July 5, 2012

Gitta Sereny

Photo: Don Honeyman

I learned recently of the death of Gitta Sereny, a great personality and a remarkable journalist and writer.  I first met Gitta Sereny in the mid-1980's, when she arrived at our office in the Justice Department with certain documents that, if genuine, would have described the use by US intelligence of the notorious war criminal, Odilio Globocnik.  

 It had long been thought that Globocnik had committed suicide at the end of the war to avoid internment and trial for his participation in the murder of Jews in his capacity as SS and Police Leader in Lublin and for his involvement in the liquidation of the Warsaw and Bialystok Ghettos.  The documents that Gitta presented to us related to the activity of the Army’s CIC and indicated that Globocnik had been recruited and used by the US in the postwar period.  Gitta had reason to question the authenticity of the documents, and we agreed to assist her in determining whether they were genuine because we knew that, if they turned out to be authentic (or if they were to be made public), we would be called on to investigate the circumstances that gave rise to them.

Without going into detail, we conducted, among other things, a forensic analysis of the documents, including a linguistic evaluation, done with the help of Prof. Murray Miron, who had consulted on the Son of Sam investigation.  At the same time, Gitta, in her inimical way, carried out creative and indefatigable research about Globocnik.  In the end, she was able to locate the British officer who arrested him and located a photograph of him after his death.  Knowing that the documents were forgeries, Gitta was spared embarrassment.  She went on to write up the story in The Guardian of the forgery and of her tracking down and confirming Globocnik’s fate.   

Gitta was grateful for our help, and, through the close contact we established during the Globocnik case, we became friends.  I tried to be of assistance to her over the years, especially when she was conducting research in the US concerning her own activities following the war, when she worked for UNRRA, in attempting to reunite children, who had been removed from their families, with their parents.

In 1994, Gitta wrote a cover story for The Independent on Sunday about the Berlin Document Center (BDC) and its transfer from US administration to the German government.  I was then the director of the BDC and experienced firsthand Gitta’s renowned skill as an interviewer and investigator.  She reported the story with the same kind of intensity that she devoted to her other efforts.  A focused and fearsome interviewer, she believed that she – and, it seemed, she alone -- could get at the truth.  Like a surgeon, she posed questions and follow-ups with precision -- cutting through layers of obscuring gristle to reach the heart of the matter.  She followed her deft questions with a piercing and searching look -- both a signal of kinship and a warning.  She employed this unrelenting and remarkably effective technique in all her work, including the classic book, Into that Darkness, in which she dissects the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, as well as in her biography of Albert Speer.

I was fortunate to have met Gitta Sereny and was richer for having known her.