Sunday , September 24, 2000, p. F01
When Deli Strummer, symbol of the Holocaust, was caught
stretching the truth, it raised a hard question: How much
suffering is enough?
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2000; Page F01
YOU NEVER SEE THE SCARS. But she
talks about them once in a while and you see them in your
mind's eye--smooth white burn marks on her flesh, old as
She offers the scars as desperate testimony when she's
tired of talking facts--too much "nitty-gritty"--and
wants to talk emotions instead. She's leaning back in the
pink vinyl restaurant booth of a Baltimore diner: gold
sweater, beige jacket, her hair a fluffy white helmet.
Big glasses propped on a little nose.
many in Baltimore's Jewish community, Deli
Strummer has gone from a hero to an
embarrassment. "I don't know why in the world
they want to hurt me that badly," Strummer says.
A. Parcell - The Washington Post)
How long were you in
And what was your prisoner
She sidesteps the questions and
speaks of the scars: indisputable, horrible.
"I could take off my sweater and
could show you still my cigarette marks," she says,
motioning to her top, as if you'd say yes and allow an
elderly woman to take off her sweater right here in the
diner and show where the Nazis stubbed their cigarettes
out on her skin. As if that would gain back her
reputation, quiet the doubters, turn the clock back to a
time when she was loved and admired instead of
For better or worse, it's too
Deli Strummer is 78 years old, a
concentration camp survivor, and until recently a local
hero. Now her account of the war has been so called into
question that a few have even whispered doubts about her
identity. You can hardly fault their suspicions, the
contradictions in her story are so profound.
For 20 years, Strummer had been
saying she was at five concentration camps during World
War II over the course of 4 1/2 years. Turns out she was
at three in not quite two years. She claimed, briefly,
that she was imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen. Never was.
Auschwitz, which she said she survived for nine months?
The German records say she couldn't have been there for
more than eight days. Her husband, who she always led
people to believe was dead? She divorced him! He's alive
and remarried in Vancouver. And on and on and
"I've never encountered anything
like this before. Ever," says Lawrence L. Langer, an
expert in Holocaust testimony and one of two historians
who interviewed Strummer since questions arose about the
validity of her recollections last year. "I'm not talking
about lapse of memory. I'm talking about invented
reality." Before all these revelations, Deli Strummer had
her own little float in the local Independence Day
parade. She waved the American flag and crowds cheered.
Children embraced her after lectures. This summer,
allegations about her honesty erupted on the front pages
of area papers. Her speeches, her book, her documentaries
were publicly discredited. Worried that Strummer's
growing lack of credibility would taint the honest
testimony of other Holocaust survivors, friends
repudiated her. After years of supporting Strummer, the
powerful Baltimore Jewish Council disassociated from
her--a move tantamount to expulsion in this tightknit
"I don't know why in the world
they want to hurt me that badly," Strummer says of the
council and other Holocaust survivors, whom she calls her
"accusers." Perhaps, she speculates, they were envious of
her fame. Some discrepancies she denies; others she calls
the mistakes of memory.
Should we pity 78-year-old Deli
Strummer? In the camps, she had no calendar, she had no
pencil, she had only 10 fingers and fear. She was
terrorized. She was traumatized. Who are we to judge an
old woman's memories of horror?
Ah, but there are some things we
must do, says Art Abramson, who leads the Baltimore
Jewish Council and spearheaded an investigation into
Strummer's past. Get history right. Respect the living.
Honor the dead. Abramson is a small, garrulous man with
strong opinions. When it comes to the Holocaust, facts
are facts, he says, and woe to anyone who toys with
Respect the living.
Honor the dead.
"A table is a table is a table,"
Abramson says. "It's not a chair."
In this drama, there are two
truths. There is objective history--that of scholars'
books, German records, the preponderance of survivor
testimony. And there is the personal anguish of one
Towson woman who defines her life in terms of an
experience half a world and half a lifetime away, which
she will not--will not--let go quietly into the night.
Which is more sacred?
A year ago, as one former friend
of Strummer's phrases it, "her name in Baltimore was
Unlike some Holocaust survivors,
Strummer, a retired research associate from Sinai
Hospital in Baltimore, is not reticent in public. She
began lecturing around 1980. At first she had to be
coaxed into speaking but quickly discovered she was a
natural. In lectures she speaks with dramatic ease, her
voice hardening at important lines, her finger wagging,
her fist sweeping the air for emphasis. She achieves a
heightened emotional pitch, invoking God, blessing her
audience, offering thanks to America, the country she
says saved her. (She long ago declared July 4 her adopted
birthday.) Of the 20 or so area survivors on the
Baltimore Jewish Council's list of Holocaust speakers,
Strummer was among the most frequently used.
