The Roots of Abuse Decades of Molestation Haunt Odenwaldschule

For many, the Odenwaldschule was an educational Eden. For others it was more like a living hell. Historical documents suggest that teachers began sexually assaulting pupils at the school, once attended by writer Klaus Mann and other luminaries, shortly after it was founded 100 years ago.

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The victims and their families want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the goings-on at the Odenwaldschule. They will probably have to make do with mere fragments.

"I remember being woken up as a 13-year-old by Gerold Becker sucking my penis like a possessed man," recalls one former pupil.

"Everyone should have known what was going on," says Brigitte Tilmann, a former judge whom the school called in to investigate the allegations.

"I'm terribly sorry, but I can't remember," says one former teacher in response to an ex-pupil's claim that he had told him about the abuse at the time.

After so many years of silence at the school, every sentence that is uttered is a step in the right direction, a step closer to the truth. The veil of silence was finally lifted in the school auditorium two weekends ago, when the most famous and now infamous school in Germany invited victims, alleged perpetrators, and experts to speak at the exclusive institution's centenary.

And nothing was to go unspoken or be swept under the carpet.

Brigitte Tilmann and a lawyer published a report on the school in the run-up to the anniversary. Their no-holds-barred appraisal paints a frightening picture of widespread abuse at the Odenwaldschule. They identified more than a dozen perpetrators, more than 70 victims, and cited 17 witnesses alone who testified against the school's long-time principal, Gerold Becker. Indeed the two legal experts amassed so many accounts of sexual impropriety that no-one dares doubt anymore that abuse was rampant at this once prestigious and elite boarding school, which was known for educating such luminaries as author Klaus Mann and Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

And yet the more the evidence piles up, the more people wonder how it had all been possible. Was the abuse systematic? Why didn't the victims speak out? And what would the consequences have been for such an educationally revolutionary idyll if the word got out?

Abuse from the Beginning

The answer lay right under everyone's noses, hidden in the heart of the picturesque school grounds and its smart villas: Among other things the school archive contains thousands of letters sent to the board by the parents of pupils since the elite boarding school was founded in 1910. Founder Paul Geheeb -- who liked to be addressed as "Paulus" (St. Paul) -- still enjoys a hallowed status within the education-reform movement. No-one would deny his achievement in building up a modern school decades ahead of its time in an era when a regimental approach was the norm in education in Germany. The letters, however, provide glimpses of a darker side, and there appear to have been several cases of abuse almost at the very beginning.

On Sept. 13, 1924, a mother wrote to Geheeb's wife Edith, who had built up the school with him. This mother, E.M., described in detail her 12-year-old son's allegations that he had been abused by a teacher.

It wasn't the first such claim. Three weeks earlier a father had taken his daughter out of the school on the grounds that she had been "very disturbed" by the "nocturnal visits by adults" that she had witnessed. Educationalist Christl Stark says the school received a number of such letters from concerned, shocked parents over the years -- with some pointing the finger at older pupils, others at the teachers.

Parents Shied Away from Confrontation

For a dissertation she wrote on the issue, Stark analyzed thousands of letters that had been stored in 61 boxes in the cellar of one of the school buildings. "Although there were complaints about the homoerotic activities of Geheeb's colleagues, far more parents demanded an explanation for suspected or proven sexual relations between their daughters and staff at the Odenwaldschule," Stark says.

As undeniable as the evidence seemed, the parents shied away from open confrontation. Although some enclosed the love letters their daughters had received from teachers while on vacation, the parents showed remarkable restraint. One mother even went so far as to assure the school that she had no intention of "causing a scandal" that might cast the Odenwaldschule in an "unfavorable light".

This huge pool of correspondence from parents helped Stark piece together a multifaceted image of the school and its principal, Paul Geheeb. Some of this makes for amusing reading. In some instances, mothers or fathers complained about the size of the helpings at mealtimes, about wrongly addressed invoices or the dirty beds in the "absolutely slovenly mess," as one father put it. But these letters also contain accounts that should not be taken lightly under any circumstances.

On Feb. 23, 1931, Geheeb wrote to a female pupil who had asked for his help. He had sent the 17-year-old girl to a friend of his in London; a fellow teacher who was supposed to help improve her English, but whom she said molested her. Geheeb defended his colleague vehemently. "He bravely treads new ground in the realm of sexuality in particular, and has discovered new successful methods that are of course extremely infuriating for 'high society' and its hypocritical sexual morality," he wrote.

'Stupid Little Girls Immediately Feel Sexually Threatened'

Geheeb advised her not to make such a fuss. Faced with such a personality, he said, "it's natural that stupid little girls immediately feel sexually threatened, call him a 'pig', and maybe even call for the police to get involved." Stark was suitably harsh in her condemnation of the renowned educator's behavior. "You can hardly describe it as educational to fob off a young woman in such a way when she clearly finds herself in a moral quandary and repulsed by the unwanted advances of a stranger!" she wrote.

The girl was forced to leave the school, and her father complained to Geheeb, but took no further action.

The girl's father was a lawyer. Why then didn't he press charges against Geheeb? "Because he was a Jew with few clients, and his daughter had generously been offered a scholarship for several years," Stark posits. If this is true, it is a sign of a pattern which decades later would explain the worst of all the accusations leveled at the Odenwaldschule: That the victims of abuse were primarily children whose parents weren't powerful enough to support them.

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