BERLIN – A 104-year-old Dutch-born entertainer who made his name performing in Hitler's Germany began a lawsuit Thursday to clear himself of allegations he sang for SS guards at the Dachau concentration camp.
Johannes Heesters acknowledges he visited the camp outside Munich in 1941, but brought a civil suit to have a German author and documentary filmmaker retract statements that he entertained SS troops while there.
"It never happened," Heesters said in a lengthy statement explaining his connections to Nazi-era Germany on his Web site.
Heesters' attorney, Gunter Fette, told the three-judge panel his client had been ordered to go to the camp by the Nazis in an attempt to deceive the public about what was really going on inside.
"It is well known that sort of thing happened, where people were brought in to give a positive picture — prominent people who could then go and tell their impressions to others," Fette said.
But the author, Volker Kuehn, maintained Heesters was there to perform for the troops, basing the assertion on a 1990 interview he did with former Dachau inmate Viktor Matejka, a political prisoner who became Vienna's Councilor for Cultural Affairs after the war. Kuehn died in 1993.
Kuehn played the interview for the court, in which he asks Matejka how he knew that Heesters sang for the SS.
"He said: 'Well, I pulled the curtain for him, I was there, I saw him singing, I saw him acting and performing for the SS,"' Kuehn said, explaining the footage, which was not audible in the courtroom.
Fette disputed Matejka's recollection, saying the former prisoner was nearly 90 when he talked with Kuehn. When he made statements in the late 1970s about Heesters' visit to the camp, after an SS officer's photos of the day surfaced, Matejka never mentioned a performance, Fette told the court.
"This same witness who believes he remembered in 1990 ... in 1977 had no memory, said nothing about it," Fette said.
Fette said further that the photo album does not show any pictures of Heesters performing.
But Kuehn said after the hearing that he remembers being "astonished" by how good Matejka's memory was during the 1990 interview, and that he even spoke with Matejka at length about precise details of events in the 1920s.
"I think it is absurd that the memory of someone who was 88 or 89 is being questioned by a man who is 104 — it's laughable," Kuehn said. "It leaves me speechless."
Born Dec. 5, 1903, in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, Heesters moved to Germany in 1935 — two years after the Nazis came to power.
He was never accused of being a propagandist or anything other than an actor willing to perform for the Nazis, however, and the Allies allowed him to continue his career after the war.
But in his native country — which was occupied by Germany for most of the war — some view him as irredeemable.
In February, when he took the stage in the Netherlands for the first time in four decades, several dozen people protested outside the theater in Amersfoort.
Heesters' previous attempt to perform in the Netherlands in 1964, saw him booed off the stage in Amsterdam when he tried to appear as Nazi-hating Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."
Heesters said it gave him a "heavy heart" to know he was "not wanted in my homeland."
"What did I do wrong? Sure, I acted in films in the Third Reich, entertainment films, which distracted countless people inside and outside Germany from daily life during war," he wrote.
"Sure, I wanted to make my career and I remember well at the time how many people in the Netherlands were proud that I made a career in the huge neighboring country ... But apart from my career — and the fact that, through no fault of my own, Adolf Hitler was one of the fans of my art — what have I done?"
Heesters, who has Austrian citizenship and lives in Bavaria, is performing nightly in Hamburg and did not attend the hearing.
He is asking Kuehn to retract his statements and pledge not to repeat them. Presiding Judge Michael Mauck said the court would issue its decision December 16.