"I was the golden girl of the
council," Strummer says one afternoon at her dining room
table, in her sharp Viennese accent. "Rain, snow,
ice--Deli never said no. Because I committed
Single and childless, Strummer
gained a family in the community that adored her, the
strangers who recognized her face. Her children were the
classes she lectured.
"Children really listen to me,
they cling to me," she explains. "I have over 200,000
But trouble rumbled. For years,
a handful of people voiced isolated concerns about
Strummer's account. One fellow Holocaust survivor,
79-year-old Leo Bretholz, who spent seven years on the
run during the war and now lives in Baltimore, heard such
concerns a decade ago from his cousin Sonia, who was
At a reception, Bretholz says,
"I introduced Sonia to Deli. I said, 'Sonia, here's a
comrade of yours from the camps.' " Like Strummer, Sonia
was Viennese and had survived Auschwitz. The two women
When they drove home, Bretholz
says, "My cousin said to me, 'Leo, what this woman your
friend told me'--she said in German--'das stimmt doch
nicht.' That means this doesn't jibe at all."
"From that moment on," Bretholz
says, "there was a bug in my mind."
Six years ago, John Holzworth, a
now-retired teacher from Fallston High School in Harford
County, Md., called the council to say he didn't want
Strummer back after she spoke twice in his classroom. She
claimed in conversation that she'd spent over a year in
Flossenburg, a German concentration camp, yet when
Holzworth consulted a book she'd written a few years
before, the book claimed she'd been in Auschwitz during
the entire period in question.
Some suggest there was a quality
of self-aggrandizement to Strummer's account of the
Holocaust. Instead of dwelling on details of her daily
life in the camps, she focused on having been plucked
from the jaws of death time and again. Five times she
entered a gas chamber but came out alive, she claims,
because guards turned on the water instead of the gas.
Holocaust historians say this scenario is logistically
impossible: In concentration camps the gas chambers had
no water hookups.
"In all the years I heard her
speak, she never described the condition of a camp," says
Rubin Sztajer, a 74-year-old survivor who has been the
most vocal of Strummer's critics. "She made herself great
how she survived . . . how she walked into the gas
chamber and came out."
In an interview last fall with
the Baltimore Sun, Strummer compared her devotion with
that of other survivors.
"I understand my colleagues and
comrades who don't want to speak about [the war].
They want to go to Boca Raton and live a good life," she
said. "I can't do that. . . . I owe. If I feel someday
there is no more hate out there, I go to Boca
For these comments, she later
apologized in a letter to the editor. But that's how the
talk started: a question here, a rumor there. The doubts
might have remained merely doubts if Strummer had not so
obsessively recounted her Holocaust experiences. In 1988
she self-published a thin book, "A Personal Reflection of
the Holocaust," and in the same year was filmed for the
Holocaust archives at Yale University. She was featured
in a 1995 documentary with two other survivors, then
formed an organization to help fund another film entirely
about her. This last was supposed to be her
Instead, it became her
When Strummer and her producer
approached the Baltimore Jewish Council last summer with
their new creation, "From Out of Ashes: The Deli Strummer
Story," they wanted the council's seal of approval to
show the documentary in schools. Instead, Abramson and
other council members began to notice aspects of the
narrative that clashed with the book.
They decided to call in the
Under the scrutiny of Langer,
the testimony expert, and Raul Hilberg, one of the
world's preeminent Holocaust scholars, Deli Strummer's
account simply fell apart.
She'd long claimed that she was
taken from her family in Vienna in October 1941 and sent
to Theresienstadt, a Czechoslovakian ghetto. When the
historians pointed out that the first transport of
Viennese Jews did not leave for the ghetto until later,
Strummer shaved more than two years off her account. She
now says she was taken away in 1943--a fact confirmed by
the ghetto's records of an Adele (Deli) Aufrichtig,
Strummer's maiden name.
Strummer had also claimed she
spent nine months in Auschwitz--a stance that became
difficult to maintain given the new, shorter time line.
Council officials working with German records concluded
that she spent no more than eight days at Auschwitz.
