Folio 4198 by Andrew J. Hogan

The progression of World War II as told through letters to a Berlin zookeeper from his proud aunt; by Andrew J. Hogan.


{Archivist's note: This folio containing the correspondence from Helma Schützer to her nephew Errando Ablehnung was recovered from his estate near Neuquén, Argentina; correspondence sent by Errando Ablehnung to Helma Schützer was missing from the papers found in her Berlin apartment after her death in 1947. The first seven letters from Helma to Errando Ablehnung were addressed to: Prof. Dr. Errando Ablehnung, Direktor von TierBetreuung, Der Zoologische Garten Berlin AG, Hardenbergplatz 8, Berlin. The final letter was addressed to: Frau Marlisa Ablehnung, Burghauserstraße 117, Altötting, Bavaria; and subsequently forwarded to Errando Ablehnung, c/o Heide Steinmetz, Tarsdorf, Bavaria, near the Oberer-Weilhart Forest Preserve.}

16 Mai 1939

Lieber Neffe Erri:

I was so thrilled when your mother told me of your appointment as curator for animal care for the Berlin Zoological Garden. As you said when we last met here at my house while you were waiting for the endorsement of the NSDAP party leaders in Munich, the Zoo now holds the finest collection of animals and birds in Europe, and therefore in the whole world. You are at the pinnacle of your profession, and if I had been able to have a son to carry on my work protecting God's creatures, I could not now be more proud.

Of all my nephews and nieces, of which God has blessed me with many to compensate for the lack of my own children, you have always been the most interested in and dedicated to the protection of wild creatures. I see now my many gifts of pictures and books about wild animals, describing their beauty, their habits, their needs, planted a healthy seed now bearing a beautiful fruit.

Please do not concern yourself about repaying the funds I gave you to study biology at the University of Ingolstadt. Since I lost my university teaching position in 1933 due to NSDAP policies discouraging women in the workplace, I have lived my professional life through your achievements. I have been richly rewarded many times over by your professional success.

I still remember fondly the times we hiked in the Oberer-Weilhart Forest, and our trips to the zoos in Munich and Nuremberg. You saw how pitifully the animals lived and you swore to me one day you would correct that situation. Never would I have dreamed you would actually attain such a position and be able to make such a promise come true, but now I see my greatest hopes becoming fulfilled in your accomplishments.

I was excited to learn of the great crowds attending the Zoo's recent Chinese Panda Bear exhibition. The exhibition created a wonderful sensation that can only further the cause of protecting wildlife around the world. But I was disturbed to learn my friend, the ardent naturalist Herbert Cohen, and his family were barred from attending the exhibition. Herbert's father and grandfather were both longtime shareholders and members of the Zoological Garden's corporation. I am saddened politics seems to be dividing those who have been loyal supporters of wildlife protection. Last year Archbishop von Faulhaber preached in the Munich cathedral that Christians should respect their Jewish friends.

I was fascinated by the research described in your letter undertaken by Berlin Zooführer, Prof. Dr. Lutz Heck, in collaboration with his brother Heinz of the Leipzig Zoo, to back-breed aurochs by crossing them with existing species of native oxen to produce authentic offspring. It brings to mind something I read by the famous American naturalist, William Beebe, who, though not necessarily a friend to the Third Reich, nonetheless made the following poetic statement:

'The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.'

This observation makes me think that conservation of the wild species that currently exist should take precedence over uncertain experiments like back-breeding that can never restore a viable population of now extinct animals to their natural habitat. I appreciate that the goal sought by Profs. Drs. Hecks would bring great glory to the Reich, but my priority would be to stem the rapid loss of the wildlife that currently exists.

Forgive me for becoming pedantic, but in your new position of eminence I hope you might influence the policies of the Reich to provide more resources for conservation of natural settings, rather than spending for the construction of new parks and zoos or for research on extinct animals mentioned in the Nibelungenlied.

The hour grows late, my favorite nephew, and I must close this letter. I will dream of the great things you shall accomplish in your new position at the pinnacle of German zoology.

Herzliche Grüße,

Deine Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

3 Januar 1940

Lieber Neffe Erri,

I am grateful for your invitation to visit with you at the Zoo, and I am eager to come as soon as the wartime travel restrictions are lifted. I can hardly comprehend the magnitude of the Zoo described in the new informational pamphlets you sent me. That an area of 35 hectares can hold a collection of 4,000 mammals and birds of nearly 1,400 species, and in addition, also contain a unparalleled Aquarium stocked with more than 8,000 reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates from more than 750 species. What a marvel!

I can hardly imagine how you and your colleagues can manage to care for such a vast array of animals, all requiring special diets and individual attention to their unique climate and living conditions. The knowledge required to accomplish such a feat astounds me. It is truly a spectacular organization that you are leading, and while it surely brings glory to the Third Reich, it is also a tribute to the ability of the human race to appreciate and care for those other sentient beings with whom God has blessed us to share this earth.

