The Fragility of Trust: Neo-Nazi Victims Seek Peace with Germany

By Beate Lakotta

Photo Gallery: Victims of Neo-Nazis, and the State Photos
DPA

Semiya Simsek's family was torn apart 13 years ago when her father was murdered in Nuremberg by a neo-Nazi terror cell. Even worse, German authorities for years suspected the family had been involved. Now, as one of the killing spree's perpetrators is set to go on trial, the Simseks are trying to find peace with Germany.

The toothless old woman is singing in a rasping voice and beating a tambourine, as she performs the song of the henna night, the bride's last night in her parent's home. "Yüksek, yüksek tepelere...," she sings, as the other women join in, dancing around the woman seated in the middle, Semiya Simsek, wearing her wedding dress. She is the daughter of Enver Simsek, the son of a shepherd from the village of Salur, who went to Germany to find a better life. And died there.

"Oh, if my father had a horse, he would ride to me," the old woman sings. But no horse is bringing back Semiya's father, who is buried in the cemetery a few steps away. The house stood empty for almost 13 years when Simsek was in Germany. But then he came home, with a crushed skull and three bullets in his head.

They had said their goodbyes after it happened: his widow Adile, beside herself with sadness and fear, the two children Semiya and Kerim, 14 and 13, his brothers and the men of the village, all of them praying silently.

Today they are dancing in Enver's house, the dwelling filled with life once again -- with love, tears, hopes, old pain, images of Semiya under her veil and memories of Enver under a white shroud. They can still picture their father lying on the bed brought from Frankfurt, with its rubbed varnish finish, under a ceiling made of mud and the trunks of poplar trees. Enver had grown prosperous as a flower merchant in faraway Germany. He had made the pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, and people looked up to him in the village. His honor had been soiled by the mystery of his death. After all, who is shot and killed for nothing?

Look, says Semiya today, my father wasn't the way you think he was. I'm not the daughter of an adulterer, liar and drug dealer. They shot him to death because he was Turkish.

On Saturday, Sept. 9, 2000, passersby reported to police that there was an abandoned flower stand on the outskirts of Nuremberg. There was a folding table and there were bouquets under an umbrella, and there was also a white Mercedes Sprinter van with the words "Simsek Flowers" painted on its side. Everything was in its place, except the vendor.

In the Back of the Van

They found him in the back of the delivery van, lying among the sunflowers, lilies and chrysanthemums. He had been shot to death with eight bullets at close range. His murderers had continued to fire at him when he was already on the ground. Simsek was alive but no longer responsive. He died two days later.

The murder weapon, a Ceska pistol, finally turned up 11 years and nine murders later, in the wreckage of an apartment in the eastern German city of Zwickau. Beate Zschäpe had set the apartment on fire, after the police had found the bodies of her apartment-mates, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos. Mundlos had shot Böhnhardt and then turned the gun on himself. Enver Simsek, as his daughter Semiya learned from a television report in November 2011, was the first of 10 victims in a series of murders committed by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU). While the police were investigating her family, her father's murderers had disappeared from sight and managed to remain undetected for almost 14 years.

In that moment, it seemed as if her life was falling apart. After her father's death, Semiya had begun to erect internal walls, living her life in defense mode, as she fought off fears, suspicions and rumors. Now she is fighting to leave it all behind.

It's a Sunday afternoon in 2013. Semiya is visiting her aunt and uncle in Friedberg, a town in the western German state of Hesse. Her brother and two cousins are also there. They are watching a video of the extended family at a barbecue next to a lake, when the children were still young. "Look how sweet they are!" the uncle says proudly. Then Enver appears, cleaning fish, eating melon and playing with Semiya, his little princess. After the meal, everyone dances in the grass.

The family watches these old videos again and again. "It's unbelievable what a happy life we had," says Semiya.

Until recently, when someone asked how their father had died, they would say it was "an accident." Now Semiya wants everyone to know about the injuries of the past. She wants Germany and its legal system to take responsibility. Semiya, together with journalist Peter Schwarz, has written a book. She likens the work to a "bucket of vomit." Fortunately, this isn't apparent in the book.

'The Good Victims'

She immersed herself in the files for weeks, hoping to reclaim her life and purify it, and clarify her relationship with Germany, the country she calls home. In part, she is motivated to do so because Germany had suddenly discovered a new relationship with her. For years, no one seemed interested in the series of murders. And then, from one day to the next, she was inundated with sympathy and compassion. "Suddenly we were no longer seen practically as perpetrators, but as the good victims."

They were invited to receptions with the German president, the Bavarian interior minister met with them to exchange ideas, memorial trees were planted in Nuremberg for victims of the NSU killing spree, and strangers sent her letters, writing: "Germany is also your country. You are part of it!"

"I could have used the sympathy back then," says Semiya. She is pleased about the letters, but some encounters make her feel uncomfortable in a new way. She doesn't want to be used as a stage prop in an emotional retrospective. She says: "I will evaluate the big words. And I'll look closely at how Germany conducts the trial."

The trial against the accomplices of her father's murders begins in Munich on April 17. Semiya Simsek will be there. As a joint plaintiff, she has the right to review court documents and ask questions: Why did the neo-Nazis pick my father? What did they know about my family? How could they have remained underground for so long? She even invited her German attorneys to her wedding. She wants answers to her questions.

She doesn't want to be a victim anymore, not even a good one.

Interrogation Nightmares

When it happened, more than 13 years ago, her mother Adile, exhausted after selling flowers all day, was sitting in front of the TV with her feet up, waiting for her husband to come home. When the doorbell rang at shortly before 10 p.m., two policemen walked into her living room, carrying weapons and speaking curtly. Adile understood that Enver was half-dead. Was it an accident, she asked? No, he had been shot. She collapsed. By whom? Why? That was what the police wanted to know from her. Adile realized that they didn't believe her, that they couldn't see her fear and pain, and that she was a suspect.

She was questioned for hours at a time in the ensuing months. She still has nightmares about how the officers banged their fists on the table and shouted: It's time you told us what you know!

On other occasions, officers would visit her at home, sit on her sofa, drink her tea, eat her baked goods and torture her with their suspicions. Your husband, Frau Simsek, had a dark side, they would say: alcohol, a gambling addiction, the Mafia, drug-dealing. The family refused to believe it. On the other hand, they also trusted the authorities, which only made things worse. Today the Simseks ask themselves whether the police would have leveled the same suspicions if the victim had been German.

The investigations cast a posthumous shadow over the father's life, pouring the insidious poison of doubt over everything that had been true and beautiful before: the family's love, its lightheartedness and its cohesion. "How long does trust last?" Semiya asks in her book. "How often do you have to beat it until it becomes thin and breaks?"

According to the interrogation records, when the inspector asked Adile about her marriage, she said: "My husband and I never had any problems. I loved him very much. We had a good marriage. I don't know why I should go on living." The inspector wanted to know whether they had sex regularly. Some of the interrogations lasted an entire day and Adile was only allowed to go home for prayers. The police bugged Enver's delivery van, and for months they tapped the family's phones, even though they had no concrete evidence against them.

They also questioned the family's friends and relatives, asking questions like: "Can you imagine that Enver had a mistress? That Adile and her brothers were capable of murder?" News of the case -- that German officials suspected the family of being involved in the murder -- ultimately reached Enver's native village of Salur.

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