Irmela Mensah-Schramm wages a private war on Nazi and other hate-based graffiti

Germany's Irmela Mensah-Schramm checks lampposts, public benches, anywhere she might find a racist slogan or Nazi swastika. Then she pulls out a bottle of spray paint and covers it.

Isabelle de Pommereau
Irmela Mensah-Schramm points to a garbage bin that had been decorated with Nazi symbols before she painted over them in Zossen, Germany.

From Berlin the regional train rattles south toward Dresden through the outcast towns of what was once East Germany. Blankenfelde. Dabendorf. In Dahlewitz, Irmela Mensah-Schramm points out the window to a boarded-up building that stored bicycles in Soviet times.

"Years ago the inside was covered with neo-Nazi symbols," she says. She remembers because she took photos. The train slows: next stop, Zossen, 30 miles south of Berlin. Ms. Mensah-Schramm grabs her tote bag, which has Gegen Nazis ("Against Nazis") written in colorful letters on it, and gets off.

"I'm in the [eastern] region often," Mensah-Schramm says. "The neo-Nazis smear massively here."

The retired social worker walks determinedly across the train platform. She peers at lampposts, under public benches, anywhere a racist slogan might be found. She stops. Just before the town park she comes across a gray metal used-clothing container with a Nazi swastika painted on it. She takes a deep breath, photographs the symbol, and then pulls a bottle of black spray paint out of her tote bag.

Without hesitation, she sprays the swastika, covering a symbol she despises.

"It has to go, right now," she says. "If you're a target and read words like 'Germany to the Germans!' it sinks in, it hurts.

"This is the 58,987th Nazi slogan I've gotten rid of," Mensah-Schramm says with a hint of pride. "I document everything in my books." She started counting the offensive symbols seven years ago. Now she has 76 thick binders of evidence.

Almost every day for the past 27 years, she has been traveling, scouting walls, pedestrian underpasses, buildings, and subway train seats for things people often fail to see: racist graffiti, posters, or stickers. Armed with a scraper, polish remover, spray paint, and a camera, she is a one-woman campaign against hate speech.

Her crusade started a few years before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 when, while waiting for a bus in her well-to-do neighborhood in western Berlin, she saw a sticker that made her stomach churn: "Freedom for Rudolf Hess."

Hess, Adolf Hitler's former deputy, was serving a life sentence in Berlin's Spandau prison, which was reserved for Nazi criminals. The fact that nobody had had the courage to scrape it off prompted her to act. She removed it.

The experience was an eye-opener: How could it be that, decades after the Holocaust, signs of racism and nationalism still abounded in Germany? She felt she had no choice but to intervene. Since then, Mensah-Schramm has looked for hate-filled slogans as far as her feet or a train could take her and removed them.

"I do this because I can't [abide] it when people are humiliated and discriminated against," she says. "Racism and nationalism are real dangers for a civil society. I can't stand the indifference."

In the small towns along the Berlin-Dresden regional train line, Mensah-Schramm has fostered a new awareness of far-right extremism and chipped away at a culture of turning a blind eye.

"The town pays more attention," says Zossen resident Jörg Wanke, who in 2009 created a citizens group called the House of Democracy to combat extremism. Mr. Wanke had witnessed many neo-Nazi marches and activities in Zossen's market square. But it wasn't until Mensah-Schramm took him to the back corners of town that he realized how widespread neo-Nazi graffiti and stickers were.

"From Irmela Mensah-Schramm we learned how to really look around us, and how important it is to remove neo-Nazi graffiti right away," he says. "Once a city fails to look critically at those smears, its image is tarnished." Town officials, Wanke says, have become more responsive to complaints about offensive slogans.

Mensah-Schramm doesn't just spray over or remove hate slogans. She uses them to illustrate the need to oppose a form of latent racism experts agree is especially prevalent in eastern Germany, which lived under communist rule for more than three decades after World War II. She takes her traveling exhibition, "Hatred Destroys," to city halls, theaters, youth centers, and schools.

In 2011 Germany was shocked to find out that a small group of far-right terrorists from the eastern town of Zwickau, roughly two hours by car from Zossen, had allegedly murdered eight immigrants – several Turks and one Greek – between 2000 and 2006, undetected by the police. This fall, a special parliamentary inquiry concluded that the case had been a "historically unprecedented disaster."

"Right-wing extremism was underestimated at all levels," Sebastian Edathy, the inquiry's chairman, told the German press. He called on the nation to confront racism head on.

That, coupled with a massive protest this fall in the Berlin suburb of Hellersdorf against asylum seekers, has provoked unprecedented soul-searching in Germany. It validated what Mensah-Schramm has known all along: Right-wing extremism is an entrenched attitude.

While, on the whole, xenophobia isn't worse in Germany than elsewhere in Europe, it festered under communism in East Germany, especially in regions like Brandenburg that have battled population loss and unemployment, and where foreigners are virtually absent. In these towns it isn't unusual for officials from the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany to sit on town boards or hold sports and youth activities, experts say.

"People look the other way," Mensah-Schramm says. "There is fear. They say, 'Why are you doing this?' They say, 'Just leave the stickers, otherwise the Nazis will put [them] back.' "

She walks across a footbridge over the Notte River to a quaint market square of half-timbered homes where, from his insurance sales office, Wanke has seen torch-bearing skinheads conducting marches many times. Two years ago, young neo-Nazis torched his House of Democracy only days after it had inaugurated an exhibition on Jewish life in Zossen. One young man responsible for the arson now sits in jail.

This time, Mensah-Schramm has come to Zossen to show her exhibit in the newly reopened home of his group. "Sixty people came to see it. That's a first for Zossen," Wanke says. Soon after he opened the House of Democracy in 2009, graffiti saying "People's Betrayer" had popped up on the wall of his office.

It is against the law in Germany to use the Hitler salute or display swastika symbols. But there is not total support for what Mensah-Schramm does. Once a young man threw a stone at her. Sometimes officials want her to ask permission before she paints over graffiti.

Others feel that she is doing a major public service. "She's fearless," says Andreas Handy of the European Academy, a nonprofit group based in Waren, in eastern Germany, that fosters unity among European countries. "A Nazi symbol has to go, period," Mr. Handy says.

Led by Mensah-Schramm, a group of local politicians, police officers, and youths recently toured Waren to remove racist or neo-Nazi slogans. "The young people who have seen her exhibit and who've walked around the streets and taken out Nazi stickers themselves, they have a different view on the problem," he says.

"Hatred Destroys" has three messages, Mensah-Schramm says: "(1) to show that somebody is against neo-Nazism, (2) to show that you can do something about it, and (3) to say, 'If not you, then who else?' "

Lisa Hase, a ninth-grader from the Bavarian town of Erding, heard the call when Mensah-Schramm held a workshop in her school this past spring. "I just couldn't believe that some people can write 'Jews Out!' " she says.

"Now I open my eyes when I walk around. I look at all the graffiti I see," she says. Not long ago in a Munich public bathroom she saw a swastika. Remembering Mensah-Schramm, she acted, covering the graffiti with a white sticker.

"Citizens have to learn how to have more guts," Mensah-Schramm says. She plans to keep going one town and one street at a time.

Young people like Lisa give her hope.

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