(Strummer now says she was at Auschwitz for about three
These discrepancies--first aired
in June after being leaked to the Baltimore Sun--divided
public opinion in Baltimore. Many people defended
Strummer, saying criticisms of her chronology amounted to
"nitpicking" after all she had been through.
"When I went from Theresienstadt
to Auschwitz," Strummer explains, "I lost my name, I lost
my identity. I became a number. I didn't have a pen, I
didn't have a piece of paper, and time went away from
And yet, so much time lost.
Where did it go?
"I can understand someone who
thinks it's nine months and it's eight months," says
Beverly Stappler, one of four people who in recent months
have left the eight-member board of Zarhar Remembrance
Fund (a misspelling of zakhor, Hebrew for "remember"),
the small organization Strummer founded to fund her
documentary. "But you don't think it's nine months when
it's eight days."
Historical records confirm that
from Auschwitz, Adele Aufrichtig went to Freiberg, a unit
of the German concentration camp Flossenburg, where she
stayed six months. She spent the final week of the
European war at the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Strummer's account of her liberation is a scene of horror
and remarkable luck that--under scrutiny--may be too
She says that on May 5, 1945,
the day Mauthausen was freed, she and others were rounded
up and made to stand in line before the gas
"I was as close as to that
tree," Strummer says one day, pointing to a trunk outside
her dining room window at most 20 feet away. She neared
the door just as American troops were arriving, she says,
"and the door flew open and the 'brave' guards started
But according to the records of
Mauthausen, the last gassing took place there April 28,
1945--before Strummer even arrived at the camp.
Historians say that by the time she was freed, the bulk
of German guards were long gone.
"This is amazing," Strummer
responds when she hears this rebuttal. "They're lying to
you! They weren't there. They really don't know, you
know? They really don't know."
In July, many of Strummer's
remaining supporters were dismayed to hear the latest
news: Her husband, who she had led audiences to believe
had died, had been located. Alive.
How could this be? In her 1988
book, Strummer had speculated that her husband, Benno,
whom she married in the Theresienstadt ghetto, died in a
fire at Dachau. In a 1988 interview, she stated that she
never saw Benno after he was taken from her.
But in fact, Strummer now
admits, she and Benno met in Vienna shortly after the war
and remarried, this time under Austrian law. Benno
Strummer, contacted in Vancouver, has roughly confirmed
this time line, as does an apparent Austrian divorce
certificate that Deli recently showed a
So why lie? Strummer says the
war changed her husband, and that after their divorce,
she honored him by letting him remain--in her lectures,
at least--the man she fell in love with.
"I carry his name," she says. "I
wanted to preserve some dignity for him."
And indeed, here is the divorce
certificate, brown and shriveled at the edges, dug up
from the bottom of a drawer. Roughly translated from
German, it indicates that Benno and Adele Strummer
divorced in 1947, on the grounds that "plaintiff states
that defendant mistreated her severely and repeatedly out
of rage and brutality."
So nothing, truly, is as it
The conclusion is almost
inescapable: Deli Strummer is a Holocaust survivor who
wittingly or not altered numerous elements of her story.
Her account is clearly longer, more harrowing and more
miraculous than what actually happened--as revealed by
concentration camp records, documents in her possession
and an interview with her sister. But it is still a
Holocaust experience, and she defends the essence of it
vehemently, desperately, as a truth that lies more in
feelings than the nitty-gritty of facts.
"Have you ever asked me how it
hurt . . . when I was humiliated?" Strummer says. "I
think I hold this very much against the historians when
they interviewed me because not one of them was
interested in 'How did you feel then? What happened to
What happened to you, Deli
"The food in Auschwitz was--once
a day they brought in a pail of water with something
swimming in it," she says. "You grabbed, you became
really like an animal." Later, like animals, they were
herded to the latrines, 80 or 90 people at a time,
Strummer says. They sat on wooden boards. There was no
In Flossenburg, "one of their
punishments . . . they brought in, for instance, bread,
then they said, 'Look at this, but you're not going to
get this because this and this happened today.' " The
prisoners supplemented their meals with grass.
In Mauthausen, the last camp,
Strummer's best friend, Nita Adler, was struck with
typhus. The friends pooled their collection of metal
cups, all two of them. One they used to share food. The
other was for Nita to use as her toilet; she didn't have
the strength to go outside.
