Tearing off signs
Photo: Hadar Shtull
Scraping off pavement
Photo: Hadar Shtull

'Grandma Spray' and her war on swastikas

From Germany to Madagascar, at age of 64, Irmela Mensah-Schramm has already destroyed 80,000 Neo-Nazi symbols, and she's not even Jewish. We joined her on a tour of Berlin

BERLIN – On a routine workday in 1986, a German woman in her 40s was waiting at the bus station next to her home in Wannsee, the famous lake in southwestern Berlin. As the bus was slightly late, the woman – who was on her way to work as a teacher in a school for disabled children – had some time to peek at the graffiti which filled the station.


One of the graffiti included a small writing reading, 'Freedom to Rudolf Höss' – Hitler's deputy who was serving a life sentence at the Spandau prison, not far away, waiting for his death which would come a year later.


The bus arrived at the station eventually, but the sticker – posted by Neo-Nazis – kept haunting Irmela Mensah-Schramm.


When she returned towards the house 10 hours later and saw that the writing was still there, she decided to remove it.


"All day I kept asking myself: Why didn't you do anything about it? I thought about all the people passing by those writing and moving on, and I knew I couldn't be like them."


It may sound strange to many, but at that same moment, 64-year-old Mensah-Schramm decided to devote her life to that very cause.


In the past 24 years, while improving her equipment and abilities, this energetic and gray-haired woman – who is not Jewish – has become the nightmare of skinheads in Berlin. She sprays, uproots, cleans and documents the Neo-Nazi graffiti across the city on a daily basis. And who better to testify just how widespread racism and anti-Semitism is in Germany today than her?


"Our politicians keep talking about an end to racism, tolerance and 'multi-culti' (German slang for multiculturalism), but I see what happens in practice and on the ground on a daily basis.


"When I inform the police about swastikas I spotted during a tour, I sometimes have to wait a week, two weeks, six weeks – and the authorities here do nothing. In the end I clean it up myself."


Intelligence on skinheads' party

I joined her on a Friday. Each day she visits a different area in Berlin, which changes according to "intelligence estimations" determined by her vast experience: The places she believes the skinheads "celebrated" the night before.


After struggling between a number of neighborhoods, she informs me on the phone that we shall be leaving from the Schöneweide train station at 10 am. Although I am 10 minutes early, I find Mensah-Schramm waiting on the platform, a simple bag in her hand with an inscription in red, "May Day without Nazis forever." A pin attached to her coat read, "Anti-Nazi".


From the very first moment, the 64-year-old activist turns out to be energetic and filled with motivation, talking more than any 17-year-old rebellious girl whose parents look at her and ask, "But what will you do with it when you grow up?"


Just like that day in 1986 in Wannsee, she is convinced – probably rightfully – that if she fails to do the black work herself, no one else will do it.


Irmela pulls out her spray (Photos: Hadar Shtull)


We tour an area which appears to be neglected and poor, the type foreigners and tourists would not want to visit on their free time. We pass by a popular bar called "Zum Henker" (to the hangman) with a skull as its logo. Fortunately, it's morning and the Neo-Nazi bar is closed.


Here we see our first assignment: A swastika which someone has already tried to erase but has not fully succeeded, at least according to Mensah-Schramm. She immediately pulls out her black graffiti can and says, smiling, "Professionalism comes from experience."


A 64-year-old woman spraying graffiti is not necessarily something one expects to see, but the passersby on the Berlin street appear to be indifferent to it.


Red and white are her colors

We spend another hour or two in Schöneweide. A Neo-Nazi sticker on a tall sign? Mensah-Schramm immediately climbs the fence like an elementary school pupil, rises up and tears it down. An ad for a "foreign", non-German band's performance with an SS inscription on it? She crosses the road and rubs it off with the special tool in her bag. Red graffiti on a sewage lid inviting people to a Neo-Nazi protest? The gray haired activist has her own darker spray.


