One German woman wages a nighttime war against the graffiti of hate


BERLIN -- Another night, another trail of angst for Irmela Schramm.

She rounds a dark corner and sees "Sieg Heil!" painted on a wall, but doesn't have the equipment to erase it. Nearby, "Germany for Germans" is sprayed on a gate. It, too, will have to wait. A block away, somebody has plastered three neo-Nazi stickers on a playground sliding board.

Success at last. She scrapes them off.

Later, with the day's work done, she steps aboard the commuter train for home and is greeted by a pair of red swastikas scrawled above the seats. Out comes the smelly cleaning fluid one last time. Off come the swastikas in a smear of red.

On nights like this -- and there are many -- Ms. Schramm is a window on the tortured conscience of Germany's post-war generation.

What began seven years ago as a one-night tirade against "Freedom for Rudolf Hess" stickers in her neighborhood has become an obsession that eats into her weekends and holidays. She scrubs and scrapes her way down the streets and rail routes of Berlin and its suburbs, snapping photos to document every line of graffiti. And when she can't face another single word of hate, she goes home, locks herself in and eases away from her sorrow with soft music and a glass of wine.

"Sometimes I feel like crying," she says, "but ever since I started documenting it I feel much better. I can't think positive with human beings getting spit at right next to me. I can no longer think, 'Oh, the world is so beautiful.' "

Ms. Schramm, 48, is a schoolteacher, and she catalogs the photos from her cleanup rounds as carefully as if they were old lesson plans and grade books. She has taken more than a thousand photographs, arranging them in four heavy scrapbooks.

Flipping page by page, one sees angry handwriting scribbled in paint, pencil and ink on concrete, plaster, wood and plastic. Other messages have been smudged onto ceilings with cigarette lighters or etched into the glass windows of subway cars.

There are the short, run-of-the-mill lines one sees frequently, such as "Turks Out," or "Foreigners Out." Then there is the more distinctive, and disturbing, work -- the detailed drawing of a gas chamber next to the word "Jew," or the drawing of a black male's hands across a white female's buttocks next to the caption, "This, too, is assassination of the people." Or the line, "Zyklon B is okay for Jews." Zyklon B was the gas of choice at Nazi death camps.

One entire page is devoted to an 8-by-10 photo of a young skinhead who raced into the shot when he saw Ms. Schramm aiming her camera. He is grinning and raising his right hand in a Nazi salute. Behind him, standing out from a tangle of swastikas and graffiti, are the words "Zyklon Army."

In compiling all this, Ms. Schramm has come across stickers and fliers from 20 radical right-wing groups. She laughs, saying, "I have collected more material than the Office for the Protection of the Constitution," Germany's FBI-like agency.

Ms. Schramm doesn't match the usual image of a crusader. She is of medium height and build, with short brown hair and wide, heavy glasses. She speaks softly, and is prone to chatter away at an almost unstoppable pace once unleashed on the subject of her mission.

What was it about those Rudolf Hess stickers that set her off? You might start with her mother, she says. "All my mother ever told us about the war was that she had to carry my sister into a bunker. She never answered any of the questions I asked her."

In the 1950s, her mother forbade her to play with the children of communist parents, and from that point on the bits and pieces of intolerance began adding up.

There was Christmas Eve in 1962, when she was 17 and walked through Stuttgart with her sister and a dark-skinned friend from India, the man her sister eventually married.

They were on their way to church when two men -- "two normal and upright-looking people, this was long before skinheads" -- began shouting at the Indian. "They said, 'Go wash yourself, you dirty pig.' At that very moment, I thought I had swallowed a bomb."

Similar experiences followed, and the sum total told her something unsettling: that, for all its post-war guilt, Germany had never cleansed itself of its hatred and mistrust of foreigners and "different" people, even though the same feelings had helped lead the country to disaster under Adolf Hitler.

So, by the time she moved to a new apartment in a tranquil, tree-lined neighborhood on the outskirts of Berlin in 1986, she was set to go off when she saw the first sticker demanding freedom for Hess, the ex-Nazi then serving a life sentence for war crimes. (He committed suicide in prison the following year.)

From then on she kept an eye out for similar items on her nightly after-dinner walks around the neighborhood. But she didn't begin expanding her route until December 1989, on the day local officials opened a history museum at the lakeside site of the Wannsee Conference, the 1942 meeting at which Nazi officials decided how they'd implement Hitler's "Final Solution" of extermination.

The conference site is not far from Ms. Schramm's home, and she decided to look for hate graffiti at the nearby Wannsee rail station.

The results appalled her.

"I combed 100 S-Bahn [commuter railway] cars until I just had to stop because I was shaking too much," she says.

Since then she's kept at the task, sometimes spending 15 hours on a Saturday or holiday. In the wake of German reunification in 1990 she's seen the intolerance erupting again into the view of the world, with thousands of violent attacks by neo-Nazis, resulting in 25 deaths in the past two years.

During this time, she says, neo-Nazi graffiti have seemed to "come and go in waves. Sometimes there is nothing at all, then it is massive again. But the general trend is that it concentrates not just on racism but increasingly on anti-Semitism."

The job can be dangerous. Once a security guard at a railway station ordered her to stop, then shoved her to the ground in a scuffle. She banged her head on the sidewalk and was hospitalized with a concussion.

Sometimes her neighbors have scoffed at her devotion, but more often they've been supportive. And by now even the skeptical ones have grown accustomed to the sight of her waiting at the bus stop across from her home, with cleaning supplies in one bag and a camera in another.

"I am always told that one person can't change anything," she says. "And that really angers me, because doing nothing would change even less."

But she has learned that it can take a large amount of persistence to make even the smallest change.

She told of scrubbing away a cluster of spray-painted swastikas at one spot only to find a short time later that more had taken their place. She again wiped them clean. They again returned. She tried a third time. They came back again.

So, she tried a fourth time. It has now been more than two months since that cleaning, and there are still no new swastikas.

"But I'll clean them again if they come back," she says. "I want to be the one with more staying power."

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