A stumbling block in history

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013
Gunter Warner
Peter Meecham/Fairfax NZ

HORROR: Three-quarters of a century after fleeing Nazi Germany and losing his family to the death camps, Gunter Warner says there can’t be closure but he ‘‘wants to be fair’’.

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Gunter Warner arrived in New Zealand at the age of 18, alone and unknown, and never heard from his parents or grandparents again. "I got out in time," he says simply.

It was May 1939, four months before the outbreak of war, three years before his family were taken by the Nazis to be killed in the death camps, because they were Jewish.

Last week in Berlin, memorial plaques for his parents, Alfred and Paula Wachsner, and maternal grandparents, Martin and Margarete Gumpert, were unveiled outside their former apartment in Berlin, where Warner himself lived until his parents smuggled him out of the country.

For Warner, the most important word on the engravings is ermordet - the German for murdered. "They admit to having killed them," he says. "I am not sentimental about it. But they never got a grave. They just went up in smoke, gassed and burnt."

The stones are called Stolpersteine - in English, stumbling blocks - and while they don't make you physically stumble, they are intended to cause people to pause and reflect. Sculptor Gunter Demnig has laid more than 20,000 of the 10-centimetre-square brass stones across central Europe, over 2000 in Berlin alone, each remembering a victim of the Holocaust.

Warner, now 92, was too frail to travel to the ceremony on June 10 to see his childhood home for just the second time in 74 years. His son, Mark, and grandsons, Jeremy, Max and Ben Warner, and his brother's grandson, John Swartfegger, represented him. Also present was the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who coincidentally now lives in the very apartment Warner was raised in.

Warner says he saw society change rapidly once Hitler was elected in 1933. That year, he witnessed the Reichstag fire - the burning of the German parliament building - and the mass burning of books. "Germany went back to the Dark Ages within four weeks," he says.

But it was seeing the destruction wreaked on one of the most infamous nights of pre-war history, on November 9, 1938, that made him leave: Krystallnacht (the night of broken glass) where Hitler's Sturmabteilung, or Brownshirts, destroyed and looted Jewish-owned shops and homes and deported 6000 men to concentration camps. Warner watched it unfold.

"I got home that night at 3am, and said to my mother: ‘Where's dad?' I was worried for him. He was hiding, underground. My mother said: ‘He has gone away for a week or so.' I will never forget. Ten days later when he arrived back he was a broken man. He always thought he was a good German and there was hope for Germany. But he said at dinner that night: ‘This country is absolutely rotten. We must get you out.' It was rotten, through and through."

So Warner escaped to New Zealand. His brother and sister, both now dead, fled separately. Three years later his family would be taken across Europe in open cattle-wagons, first to prison camps, then to die. The Waschners went first to Riga, in Latvia, then to Auschwitz; the Gumperts were take to Theresiestadt, near Prague, then to Treblinka in Poland. "They are part of the 6 million," says Warner. "They killed 6 million Jews, homosexuals, so-called mental defectives, gypsies. A planned mass murder; many other countries have done this, too, but never planned it with such efficiency."

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Warner became a New Zealand citizen, was in the air force during the war, and became a schoolteacher at Auckland's Westlake High School.

He raised three children: Kirsten, a journalist, John, a teacher at Auckland Grammar, and Mark, a professor at Cambridge University.

He returned to Berlin only once, in 1978. "I felt most uncomfortable. My son and I made a brief visit to [the still-partitioned] East Berlin and it was awful . . . I thought I was back in Nazi Germany, all the shouting and marching. I was smoking. A policeman came and hit the cigarette from my hand. I said to my son: ‘We must go back to civilisation right now.' "

While his sight is now fading, looking at photographs of his old apartment taken by his family at the ceremony trigger old memories. One shows the central staircase, which he remembers leaping and sliding down as a boy, another a mature chestnut tree he recalls his sister planting. "It makes me feel a bit odd to see it again."

Warner wrote a speech which his son, Mark, read on his behalf at the Stolpersteine ceremony. It is a remarkably forgiving, positive message about the new Germany and achieving closure. "But I don't like the word," he admits. "There is no closure, but I want to be fair."

- Sunday Star Times


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