Alex Constantine - September 26, 2007
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 22, 2007 12:00 AM
Martin Hartmann has been a soldier, typesetter, father and friend. This week, the Department of Justice said the Mesa resident was also a war criminal.
Hartmann, 88, voluntarily left the country Aug. 31, after reaching an agreement with the Justice Department to turn over his passport and naturalization papers. The decision followed a two-year investigation into his past as an armed Nazi SS guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.
His departure left friends and neighbors in the Leisure World retirement community in east Mesa stunned. But one man knew his secret.
Nathan Gasch, 83, had been in Hartmann's home years ago and saw, hanging on the wall, a photo of a man in an SS uniform. The man was Hartmann, and Gasch recognized the uniform because he had been a prisoner in the same camp in 1944.
Gasch walked out of the house and never mentioned it, and the men even worked on home-improvement projects and exchanged pleasantries in German over the years.
"I was flabbergasted," he said after learning Hartmann was back in Germany.
Next door to Gasch, Ellen Hartmann wonders how her seemingly-idyllic life could have fallen apart so quickly.
"I'm just devastated," said Ellen, 85.
Her husband is staying with family in Berlin, Ellen said, and she plans to join him there next month.
That's where their relationship started more than 60 years ago.
In 1944, Martin was a young Nazi soldier and Ellen was a 17-year-old girl working at the Red Cross. Their second date was in a bunker in Berlin as bombs went off overhead.
"He was a young man from Romania, and instead of fighting against the Germans, he was in the SS," Ellen said. "When you're coming from Romania and the Russians want to take you and make you fight against the Germans, would you do that if you were German?"
Martin chose to go with the Nazis and ultimately served as a guard at Sachsenhausen, a death camp where the Germans killed an estimated 35,000 people.
"He didn't know what was going on. How did he know what was going on?" Ellen said. "I didn't know anything about Sachsenhausen, and here I grew up in Berlin. We just thought it was regular prisoners like here, in Florence, they have prisoners. Why would you think anything else?"
But officials with the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, a division created in 1979 to pursue war criminals, said Martin Hartmann knew what was happening.
Pursuit of war criminals
The OSI has a team of historians who comb through countless documents, checking names on SS member rosters with U.S. immigration records and pursuing cases when they get a match. In the past 15 years, the office has investigated more than 50 cases and only three have come from outside tips, OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum wouldn't comment on Hartmann's case but said the OSI pursues a case when agents find someone who participated in Nazi-sponsored persecution.
"Obviously, we are interested in people who were something more than just soldiers," Rosenbaum said. "They had to have participated somehow in Nazi-directed or Nazi-sponsored persecution."
Hartmann had the option to enlist in combat duty or work as a concentration-camp guard when he signed up for duty, said Edgar Chen, an OSI attorney who investigated the case.
SS soldiers had opportunities to transfer once they arrived at the camps, Rosenbaum said.
"There was no request for transfer in this case," he said.
To Holocaust survivors, that means Hartmann should be held responsible for the atrocities they suffered with their family members during the war.
"If he was what they think he was, he should get the punishment," Gasch said. "It's not that he's 88 or 84 or whatever. Anytime is the proper time."
Helen Handler has spent the past 20 years speaking to schoolchildren and in public meetings about the need to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. She said she could never forget the way SS guards, male and female, treated the prisoners she was with at Auschwitz.
"Hitler wasn't the only Nazi. Hitler never killed a Jew. He had people like (Hartmann) doing that, and doing that with pleasure," said Handler, who survived Auschwitz but lost her family there.
"This man lives here in peace since 1955 and enjoys all the privileges that our boys from here were dying for. He enjoys the freedoms that he was fighting against," said Handler, a Phoenix resident "Our boys got hurt and got killed for it, and all you have to do is see the cemeteries in Europe. There they lie, and he was enjoying this country's golden, peaceful privileges."
Typical American life
Hartmann's life since his arrival in U.S. was, in fact, typically American.
Martin and Ellen Hartmann came to America in 1955, courtesy of the Lutheran World Federation, Ellen said, though Justice Department officials said Hartmann concealed his Nazi involvement to enter the country.
They settled in Mankato, Minn., before moving to Helena, Mont., Ellen said, where Martin worked as a typesetter and printer before mastering computers.
The couple bought a winter home in Leisure World in 1987 and moved to the area permanently a few years ago, where the Hartmanns planned to live out their days.