I understand your argument that the Blitzkrieg used in Poland will quickly bring about, with the minimum loss of life, both human and animal, a new world order in which the Führer's policy of Tierschutz will prevail throughout all of Europe. I know your heart is pure in any matter dealing with animals, but I wonder if it is wise to exploit people's love of animals to justify war. Could there be a backlash among those conquered by the Reich against the animals that have become symbols of National Socialism, like the jaguar and the bear featured in the recent zoo publications you sent me?

I am sure these are very busy days for you at the Zoo, and I don't like to trouble you with extraneous issues of politics. Please receive my warmest regards and wishes for your continued success.

Herzliche Grüße,

Deine Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

27 Juli 1941

Lieber Neffe Erri,

I am filled with pride by your efforts to maintain the standards of care for the animals in the Zoo in spite of shortages of food and personnel, which the war is imposing on you and on all citizens of Germany. Here too in Bavaria we sometimes suffer from shortages of petrol and some staple foodstuffs, but all are willing to make these sacrifices if they will help bring an expeditious end to the war.

I hope, as you assured me in your letter, these difficulties will be short-lived and will resolve themselves quickly once success is achieved by our troops on the Eastern front. Certainly the Soviets have an advantage because of their acclimation to the frigid conditions of their country during winter, an advantage I hope you correctly diagnosed melts with the warmth of summer.

I have heard rumors the British and Canadians have begun bombing Hamburg. I pray they will not be able to reach Berlin with their planes. The proximity of the Zoo to the Reichstag could put you, and the animals, in great peril.

Please know that everyday I and the rest of your family pray for your safety and for your success.

Herzliche Grüße,

Deine Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

26 Oktober 1942

Lieber Neffe Erri,

Your struggle to assure the safety and welfare of the animals under your care at the Zoo in spite of the wartime lack of resources and personnel makes me proud of you. I am pained to hear some animals may not be receiving the best diet because of their special dietary needs for food that is being rationed or that has become unavailable because of the Allied efforts to block German merchant shipping. I know you struggle to maintain the cages and aquariums with limited personnel, often with wounded veterans or the elderly and disabled who cannot fight. Even able-bodied women, who in the past were told to give up work to stay home and bear new warriors for the Reich, are now working in the munitions factories; almost every young Altötting woman I know has been enlisted to work at least a month or two in one of the Regensburg munitions or weapons factories.

Notwithstanding all of your valiant efforts and those of your staff, I still find myself deeply troubled that innocent animals are being mistreated, not intentionally, but because of the war. I know you expect the forces of the Third Reich to prevail, but the war may take longer and may reach Berlin before it is over. I wonder if you have considered moving the animals to less politically sensitive locations where they could be made safer from the inevitable accidents of warfare?

Please forgive these doubts and worries. Keep yourself safe above all else, for our sake and for the animals entrusted in your care.

Herzliche Grüße,

Deine Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

7 Juni 1943


I, like the rest of your family, am very concerned about your safety now that the British Air Force has begun a campaign to bomb Berlin into rubble. All the reports we receive indicate munitions factories and oil supply depots are no longer the targets of the bombing campaign. Here in Bavaria, Nuremberg and Regensburg are being leveled without any regard to the civilians who live in them, many not in the armed forces or directly involved in war production.

I was pained to read in your letter that some of the zoo animals had been injured in these bombing campaigns. I know the wireless reports about allied bombs killing the only African elephant are propaganda, since the Zoo has several elephants, but I know these innocent creatures are in harm's way because of the proximity of the Zoo to the Reichstag. Please, Erri, is there no way you can move these animals to a safer location.

Herzliche Grüße,

Deine Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

3 September 1944


Your mother and I are terrified for your safety because of the indiscriminate bombing of Berlin. Your mother wishes you to leave Berlin and return home, since there are no facilities of military value in our immediate area. I think you must continue caring for the animals at the Zoo. There is no one left who could possibly replace you, especially now that shortages of food and qualified personnel are becoming so acute.

I am heart-broken to read in your last letter that you are now triaging food and space to the point where some animals are being starved or are dying from exposure, that many of the animals in the aquarium must go without fresh water for extended periods, and that you are unable to heat many of the buildings housing topical animals because of the lack of fuel. I feel remorse about these animals kidnapped from their natural habitats, only to be left to die of cold and starvation because we cannot manage our own affairs with other nations and peoples. Now, there is no way to remove at least some of these animals to another, safer location. You must remain!

Schöne Grüße,

Tante Helma

Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

5 März 1945


I have struggled to write an appropriate response to your recent letter. Your intention to abandon your post and the animals in your care is the greatest disappointment of my life. I have repeatedly asked you to find a way to move the animals to a safer location away from the vicinity of the Reichstag. You have always had a ready excuse about the lack of resources, transport, manpower, etc. But what excuse can you possibly give for abandoning your charges to the uncertainties of war.

