The Outrage: a true story

‘Some people have ingrown toenails. This guy has an ingrown soul,’ Thomas grumbled. It was 1960, and he had just returned from an interview about his final-year project with a professor he wholeheartedly disliked. ‘He talked to me as if I was subhuman,’ he fumed.

Thomas was an English-speaking European, born in Sri Lanka. His parents had a penchant for Eastern meditation. His mother was a Spanish artist, who had a disconcerting habit of  leaving the table in the middle of a meal to stand on her head in a corner. His father was a Swedish architect, who would go out for a short walk and forget to return for several days. Unsurprisingly, Thomas too was an unconventional character. From the mid-1950s he was studying civil engineering at the Federal Institute of  Technology in Zurich. When he decided to apply for permanent residence in Switzerland he began his CV with the words: ‘My father and mother met on an adventurous journey to India.’ I warned him that this would not predispose the Swiss authorities in his favour, but he insisted and was duly turned down.

I was born in Transylvania, a territory that has been shunted to and fro between Hungary and Romania as long as I can remember. When one of my daughters mentioned this at her English school, the teacher corrected her: ‘Transylvania exists only in horror films.’ In fact there was enough real horror, and for the Jews the worst came in the last year of World War II, in March 1944, when German troops invaded Hungary to prevent it defecting to the Allies. They were accompanied by Adolf Eichmann, and within two months half a million Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. I was lucky enough to be rescued from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and taken to Switzerland with nearly 1,700 others, thanks to a deal between Eichmann and a Jewish leader called Rezsö Kasztner, who was later wrongly accused of collaboration and assassinated in Israel. In the mid-1950s I started studying English and German at the University of Zurich.

As foreigners surrounded by Swiss people, Thomas and I spent a lot of time together. Thomas had a gift for coining phrases. When I suffered a setback of some sort he comforted me with a cheerful ‘Never mind, things are never as bad as they’re going to be.’ To deter time wasters, his door carried a notice: ‘If you have nothing to do, don’t do it here’.

One day we were taking my dog Simon for a walk along the lake. Simon came from a village called Reinach. From his father, a Dachshund, and  his mother, an Appenzeller mountain bitch, he had inherited a long body, short legs and floppy ears that almost touched the ground. People in the street  often stopped to ask me what breed he was. When I truthfully answered that he was a mongrel, they walked on with their nose in the air. On this occasion a fat gentleman with six fat children in his wake asked the usual question in a particularly patronising tone. Before I could answer, Thomas said: ‘He’s a Reinach Retriever.’ The fat gentleman raised a pedagogic finger: ‘Have a good look, children. This is a typical Reinach Retriever.’ As they waddled away, Thomas remarked: ‘I never could stand pompous people.’

After finishing my studies I worked as sub-editor of a news agency. Most of the stories I had to edit were routine stuff about road accidents, petty thefts and the meetings of the local male choir, although at times there was a flurry of excitement about world events such as the kidnap of Eichmann by Israelis in Argentina. But eventually I got tired of the irregular hours and the callous treatment of human tragedies. I became a schoolteacher and continued to write some articles on the side.  When I felt restless again, I offered my services to a number of American universities and received a single offer from the Deep South, which I regretfully declined as I was asked to educate students in the right Christian spirit. Then, in 1963, I was offered a job at the new University of Sussex. I came to Brighton for one year and am still here. Given my history, it seems ironic that I ended up as a professor of German. But my commitment was to a German language and literature that the Nazis had not managed to poison with their hateful ideology.

Thomas also completed his degree — with some difficulty, as we shall see — and started looking for a job. Having developed an interest in computing, he presented himself at one of the large IT companies and was promptly offered a position with a salary far beyond what I could ever hope to earn as a teacher and occasional journalist. The interviewers were surprised when he told them that he would accept only half the salary, but by the time he added that he wanted to work only half the normal hours they were so dazzled by his blarney that they agreed. I should add that around 1960 neither computers nor part-time work were as common as today. Thomas was nothing if not innovative. 

About the time I came to Sussex Thomas went to America and we lost touch. A few days ago I was surfing the Internet when a name brought him and his final-year project back to me with a jolt.

The task Thomas had been set for the project was to design a shopping mall. The examiner, as I said, had turned out to be the professor he disliked most. With some misgivings he submitted a plan showing shops, a cafe, a restaurant, a moving staircase and various other items. Some weeks later he was summoned to the professor.

After keeping him waiting in the corridor for an hour the professor rejected the plan, as it did not include any public conveniences. Thomas was irritated by his tone, but submitted a new one, having added two small squares with a stylised drawing of a man in one and of a woman in the other. He did not bother to provide detailed specifications, as he had for everything else.

