A supposed former prisoner at Stutthof concentration camp attracted attention around the world when he hugged a man accused of being a former guard during his criminal trial and offered his forgiveness. The story seemed too good to be true — and it was.
By Moritz Gerlach
On Nov. 12, a scene inside the packed Courtroom 300 at the Hamburg District Court in Germany made headlines around the world. It was the seventh day of the criminal trial against former concentration camp guard Bruno D., who is now 93 years old. He stands accused of having aided and abetted in the murder of 5,230 people in 1944 and 1945, while stationed at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, as Gdansk was then called.
That November day, Moshe Peter Loth took the stand as a witness in the case. The 76-year-old of Port Charlotte, Florida, had joined the case as a co-plaintiff to testify as a Stutthof survivor. At the end of his testimony, according to several people who were present at the proceedings, Loth turned and told the courtroom spectators: “Watch out everyone, I will forgive him now.” He asked the presiding judge if he could come forward and then bent down to the defendant, who was sitting in a wheelchair.
Then Loth, the victim, gave D., the alleged perpetrator, a hug. Loth later told journalists that both men cried during the gesture.
His message of healing through forgiveness made headlines around the world. Britain’s Daily Mail, the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel all reported on the embrace, which the German daily Die Tageszeitung described as a “gesture of reconciliation” and the prime-time news broadcast heute-journal reported to be a “touching scene.” In Hamburg, the local Hamburger Morgenpost wrote of “heartbreaking scenes” and the daily Hamburger Abendblatt called it a “touching surprise.”
An Unfortunate Mix-Up?
But as it turns out, it was all too good to be true. The story of Loth’s life isn’t quite as he related it. DER SPIEGEL has determined through its reporting that Loth was neither at Stutthof as an infant nor was his family of Jewish origin. Contrary to his claims, it’s possible that none of his ancestors died in a concentration camp. Loth, one has to assume, is apparently mistaken.
Before the dramatic scene unfolded, the presiding judge in Hamburg had asked Loth to tell his story. He related how his mother had been imprisoned at Stutthof while she was pregnant with him and that she was then transferred to a psychiatric hospital, where she gave birth to him. Afterward, Loth said, she was returned to Stutthof together with him, an infant who was only a few months old. He claimed the two were put on a deportation train in 1945 and that, amid the chaos, his mother had handed him over to a Polish woman and that he was later placed in orphanages and abused by Soviet soldiers.
Loth has given numerous lectures about his life to audiences of school children, college students and evangelical Christians in the United States and Europe. He also published a book called “Peace By Piece,” which chronicles a “story of survival and forgiveness.” Loth counts himself among the “generation of the youngest Holocaust survivors,” and he called his lectures “Journey to the Truth,” a journey he apparently set out on back in 1999.
He claims he first learned that his mother Helene had been imprisoned in a concentration camp after her death. Since then, he has apparently assumed that she was Jewish, along with an aunt and his grandmother Anna. He even created a Page of Testimony for his grandmother at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in 2001, in which he wrote she had been murdered in the gas chamber.
According to Loth’s story, other relatives were Nazis. He claims that his grandfather Otto betrayed his Jewish wife and two daughters by reporting them to the Nazis, after which they were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. His grandfather then sent his son Gustav to the front. Loth maintains that his grandfather, a prominent local Nazi, did all that so that he could remarry. But there are discrepancies in the stories told by Loth. At times, Gustav is portrayed as having been an SS officer who was a guard at Stutthof.
In his memoir, Loth wrote about how he traveled to Europe in 2002 to find out more about his family. He also traveled to Stutthof, but ultimately didn’t visit the memorial’s archive. In his memoir, Loth describes how his wife urged him to examine the files for clarity, but he claims he then heard the voice of God, who implored Loth not to explore his mother’s fate and to instead forgive the perpetrators for their cruelty. That, God said according to Loth’s account, was the only way he could shed his own guilt. Loth says he then kneeled down at the memorial and forgave the camp’s commandants.
It’s a touching life story, to be sure. But large parts of it don’t hold up to scrutiny. Research conducted by DER SPIEGEL at various archives provides quite a different picture of Peter Oswald Loth, his original name, and his family.
According to that research, his grandfather Otto Loth lived in the small community of Fürstenwerder, near Danzig, and worked as a master cartwright. He had three children together with his wife Anna. Helene, the eldest, was Peter Loth’s mother. She and her younger brother Gustav were born in Dortmund, where their parents also married in 1920, as documents from the Dortmund Registrar’s Office show.
These papers, along with church register entries and documents at registry offices, show that all members of the family were Protestants. There is nothing to suggest Jewish origins. After a few years, the Loths returned to the Danzig area, where their families had lived for several generations. The second daughter was born there. The grandfather and his son Gustav ran the family business, which had two employees as well as, starting in 1939, a prisoner of war as a forced laborer in their household.