And then there were the
When the women were naked,
especially in Auschwitz, Strummer says, the guards
stubbed their cigarettes "wherever they could reach," she
says. The proof is on her body. "I have it, for instance,
on my back . . . I have it on my--on my, y'know, right on
my--how can I say it. I very rarely wear an open garment
or something because I have it in the front of my
Is it any wonder Strummer--who
lives with an elderly roommate and two dogs in a
middle-class home in suburban Towson, who has filled her
retirement by speaking on the Holocaust and volunteering
as a grief counselor, who has survived horrors that count
as horrors, no matter whether they lasted for days or
months or years--is it any wonder that in the middle of
her Cobb salad, she looks toward the window and
This, after all, is the same
Deli Strummer friends describe as caring, self-effacing.
They tell stories like this: Half a century ago, soon
after arriving in America, Strummer mixed a salve to
treat the psoriasis of a young woman she met briefly
through a friend.
"From then I knew that she was a
caring person," says the friend, Vivian Zeeman of
Englewood, N.J. "She took such an interest after that.
She made it a point to bring us the salve."
Zeeman and Strummer started a
friendship that has lasted nearly 50 years. And Zeeman
describes a Deli Strummer who's "part of me," who has
suffered but not turned hard.
"She's had this purpose and view
to help people to see what happened then, but she hasn't
been bitter about it," says Zeeman. "I've seen burns on
her body, where they put cigarettes. And I've seen her
legs, where the veins are crushed, where she has to wear
the heavy stockings because they beat her."
Is it any wonder that Deli
Strummer is often angry and defiant? Any wonder she
sometimes talks as if a conspiracy has been staged to
undermine her? After all, why else would they keep asking
those same questions over and over--this date and that
date--as if they were trying to trip her up? Why else
would they seem to sidestep the totality of her horrible
"Maybe they got less
assignments," she speculates one day of the other
survivors, who she feels have tried to discredit her.
"There might be some jealousy. I don't want to accuse
And on another day, "Why don't
you ask me a question: 'Why are they out to destroy you?'
Why are they out to destroy you,
"Answer that to me!"
Last fall, before news of the
situation leaked to the press, the council worked with
Strummer to pin down her time line. Abramson says at
first they hoped to clear up the problems so Strummer
could go back to speaking.
"Why do you think we contacted
the camps?" Abramson says. "Not to disprove her! To prove
In the meantime, though,
concerned about misinformation getting out while Strummer
was still speaking under the aegis of the council,
Abramson and others asked Strummer to stop lecturing.
Strummer's then-friend Beverly Stappler says that she
encouraged Strummer to accept the council's
"She was very angry at me,"
Stappler says. But "I felt that the preponderance of the
evidence was so strong that her story was inaccurate that
I just didn't feel that was something we should
In the late spring, Stappler
says, the two women came up with a compromise over the
phone: Strummer could continue to speak if she promised
to talk about the topic of human rights around the world
rather than the specifics of her Holocaust
Strummer says this never
happened: "I did not make an agreement with anybody," she
But Stappler says she called the
council with the compromise and Abramson confirms that he
was only too happy to accept it. It seemed a perfect
arrangement: Strummer could continue to talk and the
council could continue to support her.
Some weeks after that, in the
midst of a Zarhar board meeting, Stappler was paged to
take a phone call, from a woman who worked for the
According to Stappler, the woman
said, "Beverly, are you aware that Deli is being picked
up today in a limousine at 11:30 and she's speaking in
Montgomery County on the Holocaust?"
"I said, 'No, it can't be.'
Stappler walked back to the
"I said, 'Deli, didn't you agree
to not talk about the Holocaust?' . . . After a little
more conversation, she didn't deny" the topic of her
So Stappler "just got up and
left the meeting." She and her husband resigned, as did
Now, Strummer calls Stappler's
resignation the "biggest disappointment in my life. I
thought this woman was my umbrella. . . . Before anybody
else, I remember she was turning to me and saying, 'Deli,
retire.' I looked at her said, 'What are you saying? How
can you retire from something like that?' "
The Baltimore Jewish Council did
what it warned Strummer it would do if she kept
lecturing. It called schools and informed them that it
was no longer affiliating with Deli Strummer and had
concerns about her testimony, effectively eliminating the
bulk of her speaking engagements.
Abramson feels he had no choice.
In a world where Holocaust deniers nip at the heels of
history, he says, how could the council knowingly allow
one of its speakers to talk of things that never
happened? How could it countenance the possibility that
other survivors would be doubted because Strummer
Try this: Type "Deli Strummer"
into an Internet search engine. Where does she
A number of Jewish discussion
sites. Calendars at several colleges where she has
spoken. And--what's this? A Russian neo-Nazi site. A site
that hosts a newsletter called New World Order Watch.
