The Witness House
Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa during the Nuremberg Trials
By Christiane Kohl
(Other Press, Paperback, 9781590513798, 272pp.)
Publication Date: October 12, 2010
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Autumn 1945 saw the start of the Nuremberg trials, in which high ranking representatives of the Nazi government were called to account for their war crimes. In a curious yet fascinating twist, witnesses for the prosecution and the defense were housed together in a villa on the outskirts of town. In this so-called Witness House, perpetrators and victims confronted each other in a microcosm that reflected the events of the high court. Presiding over the affair was the beautiful Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky (a woman so blond and enticing that she was described as a Jean Harlowe look-alike) who took great pride in her ability to keep the household civil and the communal dinners pleasant. A comedy of manners arose among the guests as the urge to continue battle was checked by a sudden and uncomfortable return to civilized life.
The trial atmosphere extends to the small group in the villa. Agitated victims confront and avoid perpetrators and sympathizers, and high-ranking officers in the German armed forces struggle to keep their composure. This highly explosive mixture is seasoned with vivid, often humorous, anecdotes of those who had basked in the glory of the inner circles of power. Christiane Kohl focuses on the guilty, the sympathizers, the undecided, and those who always manage to make themselves fit in. The Witness House reveals the social structures that allowed a cruel and unjust regime to flourish and serves as a symbol of the blurred boundaries between accuser and accused that would come to form the basis of postwar Germany.
Christiane Kohl has worked as a correspondent to the Cologne Express, a press officer for the Environment Ministry in Hessen, and, from 1988 to 1998, an editor with Der Spiegel. She worked for several years in Rome for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently the newspaper’s correspondent for eastern Germany. Her book, Der Jude und Das Mädchen (2002), was the basis of Joseph Vilsmaier’s feature film Leo and Claire. She lives in Dresden.
Anthea Bell is a freelance translator from German and French, specializing in fiction. She has won a number of translation awards in the UK, the USA, and Europe. Her translations includeW.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (and other works by Sebald), a large selection of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and stories, and Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist
“A richly detailed and deeply researched account.” —The Washington Post
“Kohl’s journalist touch…brings a human element to the rather inhuman stories that came out of the trials…The Witness House is an important reminder of how, at the end of war, we still have to eat at the same table. Finding a civil way to do so is perhaps the key to healing.” —NPR.org
“Richly detailed and deeply researched… [The Witness House is] a 360-degree view of this critical time in history.” —The Denver Post
“Drawing on interviews, primary source materials, and recently disclosed documents,
Kohl introduces a cast of characters who, if not actually real participants in the events described, would seem to be the product of a work of fiction.” —Jewish Book World
“The history of World War II is so rich in character and detail that fiction presented alongside often pales in comparison, and this is especially true for a story so nuanced and taut as Kohl presents in The Witness House. The cast of characters, setting, and plot twists in the slim book are so extraordinary that, were they not entirely true, they simply could not be believed.” —ForeWord Magazine
“Kohl offers a glimpse of the Nuremberg trials refreshingly unlike that provided by standard histories. An improbable story of perpetrators and their victims forced to share the same domestic space, The Witness House is at once humorous, moving and disturbing. It is a fascinating read.” —Lawrence Douglas, Amherst College, author of The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust
“A fascinating glimpse into the very human and remarkably harmonious society created in the microcosm of an Allied guesthouse where victors, vanquished and victims were lodged together during the Nuremberg Trials. Ms. Kohl, in this very readable book written with tremendous sensitivity, contributes greatly to the neglected history of the human condition in the postwar chaos of Europe.” —Lynn Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War
“Kohl deserves high praise for this fascinating new book, tapping into a story most people have never heard of but which provides a vital footnote to our understanding of the post-World War II world.” —Don and Petie Kladstrup, authors of Wine & War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure