Stella Goldschlag was a greifer for the Gestapo's Jewish Scouting Service during World War II. The beautiful young woman with the Aryan looks hunted down fellow Jews hiding in Berlin and delivered them to the Holocaust. Her postwar accusers said her work sent more than 2,000 people to concentration camps.
Peter Wyden, Stella's former schoolmate at Berlin's Goldschmidt School for Jewish children, fled Germany with his family in 1937. Like most of the boys, he said, he'd had a crush on her. It lingered in his fantasies for years and made it all the more difficult to absorb thehorrible news and rumors about her.
Wyden, now 69, became a noted American journalist as a Newsweek correspondent, an editor for the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal and author of books about Lee Iacocca, the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs.
But decades of reporting the world's events didn't erase his fascination with Stella.
In 1988, with the assistance of German police, he said, Wyden found Stella living under an assumed name in a town he refuses to identify in then-West Germany. She had weathered three murder trials and convictions, 10 years of hard labor in a Soviet prison camp and four husbands.
After pleading ill health to Wyden's written request to see her, the 69-year-old widow bounded up two flights of stairs to the apartment where she lives on her last husband's pension, only to find Wyden waiting outside her door.
" 'Well, I'll be damned,' she said, and held out her left cheek to be kissed," Wyden recalled in exasperated admiration. "Talk about chutzpah."
In "Stella," published this fall by Simon & Schuster, Wyden does not so much tell her story as write about Stella, the Holocaust and life among the Jews of wartime Berlin--those who called themselves "U-boats," living in submerged terror, and those whom the U-boats called greifers , the catchers and other collaborators. It is the result of hundreds of interviews, including some with Stella, mutual acquaintances, war victims, camp survivors and Holocaust scholars.
"This is not a book about judgment," he said, attempting to explain his ambiguity about Stella, which doesn't always sit well with readers or audiences Wyden has addressed.
"It's about survival. What lengths will people go to survive?"
Wyden doesn't regard himself as a Holocaust survivor: He reserves that classification, at least among German Jews, for those who were still in the country on Nov. 10, 1938--the night Germany went mad.
Kristallnacht --literally "crystal night" because of the shattered windows of more than 8,000 Jewish-owned businesses--was filled with organized government-approved terror: arson, vandalism, brutality and murder. Thousands of Jewish males were rounded up and ushered into concentration camps; others were beaten to death on the spot.
Only after Kristallnacht was Stella's father, Gerhard Goldschlag--a failed composer with a romantic vision of Germany--shaken enough by reality to reluctantly try to find a way out for himself, his wife and their cherished, coddled teen-age daughter.
"It was getting late for Stella, very late, and fear for her life settled in her mind as a permanent companion," Wyden wrote.
Ultimately, Goldschlag's half-hearted efforts to link up with St. Louis relatives failed.
By late 1941, Stella, like all Jews, was wearing the yellow Star of David sewn to her sleeve. She worked in a factory until it became obvious she would be sent to a camp. In February, 1943, Stella went underground for several months until she was caught, arrested, beaten and threatened with her parents' deportation to Auschwitz.
Then, she made what Wyden called her "pact with the devil," ostensibly agreeing to help track down a Jewish forger she knew in exchange for a delay in her parents' fate.
Armed with a revolver and Gestapo identification, Stella went on the prowl for Jews, often working in concert with another greifer --her husband, Rolf Isaaksohn, Wyden wrote. They nabbed people on the street, fingered them in restaurants and queues and, in one instance, took an entire family by surprise during an opera intermission.
To this day, Wyden said, she claims she strung the Nazis along throughout the war, only looking for, but not finding, the forger. Otherwise, she claims, she was little more than an onlooker when Isaaksohn made a hit.
(Isaaksohn, in the last weeks of the war, was seen heading for the Baltic coast and anonymity, with a suitcase full of money, wrote Wyden.)
Wyden confronted Stella face to face with the old charges and evidence, including the fact that she had continued to track down Jews long after her own parents were sent to their deaths in the camps. He had dreams, he said, of getting her confession.
She remained impervious: "She says everybody's a liar but Stella," Wyden said, shrugging. "She probably invented stonewalling."