Why I had to say no when Albert Speer asked me to dinner

It took a few minutes to decipher the writing, but Roman Halter knew what it was as soon as he saw it.
It had lain buried among papers for nearly 30 years and had been forgotten. But the two-page, handwritten letter that Mr Halter found last month evoked memories of a time when he survived the Holocaust while dozens of family and friends were murdered.

The letter - and a second one - that Mr Halter had found were written by Albert Speer, the Nazis' chief architect and, from 1943, the man responsible for armaments in Hitler's Germany.

Speer, arguably the Führer's most trusted lieutenant, avoided the death penalty at Nuremberg, but served 20 years in Spandau prison.

He died in 1981 - weeks after an exchange of correspondence that has now come back to haunt Mr Halter.
The letters came to light because, as Mr Halter put it: "I am 81 and I didn't want to leave things so my children would cry over them. I didn't want them having to clear up my mess.

"I had completely forgotten about the letters, it was so long ago. My daughter Aloma, who is a writer, wants them and if she doesn't take them, I will give them to the Imperial War Museum."

The story behind the correspondence goes back to 1944 and the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in Poland.
"I was selected with a group of 499 metal-workers, men, women and youth, for slave labour in Germany," Mr Halter recalled this week. He had trained as a metal-worker, a skill that saved him.

They were sent in cattle-trucks to Auschwitz along with 2,300 people who had tried to hide in the ghetto. When they arrived, the 2,300 were taken to the gas chambers, while his group was taken to Stutthof in Dresden, to work in a munitions factory. This is was what prompted Mr Halter to write to Speer. He said: "I asked him whether it was on his instructions that we were sent to Dresden and separated from the group that went to Auschwitz. I was recording my Shoah past, and I wanted to know."

At first, Speer's secretary replied, but the answer was vague. "So I wrote again, and said perhaps it would be simpler for me to come with two friends. If he said ‘yes', I wanted friends to witness what we would say."
Mr Halter received a handwritten reply in English, dated "16.XI.80", inviting him and his friends to dinner at the Speer residence in Heidelberg.

"Thank you so much for your letter!," it began. "I was in the mountains to try to finish my manuscript in quickness [sic]! Coming back I found your letter. Now it is too late for your proposal until in Heidelberg. And I am still under pressure until the midst of December. How is it with the 15th of December at 19.30. It would be an honour for us, if you would accept an invitation of dinner.

"Looking forward to this evening. With best wishes. Albert Speer"

Mr Halter gave the invitation very careful thought. "But in the end, I knew I could not accept it," he said.
Eleven days later, he sent a two-page reply, explaining why he turned Speer down: "Although my curiosity and even the strange fascination of meeting you and asking you some historical questions... was only part-reason for seeing you, I feel now that would betray and dishonour the memory of my family, my friends and my people who were murdered in various brutal ways, should I break bread with you."

He pointed out that, out of a population of more than 800 Jews in the village of Chodecz, where he lived, only four survived: himself and three girls.

In the second letter, Mr Halter quoted his grandfather, who perished in the Lodz ghetto: "When you survive, speak all you have witnessed. Speak it the best way you can. Do not philosophise about it, for murder is murder and we are being murdered today on the orders of evil leaders."

He asked Speer why they were not killed in Auschwitz: "I will not deny it, that it is good to be alive. But one has this thought at the back of one's mind now, ‘Did Herr Speer [save us] from Auschwitz because he wanted to save some Jews, or did he do it because we were skilled metal- and munition-workers? Was this done because of his humanity and compassion for us, or was the tonnage of the munition quota that was really the prime mover behind this action?"

Speer responded on January 27, 1981, "with much regret and sadness", saying: "I fully understand and accept your decision to decline my invitation."

The German remarked on the difference in tone between Mr Halter's two letters and intimated that it was only the "cordiality" of the first letter that had elicited the invitation.

"It may mean little in the face of your suffering that I have accepted full responsibility for the crimes committed against your people under Hitler," wrote Speer. He said he had tried through his writings and lectures to warn against any repetition but gave no answer to Halter's question.

    Last updated: 10:01am, September 4 2008