How Professor Catherine Epstein came to interview the child of the subject of her new biography
Interview by Peter Rooney
[Nonfiction] Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford University Press) sheds light on a little-known yet influential figure in Nazi Germany: the man who, during his oversight of western Poland, initiated the first mass gassing of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe (see Work in Progress, College Row, Winter 2009). The book’s author, Associate Professor of History Catherine Epstein, talked to Amherst magazine about the research and writing process.
Q How long did it take to research and write this book?
A It took me seven years, but that’s actually fast for a historian! Then it took another year to get it published.
Q What’s unusual about the research you did?
A This book draws on an awful lot of private sources. We don’t have these kinds of private sources for second-ranking or even top-ranking Nazis. Greiser wrote hundreds of letters home during World War I, when he was a soldier. He wrote dozens of letters during the 1930s to his mistress, whom he later married. Then he wrote letters from when he was in prison, in 1945 and 1946, to his wife. These help situate him and help to explain all the other things he did.
Q How did you come to interview Greiser’s relatives?
A Greiser’s grandniece Googled his name to see if anyone had written anything, and she discovered me. She in turn put me into contact with Greiser’s only surviving daughter, whom I have now met several times.
Q What did you and Greiser’s daughter talk about?
A Her name is Rotraut Fülleborn, and she had spent her life trying not to find out what her father did. She lives in Hamburg and was born in 1930. She was very willing to talk to me, but the first thing she said was, “You’re going to write about the good my father did, right?” I asked her, “What’s the good that your father did?” and she said, “Well, he helped some Jews get out of Danzig in 1938.”
Q Did he?
A Greiser did do everything he could to make the Jews leave Danzig [in Poland, also called Gdańsk] in 1938. At the time it was viewed as an incredibly brutal act that the Danzigers were forcing out the Jews. It’s only in retrospect that we think that was good, because the Jews got out then instead of getting murdered as they would have been later.