In 1994 writer Tom Reiss, 31, the son of a Holocaust survivor, signed a contract to cowrite Führer-Ex (Random House, $24), the just-published and highly praised memoir of Ingo Hasselbach, 28, former leader of Berlins neo-Nazi party. Following is Reiss’s account of his collaboration with Hasselbach and the unusual friendship they forged.
From the time I was 10 years old, I began collecting books about the Holocaust. I’d curl up on the floor of my room and read about Auschwitz and Babi Yar until I collapsed from exhaustion, nausea or fright.
My mother didn’t talk about her experiences during the war to me except to mention that, once, when she’d been able to visit her father in the first concentration camp he had been sent to—a French one, near Paris—he’d given her a red wheelbarrow. Her parents were deported to Auschwitz in 1942.
Ingo Hasselbach first heard about Auschwitz from the Gestapo chief of Dresden (his cellmate in an East German prison), who told him nothing bad had happened there. Ingo got out of prison in 1988, and after the Wall fell, he became one of Germany’s main importers of Holocaust denial literature, bomb manuals and weapons.
While I spent much of the early ’90s writing about the rise of the neo-Nazis, Ingo spent that time leading them. But in 1993 he underwent a transformation, triggered by his feeling of indirect responsibility for a grisly triple murder, and became the first German neo-Nazi leader to renounce the movement.
Within four months of hearing of this transformation, I was alone with him in an isolated cabin in Sweden—it was too dangerous for him to stay in Germany—talking late into every night with a microcassette recorder between us. At times it felt like a therapy session for people obsessed with Nazism.
Even as Ingo was revealing every detail of his life to me, I still hadn’t told him that I was Jewish. After all, how do you know when to trust a Nazi? Finally, one day when he made a disparaging aside about the American occupation of Berlin—and I imagined my mother’s fate had it not happened—I blurted out reasons for my interest in his story.
Growing up, I’d had my only discussions about the Third Reich with my great-uncle Lolek, who had adopted my mother after the war. Lolek was a charming Viennese man who spoke eight languages and liked to tell stories of his childhood in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Sadly, what really brought Ingo and me together was the day I called home to find that Lolek was dying. Ingo comforted me, and for a time, I stopped asking about his life and told him the old stories of Lolek’s adventures dodging Nazis in the 1930s.
In October I went back to New York with a shoebox full of tapes. Lolek had died. I moved into a spare room in his apartment to keep his widow, Gerda, company. There, I listened to the Berlin-accented voice of my 6’6″, blond, blue-eyed doppelgänger.
Last summer, when Ingo came to New York, I was worried about introducing him to Gerda. As she heaped Wiener schnitzel on his plate, I thought how the last time he’d probably eaten it was when he was in Vienna with the Austrian neo-Nazis, throwing darts at caricatures of Jews. But, as we left, Gerda confided, “It’s hard to believe he was ever a Nazi—such a nice boy!”
Ingo visited Gerda many times after that, and when he was back in Germany, testifying at trials of his former kamerads, Gerda would ask me about him. I could tell she missed his company, as did I. Once I asked her whether they’d ever talked about his Nazi past. “Ach, we never talked about that!” my old aunt said. “Ingo is a sensitive boy, and as this subject might make him uncomfortable, it seemed better not to bring it up.”