Once more Thomas was kept waiting in the corridor. Even more arrogantly than before, the  professor rejected the plan because the dimensions of the conveniences had not been calculated in the proper scientific manner. Thomas saw the professor’s point, but objected to the tone. ‘Who does he think he is, Adolf Hitler?’ he growled as he redrew the plan. Now he included many figures indicating the exact width, length, height, cubic capacity and other properties of the conveniences. He attached a statistical table with estimates of how many shoppers would use the conveniences, and how much time they would spend in them. For one user he allowed an extra forty minutes, with a footnote to the effect that this customer liked to read his newspaper in the lavatory.

The result was a third wait in the corridor and an explosion of fury on the part of the professor, who declared that he had never been so insulted in his life. How did Thomas dare to make fun of a distinguished academic? Was Thomas devoid of any respect for his superiors? Did Thomas realise how lucky he was to be protected by some pussyfooting Swiss rules from punishment for his insubordination? Finally he tore up the plan and promised to make sure that Thomas never got a degree.

This time Thomas realised he had gone too far. For all his hatred of authority he wanted his degree. He appealed to the Dean, who advised him to send the professor a fulsome letter of apology. I helped Thomas write it, suggesting phrases like ‘momentary aberration’, ‘profound regret’ and ‘highest respect’; on reflection I withdrew ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’. The Dean forwarded the letter, in his turn pleading for leniency. The professor grudgingly passed the project with the lowest available mark and Thomas obtained his degree.

It was nearly half a century later that I saw those reports on the Internet and realised that the professor who had almost failed Thomas in Switzerland was in fact a German war criminal.

I always knew that the Swiss had sheltered many prominent refugees from racial or political persecution, but had also turned thousands of Jews away from their borders to perish at the hands of the Nazis. I have long been aware of what I owe the Swiss for granting me and some 1,670 other Jews from Hungary asylum four months before the collapse of the Third Reich. But I have only recently learned that some 500 German Nazis, Italian fascists and Vichy French also escaped to Switzerland after the war. And that one of these was the professor.

The professor was born in Berlin in 1914. From 1940 to 1945 he served in the Wehrmacht on both the eastern and western fronts. In 1950 he was appointed to a chair at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. As head of the Institute of Local, Regional and Country Planning, he acted as advisor to many major European cities. One newspaper called him ‘Europe’s number 1 traffic planner.’ Thomas called him an arrogant bully with no sense of  humour.

The professor had occupied his elevated position for nearly a decade, when one of his former subordinates reported him as a war criminal. It took the German police two years to arrest him at Frankfurt airport, but in August 1961 he was finally put in the dock in Stuttgart. A journalist’s account of his self-confident posture, his impenetrable expression, his brusque speech and his deliberately late appearance in court seemed to confirm Thomas’s descriptions.

The prosecutor claimed that in August 1944, when the professor was a first lieutenant in charge of a Wehrmacht company in retreat before the Allies, he had 31 Italian forced labourers shot by two camouflaged machine guns as they were having a rest in a field near Avignon. There had been no trial and no military necessity. Twenty-six Italians had died and 5 escaped, gravely wounded.

The professor resorted to the time-honoured expedient of passing the buck. He asserted that the Italians had threatened to go over to the French resistance and that he had been ordered to forestall such a mutiny by any means at his disposal. He explained that he had not been personally present at the shooting, but had only forwarded the order and received a report after the event. He voiced his ‘disgust’ at the use of hidden machine guns: if he had not been away at the time, there would have been ‘a proper military execution’. It would appear that shopping malls were not the only things he liked to be proper.

In 1963 the professor resigned from the Federal Institute in Zurich, but the trial continued.  When his former superior officers testified that they had neither received nor given any orders involving summary execution, his chances looked bleak. But when it came to confirming the charges against him, none of the men he had commanded remembered anything — possibly on the advice of his counsel, who had successfully defended several  important Wehrmacht figures before him.

In 1966 the prosecutor abruptly changed tack. Having spent six years accusing the professor of murder, he suddenly switched his case to manslaughter and recommended that the proceedings be closed under the statute of limitations, a statute that was applicable to manslaughter but not to murder. The professor was immediately released. I do not know how he spent the rest of his life, but he died in Santo Domingo in 1985.

At the end of the trial the presiding judge had remarked: ‘This decision does not condemn the accused. But neither does it certify his innocence.’ Whatever the technicalities, in my eyes, the professor who tried to ruin the future of a young student to avenge a slight impertinence got away with mass murder.

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