Many in Karl Jäger's hometown of Waldkirch
would rather forget that the notorious Nazi criminal lived
there at all - after all, Jäger has been dead for decades.
But one historian is trying to combat their silence.
When Wolfram Wette peers out of the panorama window in his
living room, he can see over the trees and brush toward
a valley and a town known as Waldkirch. The village seems
to lie at Wette's feet, but in this case, appearances are
The historian and professor has lived near Waldkirch for
four decades. There, he has a reputation as a troublemaker
who has been trying for years to bring the residents of this
small town closer to an unpleasant truth.
Wette has published a biography of a man who also comes
from this idyllic village in southwestern Germany, but whom
its residents would rather forget: the Nazi criminal Karl
A model youth
Born in 1888, Jäger was the son of a music teacher
from Waldkirch. He played the piano and the violin, later
becoming an instrument builder himself. He married into a
family of organ makers, took part in the First World War
and, in 1923, became a member of the Nazi Party.
A sophisticate and musician, Jäger would go on to become
a mass murderer of Lithuanian Jews.
"He was a man from the middle class, a respected personality
in Waldkirch, who was considered exemplary, brilliant, correct
and cultivated. Some Waldkirch women still gush to this day
about how handsome he was," said Wette. "On Sundays,
he would march through town with a 100-member group of SS
Meticulous balance sheet
Shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22,
1941, Jäger joined the German armed forces in Lithuania
as commander of a task force whose mission was to destroy
the Jewish population.
"Just half a year later, most of Lithuania's Jewish
citizens had been murdered," said Wolfram Wette. They
were killed on the street, beaten to death in the woods,
shot in military forts and starved to death in ghettos.
"Jäger kept detailed records about how many Jewish
women, children and men were killed on which day," said
the historian and author.
By the end of November, 133,346 innocent people had been
killed, and Jäger proudly wrote: "Lithuania is
now free of Jews." Lithuanian collaborators helped carry
out the crimes, often with extreme cruelty - a shocking and
still largely taboo chapter in the country's history.
Hell on earth
Wolfram Wette's book draws from the records and accounts
of the murderers themselves, but it also gives voice to the
few remaining witnesses and survivors with whom Wette has
maintained contact for years.
"Germans and Lithuanians with rolled up sleeves and
red faces loaded up and shot into the crowd. Their gun barrels
flashed yellow. A veil of blue smoke passed over the field.
It was hellish," described survivor Kuki Kopelman, who
was 13 at the time. "Shrill screams, hoarse cries, sobbing
children and babies, barking dogs. We had reached the grave.
There were thousands of bodies on the ground, stacked on
top of each other - they twisted and cried and begged the
Germans to end the torment. It was hell."
The great repression
In 1945, the former SS officer Jäger returned to his
hometown, but no one bothered him with uncomfortable questions.
Nonetheless, Jäger moved soon afterward and settled
near Heidelberg, where he didn't speak about his Nazi membership.
There, he lived for 15 years under his birth name as an ordinary
"That certainly raises a lot of questions about the
state of German society at the time," said Wette.
It wasn't until the end of the 1950s that Jäger's name
emerged in investigation records. He was arrested and interrogated
for weeks, but the planned court proceedings against him
never took place. Jäger committed suicide in his cell.
An angry response
In Waldkirch, people behaved no differently than elsewhere
in the young republic; they weren't eager to dwell on the
"The fact that Jäger existed at all was silenced
and repressed here after 1945," said Wolfram Wette.
Fear and defensiveness loomed large. No one, including relatives,
local politicians and residents, wanted to be reminded of
"There were angry protests when I published about that
in 1989. The majority of the local population - including
city council representatives - wanted me to keep the topic
quiet. Even officials in the Catholic church agreed," said
For 20 years, the author continued to collect all available
information, and his biography on Karl Jäger was published
in German earlier this year. According to Wette, the echo
in Waldkirch has been as troubling as ever.
M"I've gotten foul-mouthed calls and anonymous letters
that aren't any less biting than what I heard in 1989 and
1990," the author said.
The historian's ethos
However, the younger generation is beginning to break the
silence. At the local high school, a history project has
involved inviting witnesses and survivors from Lithuania,
and exhibitions relating to the topic have been organized.
Wolfram Wette, whose research has unsettled Waldkirch so
thoroughly, sat at his panorama window and said, "I
think there's an ethos of historians, an obligation to educate
people about the past. And for me, this obligation becomes
especially important when I know that others are turning