Six years ago when you were appointed the curator for animal care of the Berlin Zoo, it was as if my own frustrated dreams had come true; my aborted ambitions could be reborn in your career. But you were so young, and, although I was your greatest cheerleader, I knew your accomplishments were insufficient to merit such an exalted position. I would not let myself believe it was your grandfather's prominence in the Bavarian Nazi Party that led to your appointment. I wanted to believe God had sent me a prince on a soaring eagle, who, from his high position in the greatest zoo in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, would bring about a new Weltanschauung on the need to protect wild animals. Washed away were all the frustrations of being eine kinderlos, alte Jungfer who loved wild animals in a world that saw them only as trophies or nuisances in the road to progress.

Now the mad delusions of National Socialism has brought all of this to ruin, and you with it. I see now you sought glory for yourself, not the betterment of God's other creatures and the protection of their habitat. Erri, I plead with you to reconsider your plan to abandon the Zoo to hide from the Allied troops. You have a duty to your animal charges to which you must remain faithful. Please, face your duties with bravery. Do not let your soul be lost to God.


Ludwigstraße 244, Neuötting, Bavaria

2 Februar 1946

Liebe Marlisa,

I can only hope conditions in Altötting are better than those I find myself in here in Berlin. I live without heat, as do the few remaining zoo animals Erri abandoned when he deserted his post. I pleaded with Erri for years to transfer some of the zoo animals to another location away from the seat of Nazi power, but always he had excuses - no funds, no petrol, no trucks, no personnel.

I can hardly describe to you the horrible devastation at the Zoo. Virtually nothing has been left undamaged. We still have no electricity. Water must be carried to the few remaining animals in barrels on the back of a truck. It is impossible to keep the cages clean.

My heart has been stabbed a thousand times - no, four thousand times - for this is how many birds and animals have been destroyed by the insane war the Nazis have inflicted on us. So many beautiful and wonderful animals stolen from their natural homes just to be bombed or starved or frightened to death by the war into which we brought them. Soldiers shot some of our animals when they escaped their enclosures after a bombing raid.

Of the thousands of birds, fish and other animals kept here in the Zoo when Erri became the curator for animal care six years ago, only 91 have survived - and these only because of the protection of Soviet troops. At the end of the war, starving Berliners began slaughtering zoo animals for food.

One male hippo we call Knautschke was actually born last April during a bombing raid on the area surrounding the Zoo and survives today in spite of the bleak conditions and inadequate care. Knautschke makes me believe hope has not completely abandoned us, but I wonder whether God really can forgive us for what we have done to these helpless creatures.

I pray this is the worst sin we have committed. I have heard terrible rumors from the American soldiers of the Seventh Army coming from the south to Berlin through our provincial capital. They claimed to have seen hell on earth in a town to the northwest of Munich called Dachau. Our province seems to be the center of everything evil perpetrated by the Nazis!

I am still too angry to write to Erri. I am glad he is well and safe in the Oberer-Weilhart Forest. I heard the war crime trials have already begun in Nuremberg. I pray Erri has done nothing that will cause him to be brought before the Tribunal there.

I am sorry to be away from home and unable to help you in this time of crisis, but there is so much that needs to be done at the Zoo. I can only pray I live long enough to finish and return home to you and the family.

Alles Liebe, und Ganz liebe Grüße an Maria und Hans,

Deine Schwester Helma

Tiergartenstraße 4045, Whg. 212, Berlin


  1. This tale reminds me of the heart rending tale of sadness and madness by Eric Larsson (sp?) "In The Garden Of The Beasts".

  2. this original take on the war is fascinating, how the realisation of horror slowly grows over the years and how one thinks of survival at almost any cost.

    Mike McC

  3. What a fascinating story and so well told! Thought provoking and sad. An excellent read.

  4. One of the best stories I have read in a long time: the use of metaphor and allusion subverts one's defences effectively and the starkness is realised in all its horror. Thank you,

  5. Creative and original storytelling. There are only three issues here; status, pride, desertion - the status of Erri's appointment, the pride of Herzliche, and Erri's desertion - and that's the cleverness of this piece.
    Scene-setting using historical facts - so my tutors tell me - can often unbalance a narrative through reader foreknowledge and hindsight. Not here; the author shows masterly restraint and to chilling effect, even the reference to the holocaust is no more than one of many glimpses through the holes in this Swiss cheese slice of epistolic narrative.
    Thanks also Doug for ref to In the Garden of the Beasts. That's non fiction so 90% of the facts will be omitted whereas here we have 100%, nothing is left out and the only crime on the page is that of desertion.
    B r o o k e

  6. Kudos for the interesting format which gives freshness and originality to the story. I highly doubt that there were any food shortages in Germany as early as 1941, though.

  7. This is a really interesting format. When I read "In the Garden of the Beasts" it struck me how unfair the situation was to the animals and this is a beautiful way to give them a voice as well.