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,” said Mensah-Schramm, who is not Jewish, as she ambled through the streets armed with her spray paint and metal scraper. It demanded “Freedom for Rudolf Hess” — Hitler’s deputy, who at the time was still alive and in prison in Berlin.
“The sticker was there all day and I couldn’t understand why nobody else took it off,” she said. “People can be so ignorant.”
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 that given Berlin’s atrocious Nazi past, seeing racist slurs sprayed on walls across the German capital, 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 is 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 grassroots 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 said.
Skinhead groups have posted taunts about her online and several times property owners have reported her to the police. So far, nobody has successfully pressed charges against her, 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 said that even though new stickers or graffiti often appear again soon after she’s removed it, she will never give up her work.
One recent day, she walked through the streets of Berlin’s Rudow neighborhood carrying her trademark white tote bag, which has “Against Nazi” written across it.
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.”
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