously in the best possible way.
Now 83, Hilde has dedicated herself to helping victims of Nazi atrocities and antisemitism. Already a recipient of the Moses Mendelssohn Award, in January this year she was given the Obermayer German Jewish History Award for her efforts in keeping alive the nation’s Jewish cultural past.
It’s a hugely prestigious award established by an American Jewish philanthropist and although Hilde dislikes taking centre stage, public recognition for Zurückgeben, the foundation she started to support Jewish women in the arts and sciences, is essential to its survival.
Zurückgeben, which translates as “return”, “give back” or “restitution”, began as an initiative at Hilde’s kitchen table.
“I gathered a few female friends I trusted and admired… and they brought others,” she says, seated beside Jewish photographer Sharon Adler, who is now chairman of the foundation. That Zurückgeben (www.stiftung-zurueckgeben.de) was initially funded with money Hilde got from selling paintings she inherited from her father is gratifying.
As Berlin’s building inspector, Speer was responsible for dispossessing Jews of their homes, but once she determined his paintings were not Jewish property, she wanted others to benefit from their sale.
“We chose the name ‘return’ to emphasise our aim of raising awareness about stolen Jewish belongings at a time when it was not talked about,” Hilde says, and the foundation’s website is filled with facts about the enormity of the theft and includes such shocking numbers as the 27,227 tons of furniture, furnishings and clothing transported to Germany just from Holland.
That the expropriation, expulsion and murder of Jews in Europe benefited so many non-Jewish Germans directly or indirectly has become Hilde’s mantra.
“They may not even realise what they have was taken from Jewish families, but returning it can be done literally or symbolically,” says Sharon, who recalls an elderly woman who inherited a set of five first editions by writer Heinrich Heine. “We traced the original owner’s great-nephew in London, and he gifted the books back to the German town of his family.”
Hilde explains: “We don’t have the womanpower for lots of research, and if anyone comes to us with a house or paintings of value, we direct them to official restitution channels. If the object is from a Jewish family that can’t be found, we tell them to keep and treasure it, then symbolically give
back to the community with a donation to support Jewish artists and scientists.”
To date, the foundation has given more than €500,000 in grants to more than 100 Jewish women for projects.
“It is not charity; I don’t like that word as that is not what we do,” insists Hilde. “So much was taken away from so many; we are trying to give back a little. A really little. The women apply for grants with their work, not because they are poor, even though many live in precarious situations because of where they have come from. It isn’t easy to get a foot on the ground in Berlin.”
Shlomit Tulgan has her feet on the ground as director of Berlin’s Jewish Puppet Theatre. But she received a grant this year for her show, Isaac and the Elephant Abul Abbas, as it is about Syrian artists’ experiences of flight and is shown in refugee shelters and charitable organisations to promote
a positive association with Jewish culture. Projects that address xenophobia greatly appeal to Hilde, who is committed to helping new immigrants, and hosts Syrian and other refugees at her home.
“They stay with me while they decide what to do next,” she says, but she and Sharon aren’t numb to the backlash in Germany and the rise of nationalism across Europe. The recent shooting at the synagogue in nearby Halle and a Syrian with a knife trying to enter another in Mitte
made everyone aware.
“They kept him for a few hours and then let him go,” sighs Sharon in disbelief. “The official line was that there was no evidence of antisemitism in his background. As if….”
“Dangerous acts happen in Berlin,” admits Hilde. “The general consensus here is to respect the Jewish community and the past. But there are some people who think differently and, as they grow up, they act upon it. With violence.”
For Hilde, there is always another cause and, after our meeting, she is heading to Greece on another of her projects – supporting the ongoing claim for further reparations from Germany. In her mind, there is still much to do.
“The crimes the army and SS committed in Poland and Russia are well-known, but very few people cared what happened in Greece, where they burnt villages, killed people and committed the sort of crimes I won’t dare to mention now.”
Part of Hilde’s mission is to help Greek director Chrysanthos Konstantinidis get a wide release of his film The Balcony: Memories of Occupation, which documents the Nazi crimes in his home village of Ligiades. “It’s the best film about the Greek Holocaust, but it’s hard to get any interest in Germany,” she explains. “The Germans don’t want to know about another story that blames their ancestors. Summer on the islands in tavernas is all they want to know about Greece.”
For an octogenarian with such a history to have such determination is humbling, but she seeks no glory.
“I don’t like to be thought of as an important person – just a decent one. I think I’m decent, but I am nothing special,” she murmurs.
“You are very special,” says Sharon, squeezing her friend’s arm. All executive titles are honorary at the foundation and the work voluntary, so is it a need for forgiveness that drives this pensioner and former leader of the Green Party?
Her eyes lower. “I can’t ask for forgiveness or offer excuses. What happened was so dreadful it cannot be excused. And in my opinion, it can never be forgiven.”
After her father was spared the death penalty and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment at Spandau, Hilde – then a professor of education – tried to piece things together for closure. There was also a lengthy correspondence to try to understand the man she hardly knew.
“Of course being his daughter affected my biography,” says Hilde. “But it affected relationships between mothers, fathers and grandfathers in many other fields. Had my father just been an actor or a functioner in the system and not so prominent, I wonder whether I would have acted the same way. I hope I would. But one never knows what would have been because you only have one life.”
Which makes one want to ask – would Albert Speer be proud of the work she does supporting Jewish women now? Hilde pauses briefly. “Ja. Ja,” she says. “There is no doubt from me.” As the daughter who defied a legacy, only she can know.