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Herbert Steinschneider


Phil Steinschneider

Page 2

Only very few people discovered where Hanussen was buried. In the first weeks after his funeral, a young woman with soft brown eyes, a delicately tilted nose and long, reddish-brown hair visited the grave several times. She brought flowers. But after a while her visits stopped. Hanussen was forgotten. His very grave has disappeared. His villa, yacht, diamond rings and gold bracelets; his platinum tie-pins and cufflinks, his bank balances - confiscated for the benefit of the Nazi Party - the Party he served; the Party that liquidated him as if he had been a stray mongrel, only fit to be destroyed.  

It is not easy to discover the true facts about this extraordinary man. Truth and fancy, legend and slander, genuine psychic gifts and blatant charlatanism are inextricably mixed in the record. For much of it he was himself responsible. He loved to mystify, shock, attract and repel people. Beyond doubt he was a little mad - or more than a little in his megalomania. He had a practically insatiable sexual appetite. He wasn't handsome or even particularly good-looking. Of medium height, with thick, black, oily hair, bushy eyebrows that almost met over the bridge of his slightly aquiline nose; his eyes were dark and not too large, with deep half circles under them; he always wore a dead-white make-up on the stage. His mouth was ordinary and his rounded chin cleft. Only his hands were remarkable - white, expressive, with long fingers, always exquisitely well-kept. He used them like the instruments of an orchestra - cajoling and commanding, threatening and caressing.

His real name was Heinrich Steinschneider. He was born the son of the caretaker of a synagogue. He left school when he was fourteen, running away to join a circus. He spent his adolescence on fair-grounds, in booths and tents. He was a knife-thrower and a fire-eater; when times were bad, he would play the role of a three-legged virgin or a two-headed bushman. He was even a professional strong man, though a phoney one - he burst cardboard chains and would readily work as a clown or a fake Hercules.

When did Heinrich Steinschneider become Erik Jan Hanussen? Among the few witnesses whom Kriminalrat Mölders was able to question, was a Viennese businessman named Fritz Holdt. He and the murdered "seer" had served in the same company during the first World War. At first he was always playing tricks in our quarters," Holdt said. "He would put out burning matches in his mouth, he spread ashes on the ersatz honey that was part of our rations - and ate it. We all thought he was crazy. Until one day - I think it was in Flanders - we were cut off. It was very hot and we were terribly thirsty. We hadn't a drop of water for thirty-six hours. Then Steinschneider suddenly pointed to the ground. He dug a small hole with his boot-heel. 'There's water here,' he said. All we heard was 'water'. We hadn't talked about anything else for almost two days. Steinschneider was crazy - but still, we dug and we found water. A natural spring. That was the beginning. Steinschneider died and Hanussen was born. You see, the story got around. The general heard about it. He sent for Hanussen and he liked him. He was transferred to headquarters... to entertain the troops. Once he appeared in front of the Kaiser. He got something nice out of it. Then I lost sight of him. But after the war I heard of him again. He had joined a tiny itinerant circus. And one day he eloped with the owner's wife - after pawning most of the equipment."