As a woman operating in an area with many other non-racist stickers and graffiti, Mensah-Schramm recognizes the different writings. Black, red and white, for example, are the distinctive marks for Neo-Nazi stickers. When Mensah-Schramm sees those colors, she raises her alertness.


The required expenses – purchasing spray, acetone for erasing writings, transportation fees and the special tools which are always in her bag – are funded from Mensah-Schramm's personal savings, which include the pension she receives and the salary which remains from the days she used to teach and work.


When she runs out of money – and that happens quite a lot in this continuous activity – she sometimes receives aid from the Society for Peace in Zehlendorf, Berlin. In the past, she asked the official German authorities for help in funding the activity, but was turned down.


Despite the refusal to fund her activities, in 2006 she received an award on behalf of the German government for her "activity for democracy and tolerance". The previous year she received the Erich-Kästner Prize for what was defined as "her civilian courage".


Lesson in tolerance

Over the years, she has been documenting her daily activities in a diary. She has more than 12,000 photos of racist graffiti she has removed, some not very easy to digest. According to her records, since 1986 she has "killed" at least 80,000 different Neo-Nazi products – not just in Berlin, but across Germany, in Poland, France, Luxemburg and Belgium.


Even in Madagascar, her favorite island where she says she finds calm, Mensah-Schramm was amazed to discover a Neo-Nazi writing in the airport. In case you wondered, she "cleaned" that one as well and added it to her journal.


The documentation is not kept in her home: She holds workshops for German students, particularly in lower grades, where she presents the blatant expressions of racism in a direct manner and asks them to turn them into a display of tolerance.


The "Jews to the oven" writing, which Mensah-Schramm found on the street, was turned in the classroom into "pizza to the oven" with a drawing of the food prepared by the children. The familiar "Juden Raus" (Jews out) slogan was turned in the workshop into "Jugend herausfordern" (challenging the young). Mensah-Schramm has turned these displays, the fruit of her with children, into an exhibition which she presents across Europe.


'Pizza to the oven' instead. A lesson for students


A particularly relevant place to display the exhibition was the church adjacent to the Dachau concentration camp.


"My goal is for people to not just click their tongues when they visit the camps and say that 'what happened was simply horrible', but to show people that here, this is what is happening today next to your house. Fascism and racism continues, and we must not let what happened here repeat itself under any circumstances."


The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Mensah-Schramm says, has refused to display her exhibit.


You don't fight hatred with hatred

She has never visited Israel, simply because she doesn’t have the money. It is all used for activities aimed at "cleaning up" Berlin or related operations.


Mensah-Schramm, who defines herself as a pacifist and used to be politically active in the Green Party and in Amnesty, has a lot to say about Israel and its current policy, "just like I have a lot to say about what Germany and England are doing." But she warns her listeners against crossing the border between legitimate criticism against Israel and the hatred of Jews.


"When I was in Nuremberg, a guy approached me and said, 'But look at what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians.' I replied that he had better refrain from referring to Israel's actions with the 'Jews' generalization. This is anti-Semitism. And in general, I always say that you can't fight hatred with hatred."

'People react even less to hatred of Turks'


As part of her activity, she also encounters a slew of racist and anti-Muslim expressions, particularly in writing like "Turks out".


"When I report a specific graffito against Jews, the authorities may come and clean in up. If the writing is against Muslims, they don't really care. I definitely have a problem with this," Mensah-Schramm says.


Seeing her walking around and acting on her own, beside the threatening skinheads, one cannot help but wonder where she gets her courage.


She says she is not afraid. "When Neo-Nazis see me, they move their hands on their neck to symbolize death, send me pictures of Hitler in the mail, and have once even called me 'a whore who married a negro' (Mensah-Schramm has been married to a black man for the past 11 years). I told them they if it were only possible, I would have married 10 more black men right now," she smiles, moving on to the next swastika.


פרסום ראשון: 06.15.10, 07:51
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