Getting the Best Revenge

What I Learned During My Summer Vacation – Part 3

By January 20, 1942, the villa overlooking Wannsee Lake, a mere 25-minute train ride from Berlin, had become a vacation and special meeting facility for high-ranking Nazi officers and party officials. Today, the villa still sits impressively above Wannsee Lake, overlooking a tranquil setting of families lounging on the lake’s sandy beaches and sailing its waters. As I walk the villa’s grounds, I hear the clinking of glasses and dishes and laughter from the patrons of a yacht club next door.

But I’m not here to walk the grounds or tour the villa. I’m here to see one room inside the villa and, more to the point, to stand where one individual stood.

My audio tour guide explains that the room was likely the villa’s formal dining area. The nearly floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake would have helped create a relaxed setting for the 15 high-ranking Nazi officers and officials meeting to rewrite the history of European Jewry. The juxtaposition is not lost on me.

As a lifelong student of World War II, I had known for some time that I wanted to stand in that room. I had always been fascinated with standing where history happened. Reading about past events provided the basis for some understanding, but books, however beautifully written, were limiting – two-dimensional. Stand where history happened, and such factors as geography, architecture, time, and climate suddenly become more influential than a paragraph might provide.

Stand in the theatre where history happened, and you can’t help but feel the presence of those who were its actors.

As a Jew, I needed to stand in that room. I need to stand where Adolf Eichmann and fourteen other high-ranking Nazis met and agreed to collaborate on the “Final Solution,” the mass murder of 11 million Jews on a continental scale. The meeting lasted under two hours.

Their gathering was as political as it was logistical. It was intended to stop the infighting among various groups already playing a role in the mass murder of Eastern European Jews that had been taking place for almost two years. By the time the fifteen sat down around the long table on January 20, 1942, in what history would call “The Wannsee Conference,” upwards of a million and a half Jews had already been murdered. But this initial murdering was, at times, chaotic and inefficient. Slow. One of the major goals of the meeting was to finalize which office of the Reich was in charge so that the murdering could continue, at least in theory, in a more ordered and systematic fashion.

Today, the windows are partially masked by a display of 15 pictures and biographies of the attendees. I focus on Adolf Eichmann, whom I have come to stand before. On the opposite side of the room, laid out in a glass case, are the edited notes from the meeting. Eichmann didn’t take the actual notes during the meeting but later edited them in textbook bureaucratese. It takes me almost an hour to read the 15 pages. Eichmann carefully structured the narrative so it doesn’t include phrases such as “concentration camps,” “death factories,” or “murder,” but the implications are clear. A passage from page 5 stops me:

III. With the appropriate prior authorization from the Fuhrer, emigration has now been replaced by the evacuation of the Jews to the East as another possible solution.

These actions are, however, only to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected, which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future final solution of the Jewish question.

Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved in the final solution of the European Jewish question, distributed as follows among the individual countries…”

I read key phrases multiple times:

“With the appropriate prior authorization from the Fuhrer,”

“…evacuation of the Jews to the east … only to be considered provisional”

“…the final solution of the Jewish question.”

“…11 million Jews will be involved…”

The document goes on to explain how Jews will be “utilized for work” and provides an extensive section on how to quantify “Jewishness.”

I am here to stand where SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann stood – the Nazi officer charged with designing and managing the logistics of transporting Jews from all over Europe to the labor and killing centers. At his trial in Israel in 1961, Eichmann admitted to creating the official record of the Wannsee Conference and was confronted with indisputable evidence of his role in the Final Solution.

As I stand in the room, I can’t help but think of the Holocaust deniers and how they pathetically attempt to explain away the existence of hundreds of small and large sites – the remnants of which still exist today across Europe – where Jews labored and were murdered, how they attempt to explain away the Germans citizens who finally admitted to smelling the stench from the killing centers and were later used to bury those who died shortly before liberation, how they attempt to explain away the 6 million Jews who never returned to their homes after the war, and how they attempt to explain away how a key Nazi – Adolf Eichmann – admitted his culpability. There are, though, many ears that still listen to them.

I am not a Holocaust survivor in the strictest sense, but in a way, I think standing in that room, all Jews are. The Nazis succeeded in murdering 6 million Jews. If not defeated in war, they would have made it 11 million. And after that?

Eichmann was found guilty and hung. To some, his execution was a form of revenge, but given the magnitude of his and others’ crimes, insufficient. I am reminded that many Holocaust survivors often speak of “getting the best revenge” after the war simply by living an honorable life among their neighbors.

I look at Eichmann’s photo and think, “You didn’t get all of us.” And just as quickly, I am reminded of the steady drumbeat of hate today.

For other parts of “What I Learned During My Summer Vacation”:

Part 1 – The Calamity of the Battle for the Hurtgen Forest

Part 2 Confronting the Remnants of Hate on the Path to Remembrance

Part 4 – The Empty Library Shelves (to come)


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. This is so incredibly powerful, Jeff. I read your words and felt the weight of them as I’m certain you felt an eerie presence of those who stood in that same room before you. I cannot even imagine the emotions you felt. Thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts. It is both saddening and maddening to have these artifacts and evidence that continue to be met with denial. But it is incomprehensible that we continue to see antisemitic hate all these years later.