By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER, Associated Press March 26, 2011
BERLIN – Irmela Mensah-Schramm stopped abruptly at the crudely sprayed
swastika on the wall of a pedestrian underpass. Whipping out a can of
spray paint from her cotton tote bag, she quickly made short work of it,
turning the neo-Nazi symbol into a nondescript black splotch.
For the 65-year-old retiree, it's all in a day's work.
"I scratched off the first sticker in 1986, at a bus stop in front of my
house," Mensah-Schramm said as she ambled through the streets armed with
her spray paint and metal scraper. It demanded "Freedom for Rudolf Hess" —
Adolf Hitler's deputy, who at the time was still alive and in prison in
"The sticker was there all day and I couldn't understand why nobody else
took it off — people can be so ignorant," she said.
For 25 years, Mensah-Schramm has taken it on herself to clean Berlin of
neo-Nazi propaganda scrawled by skinheads and other right-wing groups. She
calls herself the "political cleaning lady of the nation" and during one
of her recent tours of the city she said that in the last four years
alone, she has scratched away more than 36,000 right-wing stickers.
She said seeing racist slurs sprayed on walls across the German capital
with its atrocious Nazi past made her angry and she felt a personal
responsibility to do something about them.
"Freedom of speech ends where hatred and racism begin," Mensah-Schramm said.
Since her retirement in 2006, Mensah-Schramm, who worked helping students
with special needs, tromps the city six days a week, trying to track down
all possible Nazi propaganda in the German capital.
Before she makes the racist slogans disappear, she documents everything,
taking pictures of all the "evil stuff" she has found. She keeps several
folders with hundreds of stickers demanding "foreigners get out," "Jews
into the oven" or "Sieg Heil" — the infamous salute used by the Nazis.
The number of far-right extremists in Germany are small — some 26,000
according to the most recent estimate from country's domestic intelligence
agency — and when neo-Nazis hold demonstrations they are invariably
dwarfed by counter-protesters. Still, the far-right National Democratic
Party has garnered enough votes to make it into two states' parliaments
and in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt earlier this month more than 12
percent of voters under the age of 30 cast their ballot for the party.
Some passers-by applaud Mensah-Schramm spontaneously when they see her
grass-roots response to neo-Nazi graffiti, but others get upset.
While it is illegal in Germany to express Nazi ideology in words or
images, police say it is not always legal to remove the graffiti either,
because the process may deface or destroy other people's property.
"If she sees Nazi slogans anywhere, she should call us to take care of it,
not spray over it herself — that's willful damage of property," police
spokesman Michael Merkle told The Associated Press.
Skinhead groups have posted taunts about her online and several times
property owners have reported her to the police. So far, nobody ever
pressed charges against her successfully, she said.
"Neo-nazis and private security personnel have harassed and bumped me more
than once," Mensah-Schramm said, adding that she has given up calling the
police for support "because they rarely ever help me anyway and don't
remove racists slogans even if I tell them to do so."
Mensah-Schramm, who is not Jewish, said that even though new stickers or
graffiti often appear again soon after she's removed it, she will never
give up her work.
On a recent spring day, she walked through the streets of Berlin's Rudow
neighborhood, her trademark white tote bag, which has written "Against
Nazi" across it, in hand.
She found several stickers on street signs demanding immigrants get out of
the country and depicting the German parliament Reichstag as a mosque.
Mensah-Schramm resolutely wiped her white hair out of her face, cursed out
the neo-Nazis, and went to work.
"I may be the craziest woman in all of Germany," she said. "But the only
way to get rid of those Nazis is to consistently work against them."