Scraping Swastikas off the Streets Germany's Anti-Nazi Cleaning Lady

A Berlin woman is waging a lone campaign against neo-Nazi graffiti, armed with a scraper and nail-varnish remover. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, 63, removes swastikas and racist stickers from lampposts and walls across the city. It's an endless battle against neo-Nazi youths, passersby who file legal complaints, and above all indifference.

By Arne Orgassa in Berlin

Irmela-Mensah Schramm has been scraping away Nazi slogans for 20 years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Irmela-Mensah Schramm has been scraping away Nazi slogans for 20 years.


We're in a pretty suburb on the northern edge of Berlin. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, 63, walks along the neat rows of houses with their well-tended gardens. Occasionally, a resident hurries past her along the clean-swept sidewalks. The people who live behind the low fences want their peace and quiet. Strangers get suspicious looks around here. But that doesn't bother her.

She walks down the streets inspecting street signs and lampposts, armed with a large camera dangling from her neck and a white cloth bag with the words "Fight Nazis" emblazoned on it in big letters.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: Germany's Anti-Nazi Cleaning Lady
She stops at a lamppost and shakes her head angrily at a little campaign sticker attached to it with the logo of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). It bears the sarcastic message: "Have a Safe Trip Home." In a flash she delves into her bag, produces a metal scraper and starts vigorously scrubbing off the offending propaganda.

The scraping echoes across the street. "You get more Nazi muck hanging up around this well-off area than in any working-class housing estate in Berlin," she says as the paper shavings fall to the ground and get blown into a garden. The sticker is no more. Mensah-Schramm gives a satisfied smile. She's out hunting.

A Particular Type of Street Cleaning

The Berlin-based political activist has been removing neo-Nazi graffiti and far-right slogans for more than 20 years. Nazi symbols such as swastikas are banned in Germany. Officially they're called "unconstitutional symbols," and they account for the majority of far-right offenses registered by the domestic intelligence agency , the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The authority counted more than 17,000 cases of far-right daubings in 2008. But police hardly ever prosecute the culprits. Irmela Mensah-Schramm thinks that's wrong. So she punishes the neo-Nazis in her own way -- by destroying their slogans.

Her mission began in the summer of 1986 outside her front door in the well-to-do lakeside district of Berlin-Wannsee. She was on her way to work when she saw a sticker that read: "Freedom for Rudolf Hess," a reference to the convicted Nazi war criminal serving a life prison sentence at the time in Berlin's Spandau Prison. It disgusted her and she wanted to tear it off, but her bus was waiting and she had to run. But the social worker could think of nothing else all day.

'I Stopped Looking the Other Way'

"I was angry that I hadn't scratched the sticker off," she recalls. She returned that evening and it was still hanging there. She couldn't understand why the many people who had waited at the bus stop that day hadn't bothered to remove it. "So I decided to stop looking the other way," she says.

Ever since then, "the political cleaning lady of the nation," as she calls herself, has been tracking down "Nazi muck." Armed with a scraper, nail varnish remover, a cloth and a camera, the pensioner combs through districts in Berlin and in other German cities several times a week.

Over the years, her voluntary scrubbing has turned into an obsession. She starts scraping wherever she sees Nazi symbols. In pedestrian underpasses, on buildings or subway train seats. If she can't remove something, she paints over it, preferably with brown paint. "I'm constantly at it. You have to keep going, you can't just do it sporadically," she explains.

Mensah-Schramm says she has removed more than 80,000 stickers and daubings in the last 23 years -- far-right, homophobic, anti-Semitic or racist slogans. After today it will be 78 more.

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