A 74-year-old German woman who has spent three decades painting over neo-Nazi graffiti was convicted of property damage and fined some $330 for painting hearts over graffiti which read “NS-Zone” (Nazi Zone) in the central German town of Eisenach.
The €300 fine was handed down to Irmela Mensah-Schramm last Wednesday, Yom Kippur, the same day that a neo-Nazi German gunman attempted to break into the synagogue at Halle, a two-hour drive away, and massacre the Jews inside, failed to do so, and shot dead two bystanders nearby. Mensah-Schramm was also ordered to pay court costs.
A Stuttgart-born former teacher who lives in Berlin, Mensah-Schramm is known as the “Graffiti Grandma” for her activist work painting over extremist graffiti, or adjusting and amending it to convey positive meanings.
She was convicted on Wednesday of painting hearts over the “Nazi Zone” graffiti four times last December, after she was filmed by a local resident who filed a police complaint against her.
Mensah-Schramm, who said she would appeal the verdict, refused a compromise offered by the court which said she could make a contribution to local charities instead of paying the fine. Such an arrangement would be an admission of guilt, she said. “I did not do anything wrong,” Mensah-Schramm told a local broadcaster.
Mensah-Schramm has received numerous awards and commendations, Britain’s Telegraph reported on Sunday, including the Federal Medal of Merit, the Göttingen Peace Prize and the Jochen Bock Prize for Civil Courage in Erfurt. “During the refugee influx of 2015, Ms Mensah-Schramm replaced the frequently-appearing ‘Merkel muss weg’ (Merkel must go) with ‘Merke! Hass weg’ (Remember! Away with hate),” the Telegraph said.
“I scratched off the first sticker in 1986, at a bus stop in front of my house,” Mensah-Schramm told the Associated Press when it profiled her in 2011. The sticker demanded “Freedom for Rudolf Hess” — Adolf 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 — people can be so ignorant,” she said.
Since then, Mensah-Schramm has taken it on herself to clean away neo-Nazi propaganda scrawled by skinheads and other right-wing groups. She calls herself the “political cleaning lady of the nation” and says that she has scraped away tens of thousands of 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, has worked to track down and remove Nazi propaganda in the German capital Berlin and beyond.
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.
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.
Skinhead groups have posted taunts about her online and several times property owners have reported her to the police. Until last week, she had never been punished for her actions.
“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 them, she will never give up her 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.”