Life & Culture

Review: A Fairy Tale Unmasked: The Teacher and the Nazi Slaves

The book is a step-by-step reckoning with a significant element of the Nazi war apparatus, writes Hester Abrams


A Fairy Tale Unmasked: The Teacher and the Nazi Slaves 
By Dieter Vaupel and D. Z. Stone
Vallentine Mitchell, £18.95 
Reviewed by Hester Abrams

First comes forgetting. Decades of silence wrapped around a contaminating shame. Then a dog dies after falling into foul-smelling water: the contamination has a real-world counterpart. A high-school project asks: “What happened in our town in the Nazi era?” A not-so-simple question in a German town betting its tourist reputation on its earlier historical links with Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But the search for answers takes students and their teacher on a journey through suppression and denial to evidence and empathy, as English readers can now discover through A Fairy Tale Unmasked.

In this new English edition from German, D. Z. Stone records how, in the 1980s, with his students at Freiherr-von-Stein high school, Dieter Vaupel established that Hessisch Lichtenau, south-east of Kassel, had hosted the largest German munitions factory of the Second World War. Among its more than 4,000 workers were 1,000 Hungarian Jews, male and female sent in 1944 from Auschwitz. 

Emaciated and dressed in sacks, some with skin turning green from chemicals, the women and girls were force-marched every day from a camp in the town to the factory and back again, unmissable to local inhabitants.  

The Nazis had only partly succeeded in demolishing the 400 concrete buildings built half underground and hidden in forest. By the time the students looked into it, Hirschhagen was still an industrial complex, its ghoulish bunkers home to ex-refugees. Ground-water still contained traces of TNT and other poisons. If it was anything, it was a chocolate factory, locals said. 

Vaupel’s sober account of the historical evidence is paired with a moving and detailed memoir by the then 15-year-old slave worker Blanka Pudler. It culminates in a film of her experience, and townspeople forming a human chain in 2019 across the town’s slave-march route. The story has taken as long to come to international notice as it had previously been hidden since the Nazi era. 

The book is a step-by-step reckoning with a significant element of the Nazi war apparatus, and a tribute to its women victims. Vaupel met 200 survivors in Israel, provided evidence for their compensation and encouraged Pudler to return from Hungary to tell her story in German schools.  

This effort rescued the women’s experience from oblivion and restored to survivors parts of themselves. American Judith Isaacson had previously travelled back to the town only to be told that the factory had never existed; her husband had thought the idea that plagued her was her trauma speaking. Vaupel was the first person ever to hear an Israeli mother tell what happened to her. To be shown full evidence of being caught up in what was probably Europe’s largest wartime explosives operation — and to be believed — was an act of repair and vindication.  

The courage and the decency needed to press through the fable-like enchantments of a German town and seek the explosive truth are remarkable; empathy trumps indifference. But today’s students are still emotionally disconnected from Nazi times, according to one of the young actors in the film of Blanka Pudler’s story: “I believe they would change their mind if they had a chance to see the moments of true agony and despair women had to experience 70 years ago.” 
Hester Abrams is Curator and Head of Heritage at Willesden Jewish Cemetery.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive