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By sifting through more than 100,000 transcripts, which were declassified in 1999 and held at the National Archives in Kew, historian Helen Fry uncovered the little-known work of the “secret listeners”- a clandestine unit of 100, mostly German-Jewish refugees, who were enlisted into the British Secret Service.
Operating from the M Room – which lends its name to the title of Fry’s latest book, to be launched later this month – the secret listeners spent three years eavesdropping on the prisoners, who included everyone from U-boat crew and Luftwaffe pilots to army officers and high-ranking generals.
Among the information gleaned from the transcripts, The M Room reveals:
* German generals estimated up to five million Jews had been murdered as early as 1943
* Graphic details about Nazi atrocities, including the earliest use of mobile gas trucks
* Evidence of a mutiny among SS guards in a concentration camp as early as 1936.
* The complicity of rank and file German troops in committing war crimes
* That evidence was gathered from these secret recordings but never used in the Nuremberg Trial and other war crimes trials.
“Historians have largely overlooked these files because much of it deals with the mundane, but there are many important details in there,”said Fry, who teaches at the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) – where her book will be launched – and has written more than 20 books on the Second World War and Anglo-Jewish history.
Searching through the transcripts, Fry came across many dialogues between German generals, who either witnessed or admitted their own guilt over war atrocities committed against Jews, Russians and Poles.
In a dialogue from 19 December, 1943, German generals Bassenge and Neuffer, who were held at Trent Park, discussed the number of Jews who had been executed.
Bassenge reveals “altogether five million Jews – Polish, Bulgarian, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian had been massacred”, later adding that this included German Jews as well. Neuffer replied:
“I should have thought about three million”.
The dialogue is significant for being “the earliest mention among generals of millions being killed”, said Fry. She added: “The mere discussion of these numbers is startling and shows they had knowledge of not just a few pockets of killings, but a mass extermination programme and a concerted plan to kill the Jews of Europe.”
In another graphic conversation, General Kittel admits to witnessing the mass shooting of Jews in Latvia, near Dvinsk, which was carried out by the SS and native Latvians. Stripped naked, men and women were forced to line up in groups of 20 along pits.
Kittel remarked: “Someone gave the command and the 20 fell into the trench like ninepins.”
When asked what happened to the children, he replied: “They seized three-year-old children by their hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself.”
But it was not just the high ranking officers who witnessed or participated in such crimes. Horst Minnieur, a 21-year-old seaman, gave this eyewitness account of executions in Lithuania: “They had to strip to their shirts and the women to their vests and knickers and then they were shot by the Gestapo. All the Jews there were executed… Believe me, if you had seen it, it would have made you shudder.”
Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, said The M Room was “interesting” for highlighting the involvement of rank and file German troops in war atrocities.
Meanwhile historian David Cesarani, who specialises in the Holocaust, said much of what is revealed would have been known about already in “general terms”, but acknowledged that Fry’s book “breaks new ground in drawing attention to the role of Jewish personnel”.
However, both stressed they had not seen the Fry said some of the information she came across was “horrifying”and “spine-chilling”and concludes “there was very little that British Intelligence didn’t know about Nazi Germany.”
She added: “British Intelligence has never come out and said on record what it did or did not know – but these recordings show most definitely what they did – and quite early on in the war.”
However, the historian added: “Having intelligence and being able to act on it are two very different things.”
While much evidence was gathered on Nazi atrocities, none of these secret recordings were used by prosecutors – meaning some war criminals never stood trial for their crimes against humanity.
“If the transcripts were used, it would have revealed that it was common practice to bug the prisoners and that would have jeopardised the operation – which continued long after the war ended,”explained Fry. “But they did feed the information to the prosecutors, in a bid to get the Germans to confess to their crimes without knowing they had been secretly recorded.”
The M Room is also significant for highlighting the work of the secret listeners themselves for the first time.
Fritz Lustig, 93 and Eric Mark, 90, are the only two survivors from the original group of 100 men chosen to join this clandestine group, who were told by unit commander Colonel Thomas Kendrick their work was “more important than firing a gun in action”.
Fry added: “Even after 50 years, many were reluctant to speak about their work, so only now are the children of the listeners able to understand the significance of what their fathers did during the war.”
Fry has also been working alongside producers on a television documentary, Spying On Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings, which will be broadcast on Channel 4 later this year.
The M Room: The Secret Listeners Who Bugged The Nazis in World War Two will be launched on Tuesday, January 29, 4pm, at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, North End Road. The book is available now from Amazon.Revealed After 68 years: Last Secrets of the Nazis by Francine Wolfisz