Scraping Away Injustice Like Irmela

When I have a feeling I will want to re-read a newspaper article, I cut it out and put it in my clippings file.  When I re-read the article, I sometimes find myself jotting down ideas or writing down what I learned from reading the article.

One such article was a New York Times article by Sally McGrane: “How One Berliner Battles Hate: With Conscience and a Sharp Scraper.”

I learned about Irmela Mensah-Schramm who lives in Berlin, Germany. She is a retired teacher, who taught children with severe disabilities. She was born in 1945, at the tail end of World War II. In the early 1980s, when she was in her mid 30s, she visited a concentration camp for the first time. Then in 1986, she saw a sticker at her bus stop that demanded the release of Rudolf Hess, the imprisoned Nazi war criminal. All day she thought about the sticker. Then when she was going home from work that day, she saw that the sticker was still there. She used her keychain to scrape it away and she noticed she felt better. A few days later, she spent an entire night walking her Berlin neighborhood, scraping away far-right messages she found. Twenty years went by. By the time Sally McGrane wrote her article, Irmela had erased 72,354 Neo-Nazi symbols and anti-immigrant sentiments. She continues to do so several days a week, carrying her supplies in a canvas bag with the handwritten message “Against Nazis.”

She has been assaulted three or four times. But she has also been hugged by strangers.

As tensions rise over the refugee issue in Germany, others are following in Irmela’s footsteps, scraping, dissolving and painting over far-right slogans. Two years ago, Ibo Omari, owner of a Berlin shop that sells graffiti paint and other related items, founded an organization that has sponsored artists to convert swastikas into street art: Rubik’s Cubes, mosquitoes and owls. He considers Irmela Mensah-Schramm the “grandmother” of the project.

As I re-read this article a year after I first read it, I jotted down what I had learned. The story of Irmela Mensah-Schramm reminds me to pay attention when the voice inside me says something I see isn’t fair or just. I will follow Irmela’s example and whenever I can, I will try to scrape away injustice and turn it into justice.

Maybe I will carry around a canvas bag that shows a brave woman scraping away injustice, two letters at a time.


  • Carolyn Goodart

    This makes me sad to know there was ever even a need for an Irmela. I would have thought that Germans would have resented their Nazi history.

    • TwointheMiddle

      Unfortunately, in spite of the lessons of history, there will always be people who stir up the worst traits in humans. As long as there are Irmelas, we will be okay. But I think we need many more Irmelas, Ghandis, Martin Luther Kings, Eleanor Roosevelts, Dolores Huertas…

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