From 1940 onward, Gustav worked in a Danzig cartwright’s workshop and in 1941, he enlisted in the Waffen-SS. Gustav first served with the SS-Ersatz-Bataillon Nord, then in the SS-Gebirgsjäger-Regiment 7 on the Finnish front and reached the rank of Rottenführer, as the documents show. That, though, stands in clear contradiction to Peter Loth’s court testimony. Had Gustav’s mother been Jewish, as Peter Loth claimed, it would have been virtually impossible for Gustav to enroll in the Waffen-SS.
Grandmother Anna died on August 30, 1943, although she likely passed away in Fürstenwerder, as an addendum to her marriage certificate shows, and not in Stutthof or in any other concentration camp. That contradicts Loth’s statement in Yad Vashem that his grandmother was murdered in a gas chamber.
That same year, an event took place that is at the core of Peter Oswald Loth’s story: His mother was imprisoned — first in Danzig and then, on March 1, 1943, as prisoner number 20038 in the Stutthof concentration camp.
The reason stated for the imprisonment in the prison record book is “Erziehungshaft” (instructional arrest). Her nationality was also noted: “R.D.” for Reichsdeutsche, a German citizen. Instructional arrest was a disciplinary measure ordered by the Gestapo, usually imposed for minor misconduct by “elements unwilling to work,” as it was expressed in the bureaucracy of National Socialism. The punishment, which was primarily used for forced laborers, but sometimes also for German nationals, was intended to maintain working morale through deterrence.
Separate facilities existed for such prisoners, known as “Arbeitserziehungslager,” or work education camps. But in the Danzig area, such prisoners were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, where instructional prisoners were generally held for about two months. A medical examination report from the camp infirmary notes that Helene Loth was three months pregnant at the time of her imprisonment, and she was released after only four weeks, on April 1, 1943.
Peter Oswald Loth was born on Sept. 2, 1943, less than 20 kilometers from Stutthof, in Tiegenhof, the district seat for the Grosses Werder area. In his court testimony, Loth mentioned a “psychiatric hospital” in that city and said he had been subjected to experiments there as an infant. Historical research has unearthed no evidence of experiments having been conducted at the hospital in Tiegenhof near Danzig.
How did Loth come to believe that he had been abused there for experiments as an infant? Perhaps he had heard of a clinic of the same name in the town of Tiegenhof near Posen, the present-day Polish town of Poznań, located about 250 kilometers (150 miles) to the south. After invading Poland, the Germans took control of the psychiatric hospital there, which became part of the Nazi’s T4 “euthanasia” program. They murdered thousands of people at the facility.
And how likely is it that his mother would have been imprisoned in Stutthof again after her ostensible stay in the institution, this time with her newborn son? Her imprisonment at Stutthof before the birth is well-documented, but there are no documents at all suggesting a second detainment there. Indeed, it would seem that there was no second stint in Stutthof at all, and if there was, it must have been for entirely different reasons than those claimed by Loth: His mother couldn’t have been kept there as a Jew, because she wasn’t one.
Whereas Loth was placed in the care of a Polish woman in 1945, his mother made it to the American occupation zone. It was only in 1959 that Loth was able to reunite with his mother in West Germany before emigrating with her to the U.S. In his memoirs, Loth also wrote that the family suffered from racism because his mother married a black GI. He described how the Ku Klux Klan had threatened the family, and how he had also been met with rejection by the black community. He has also publicly forgiven a former clan member.
It appears that Loth later lost contact with his family. His half-sister didn’t contact him to tell him about the death of their mother until 1999. When he made a request in the summer of 2000, the Red Cross did confirm that his mother had been held at Stutthof, but the reference was only to the four-week stay there before his birth. Perhaps Loth was under the false impression that his mother must have been Jewish if she had been imprisoned at Stutthof?
Loth was an evangelical Christian at that time, but from that point on, he believed he had Jewish roots. In 2015, he professed his belief in Judaism and began going by the name Moshe Peter Loth. His attorneys have argued in court that their client’s memories begin at the age of five and that accounts of past events were based primarily on hearsay.
When DER SPIEGEL confronted him with doubts about his stories, Loth stated through his lawyers that he “had spent his whole life searching for his true identity.” On that search, his lawyer stated, “he often only had oral reports available to him.” As such, “not everything can be proved through documents. Unfortunately, many questions are still unanswered. It is difficult to verify the information available to him.”
The lawyer further stated: “So far, he has found no reason to doubt these reports.” This also applies to the discovery of his Jewish roots, the lawyer continued — an “assumption that was not contradicted by the Protestant denomination of his mother and uncle.”
Regarding Loth’s claim that his grandmother was murdered in the gas chamber and he was a victim of medical experiments, his lawyer wrote: “When Mr. Loth made the statements to the Yad Vashem memorial about 15 years ago, he believed that his grandmother had been murdered in the gas chamber. He has since learned that his grandmother was shot on Aug. 10, 1943, in Fürstenwerden near Danzig. Mr. Loth will correct the information provided to the Yad Vashem memorial in the near future. … With regard to the allegation that experiments may have been carried out on him as an infant in Tiegenhof, Mr. Loth refers to scars on the back of his head, the origin of which he cannot explain.”