During Traudl Junge's three years as one of Adolf Hitler's secretaries, most of Europe's Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and World War II was at its height.
In a new documentary, Junge, now an ailing 81-year-old, admits she was taken with the magnetic power of Hitler when, at 22, she applied for the job. It was only after the war, when she learned what many already knew, that she felt wracked with guilt for having liked the "greatest criminal who ever lived."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Nazi watchdog group the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called Junge's recollections "sheer fantasy."
"In the history of the Third Reich the argument is always the same among those in the close circle around Hitler. They never heard the horrible things. That is all basically revisionism," he said.
"The way he got into power and maintained power was the war against the Jews. Everyone who came into contact with him heard him rant and rave about the Jews. Everyone heard that language," Hier said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Los Angeles.
"Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," presented this week at the Berlin International Film Festival, shows an elegant, white-haired Junge lucidly recalling in an interview in her one-room Munich apartment the events more than 50 years ago.
Another Wiesenthal Center officials said Junge's gullibility was symptomatic of attitudes in Germany during Hitler's rule.
"The important thing here is not whether she knew what was happening or heard it mentioned. Those crimes were definitely committed. Her story reflects the blind loyalty of far too many Germans whose allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi party enabled the implementation of the final solution," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli office of the Wiesenthal Center.
Austrian director Andre Heller culled 10 hours of interviews for the 90-minute film, in which Junge insists she was insulated from the Nazi terror despite having close contact to Hitler, held responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
Hitler and other Nazi leaders "practically never mentioned the word Jew" during scores of meetings she attended, Junge said. Instead, she recalls life in Hitler's inner circle as a "harmless and peaceful atmosphere" except during the chaotic final days when the Red Army moved in on his Berlin bunker and Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
As Hitler faced Germany's defeat, the illusion was shattered. "He said it was all over," said Junge. Two days before Hitler and his longtime mistress Eva Braun killed themselves, as the bunker shook with the explosions of shells from advancing Soviet troops, Hitler asked Junge to take down his last will and testament.
Throughout her time with Hitler, Junge says she never heard Nazi leaders discussing Jews or the Holocaust.
"I never had the feeling that he was consciously following criminal aims," she said. "No one ever spoke about this topic t least not in our presence," she said, referring to herself and other secretaries.
The only reference Junge heard to concentration camps came from SS chief Heinrich Himmler on a visit to Hitler's Bavarian Alpine retreat, known as the Berghof.
"He said that they were being managed very skillfully," Junge said.
"This is almost like Third Reich gossip and the further away you get (in time) the more people seek out authentic witnesses and experience. But the fact of the matter is that she was not key to the period and the fact that she claims to not have heard about the killing of Jews in no way reflects reality," Zuroff said.
But even though Hitler never said anything explicitly in front of her, Junge admits she had a sense of foreboding.
"In the back of my mind I had doubts ... but I lacked the courage to confront them," she said.
As the Third Reich collapsed in the spring of 1945, Hitler sat for long periods of time just staring into the distance. There were no longer regular meals.
"Everything took place so unceremoniously," said Junge. "People even began to smoke in Hitler's presence."
"It was a terrible time. I can't really remember my feelings," she said. "We were all in a state of shock, like machines. It was an eerie atmosphere."
Junge recalls Hitler as "a pleasant older gentleman, friendly, with a soft voice," much different from what she had expected from seeing his speeches on film. By the end of the war, Hitler's words and actions convinced Junge he was losing touch with reality.
Once he remarked to her that it would be too risky for him to have children, saying "the children of geniuses are sometimes cretins." And as he rode through war-ravaged Germany in his car, Hitler would close the curtains to avoid seeing destruction caused by Allied bombing.
Junge agreed to speak extensively on film for the first time because she believes she may not live much longer, film director Heller said.
"She said: 'I have finally let go of my story. Now I feel the world is letting go of me,"' Heller said.
By VANESSA GERA
©MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2002 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.