Another one for the Committee for Open Debate on the
Holocaust. These sites call Deli Strummer a holohoaxer;
they accuse her of telling "fairy tales." They use Deli
Strummer as evidence of "the myth" of World War II, the
myth of 6 million.
And yet. Who are these deniers
anyway, and just how much should legitimate historians
cater to them? Is the danger presented by them more
pressing than concern for a survivor like Deli
"I personally don't buy that. .
. . The revisionists will find [their evidence]
wherever they want," says Rabbi Gavriel Newman, who heads
Beth Jacob Congregation in wealthy, leafy Park
Besides, Newman says, Strummer's
speeches were about something more profound than dates
and numbers. Few could match her expressive power in
front of audiences. "What we want from
[survivors] is the personal, the human, the
emotional rendition, the eyewitness account that is far
more valuable than the historically accurate one," he
"There are some gross errors in
her documentation," admits Rita Hyman, a friend of
Strummer's who has stayed on the board of Zarhar. But
"that has nothing to do with her mission. . . . Her
intentions are so pure and she is such a fine human
What are Deli Strummer's
intentions? Why would a person who suffered through the
worst atrocity in modern history need to embellish it? It
seems easier to understand an outright fraud like
Binjamin Wilkomirski--the Swiss writer who claimed to
have been a Jewish child in wartime camps--than a person
who embroiders an awful truth. It doesn't help that
Holocaust cases of fabrication and embellishment are
blue-moon rare. In the spectrum of Holocaust survivor
testimony, the vast majority of ordinary people's
recollections are essentially honest in substance and
intent. Their mistakes are the failings of human memory,
When it is something more, says
Dori Laub, a survivor and Yale University psychiatrist
who studies Holocaust accounts, the explanation likely
has more to do with guilt or great loss than
"Memories--they can bend or be
bent when the truth is extraordinarily painful," says
Laub, who has not studied Strummer's case. "Narrative is
influenced by trauma."
Strummer herself provides few
clues. But she speaks of the audiences who hug her, who
understand her. She speaks of one of the first talks she
gave, and how the children's sympathy moved
"I remember specially one little
boy," she says. "I told those kids, you know, some of my
unfortunate torture--that I was burned, I was burned by
cigarettes. Instead of taking the cigarette and stepping
on the cigarette, they put it against my
The boy "got up and said, very,
very annoyed, 'Why didn't you buy them an ashtray?' And I
always remember that."
Later that evening, she says,
"God gave me a special assignment. Nobody--nobody--will
ever take this away from me.
"All I can tell you, I am real,"
Strummer says one day over the phone, as she fields still
more questions about this discrepancy and that one. "I
try so hard to prove--to prove that I am who I am. This
is very, very, very hard because I lost my identity once
from the Nazis."
She frequently asks, "Do you
believe me?" Believe she has suffered? Yes. Believe she
was traumatized, perhaps more profoundly than anyone
realizes? Yes, oh yes.
There are scars to prove it.
Cigarette burns. She has offered to show them twice. She
describes them: some white, some darker, one on her neck,
one on her foot that looks "like a little hole." They are
the link to Adele Aufrichtig, the young woman from Vienna
who perhaps saw things that Deli Strummer cannot speak
of. They stand still even as she ages. They are
Deli Strummer, might I see your
She is not shocked or offended.
She is apologetic.
"Kids have asked me that," she
says over the phone. "No, no, honey, this is one thing I
really rather don't. . . . It hurt enough to be robbed of
my privacy before."
But the next day, she calls
On the porch lined with green
turf and shaded by hanging plants, Strummer crosses her
good leg over her bad and unzips three inches of her
white pullover. She calls this her "neck" but it is her
chest, the skin mottled with brown patches of age, where
her necklace--a gold chain holding an Austrian coin and
her mother's wedding ring--rests. Right of the sternum,
across from her heart, is one quarter-sized irregular
patch of light brown skin, growing darker toward the
edges, like a watercolor.
"I remember it in front of the
latrines," she says. It was Auschwitz. One of the guards,
"he looked at me with the smirk and then he just took the
cigarette and put it on my neck."
Touch it: it is tauter and more
smooth than the loose, soft flesh around it, like a disk
of plastic. It is skin but it's not skin. It is something
Staff writer Dita Smith
contributed to this report.