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Hitler’s typewriter released from SA bank vault

  • Typewriter
A heavy wooden crate was delivered and pried open in Forest Town last Friday morning. As the lid came away, all eyes in the room fixed on the object which sat nestled inside: a jet-black typewriter, its complex machinery gleaming as it was lifted out and placed atop a wooden bench.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jan 23, 2020

It wasn’t simply its novelty which was gripping, but the thought of its history. For almost 100 years previously, this typewriter had stood on a desk in Braunau, Austria, ready to type at the behest of its first owner: Adolf Hitler.

This historic item is the property of Absa. It was handed over to the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC) in Forest Town on indefinite loan. The idea is to offer visitors a unique opportunity to come face to face with the past to better understand it.

The SA Jewish Report was at this historic occasion with Absa Art and Museum Curator Dr Paul Bayliss and Tali Nates, the founder and director of the JHGC.

Bayliss says that the bank acquired the typewriter under the watch of his predecessor, Dr Piet Snyman, who passed away six months before Bayliss took over. Snyman recorded the transaction, including the name of the person from whom he had purchased it.

According to this record, Joseph Matzner, a colleague of Hitler’s, purchased it from him prior to the outbreak of World War II. A confectioner by trade, Matzner was reportedly a friend of Hitler’s while both lived in Braunau. The typewriter had been supplied to Hitler in the early 1930s, and was used for private correspondence before he became chancellor of Germany.

“After buying the typewriter, Matzner then came to South Africa, married a South African woman, and their daughter ended up working for Volkskas Bank, one of the forerunners of Absa,” Bayliss says. He added that Snyman bought the typewriter from her husband, a Mr R Mauff, after she passed away, and added it to Absa’s collection.

Bayliss says Absa has a few “interesting items” in its vaults.

“When you’re dealing a brand like Absa, you’re dealing with its forerunners like Volkskas, Trust Bank, and United. United was around when Johannesburg was founded, and with a company as old as that, there will be things in our vaults that have little to do with the bank itself, but are part of a history worth preserving.”

Bayliss (who has worked at Absa for 18 years), says the bank maintains a museum that specialises in exhibiting finance-related artefacts. Although this typewriter didn’t fit into the finance exhibitions, it found a home among other technological items, and was showcased as an illustration of innovation rather than an item previously owned by Hitler.

Bayliss says its authenticity was never in question, stressing that Snyman would have made the necessary enquiries before purchasing the typewriter.

“There was no reason not to accept its authenticity as fact,” he says. “Being the historian that he was, Snyman wouldn’t have put it on exhibit without investigating. He was a respected historian, and would have made sure to do his research.”

However, while on display at Absa, now former Absa employee Nicole Brower was drawn to this typewriter, and strongly believed it needed to be exhibited elsewhere.

“I was disturbed by it,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “This typewriter was used as part of the machinery that lead to the systematic murder of millions of people across Europe. It symbolised oppression, persecution, torture, and genocide – the attempt to annihilate people, because of their differences.

“Each time I saw it in the museum, knowing its origin, I felt disquiet. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to display it in a money museum as a curiosity among old office equipment, but didn’t know what should be done, or even how to approach the situation.”

In April last year, Brower visited the JHGC to view the permanent collection, and a temporary exhibition on Jewish history in Lithuania as a way of connecting to her Litvak ancestry.

While there, she decided the typewriter should be rehomed in the centre, and contacted Bayliss to find out if it was possible.

“I proposed that the typewriter be donated to the centre to be displayed appropriately within the context it was used,” says Brower. “He was open to the idea, and I facilitated an introductory meeting between him and Nates, and they ran with the project.”

After months of discussion and reams of paperwork, the transfer was made, and the typewriter joined other Holocaust-related artefacts at the centre last week. Nates says she will endeavour to research the history of the typewriter further in months to come, investigating the relationship between Hitler and Matzner with the help of colleagues here and overseas.

However, Nates, Bayliss, and Brower agree that the significance of the typewriter lies in its historic relevance and positive educational potential rather than any shock value.

“There is a context which surrounds the typewriter,” says Nates. “When we share history, we don’t want to put the perpetrators on a pedestal. We don’t want to talk only about Hitler. Yes, this was Hitler’s typewriter, and he was central to the Holocaust.”

Nates wants the typewriter to be connected to ideology, to writing, to fake news. “It can be put into a propaganda discussion and used for so much more. We are an educational institute, and it’s important for us to use this as an educational tool rather than to shock people,” she says.

She believes dozens of similar artefacts are still waiting to come to light, all of which need to be housed in the appropriate setting and context.

“Stories are coming out all the time and being brought to the attention of museums, us included,” she says. “It’s essential to authenticate it, but we’re not always the right place for it, and it’s important to find where it belongs. Because of the South African connection to the typewriter, we are the right place this time.”

Bayliss says the typewriter’s journey illustrates the need for museums to find the right place for an artefact, even if it means giving up certain items.

“The challenge for us as historians is to preserve things,” he says. “If we don’t take it upon ourselves, it will all be lost. Eventually, the opportunity occurs for you to pass on something of which you have been a custodian, and you can ensure that it goes to where it really needs to be.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 HARRY FRIEDLAND 03 Feb
    I had two personal encounters with the dark side of WWII in the course of my career as an attorney:

    One was in the discovery of beautiful pair of gold-plated Beretta pistols which belonged to the Duke of Aosta, a commander of an Italian battalion in North Africa, and who was captured there by South African forces.

    The other, far more creepy story, relates to the deceased estate of an old SABC broadcaster. As the administrator of his estate I had to dispose of his residence in Pinelands but when I visited the house I discovered 22 firearms, cupboards full of Nazi uniforms, medals, flags, live hand grenades - and a live WWII aerial bomb buried under the floor of his garage.

    It brought home to me how much the dragon of Nazism still slumbered just under the surface in old South Africa ...

    I can't describe what it felt like, walking around, alone, in a silent, darkened house like that.

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