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A retired teacher's courageous crusade: Tackling neo-Nazi hate

Using a scraper, nail-polish remover and a camera, 66-year-old Irmela Mensah-Schramm is tackling neo-Nazi hate in Berlin. The retired special-needs teacher has removed more than 90,000 hateful stickers and graffiti.

(This report has been updated to correct an error.)

By Andy Eckardt, NBC News

BERLIN – Irmela Mensah-Schramm has embarked on her very personal "combat mission" almost daily for 26 years. Her weapons? A scraper, nail-polish remover, a camera and lots of courage.

Come rain, heatwaves or stormy weather, the 66-year-old sets out to battle what she calls "extremely disturbing" neo-Nazi and racist graffiti, stickers and posters that blight the streets of Germany's capital.


The retired special-needs teacher has now removed more than 90,000 stickers and scribblings.

"Even when I injured my leg several years ago and was walking on crutches, it did not stop me from removing the muck off traffic light poles, bus stops or building walls," Mensah-Schramm says.

Mensah-Schramm travels by commuter train to areas she believes are right-wing strongholds, places where xenophobic propaganda and spray-painted Nazi symbols mix with gang-related graffiti and the more colorful works of spray-paint artists.

'Appalled'
Her "vocation" started with a single neo-Nazi sticker on a street light outside of her apartment in the upmarket Berlin-Wannsee area.

"One morning, I saw a banned Nazi symbol well visible on a lamp post and was appalled that people in my neighborhood ignored it day in and day out, without removing this trash," Mensah-Schramm recalls.

"Only a short while later, I witnessed an incident in which my Indian brother-in-law became the victim of racist bashing. This shocked me so much that I decided to act."

John Macdougall / AFP - Getty Images file

Anti-Nazi activist Irmela Mensah-Schramm scrapes a sticker off a drainpipe in eastern Berlin's Lichtenberg district on December 20.

She documents much of the offensive material in photographs and has compiled a scrapbook, which she always carries with her. Mensah-Schramm calls her project "Hate Destroys".

"For many years, I have been displaying my pictures in exhibits across the country," Mensah-Schramm says. "I talk about my experiences in schools and I regularly host workshops with children and students, generating awareness for the bad impact of these ugly racist messages."

Swastikas
Even ill health hasn't stopped her determined drive to wipe out extremist propaganda. After undergoing a cancer operation at a Berlin hospital in 1995, Mensah-Schramm found two swastikas painted in a stairwell. She rushed back to the nurses, asked for acetone and scrubbed away as much as she could before becoming too weak to finish the job. It was the first day Mensah-Schramm was able to get out of bed.

"In some journeys, I need to take tougher measures with black spray-paint or anti-graffiti solvent to remove writings off walls, and sometimes I even ask people on the street to help me out, if I cannot reach the graffiti," Mensah-Schramm says as she walks past run-down apartment buildings in an economically depressed neighborhood in the Berlin suburb of Koenigs Wusterhausen, which was once part of communist East Germany.

"Look, that is my work," she proudly points out, as she walks past a black square, which was once a swastika that she recently painted over.

Her message is clear: Don't look away.

"You cannot achieve something by doing nothing," explains Mensah-Schramm, whose husband was born in Ghana.

"This type of xenophobic propaganda on the streets can help to spread dangerous ideologies, which can be part of a radicalization process that ultimately can lead to extreme violence," she says, referring to recent revelations about a neo-Nazi terror cell that shocked Germany and led to a nationwide debate about the danger of right-wing extremism in the country.

Murder spree
Two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, and their 36-year old female accomplice, Beate Zschaepe, formed the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU). The group is believed to be responsible for the murders of at least nine small businessmen of Turkish and Greek origin between 2000 and 2006, as well as the slaying of a police officer in 2007.

Much to the embarrassment of German authorities, the country's law enforcement agencies only connected the crimes and their xenophobic motives in late 2011 after two of the three cell members committed suicide, following a bank robbery that put police on their trail.

German investigators originally suspected that the victims were most likely killed by fellow immigrants and might have been involved in gang-related crimes.

While critics say that German authorities had turned "blind on the right eye", by focusing instead on tackling Islamist terrorism, lawmakers set up an anti-terror center for right-wing extremism in December. Last month, Germany's parliament also appointed a commission of inquiry into the series of killings.

The German government has also established a database aimed at better coordination in the fight against violent neo-Nazis, partly because the NSU terror cell apparently remained in the shadows for so long due to poor lines of communication between different national security agencies and state authorities.

"Attacks on local politicians and violent acts against foreigners show that the goal is to spread fear and terror," Heinz Fromm, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, told a recent symposium in Berlin.

'Brutality'
Germany's domestic intelligence agency estimates that there are about 9,500 potentially violent neo-Nazis among the 26,000 right-wing extremists in the country.

"For years, we have been seeing that brutality within right-wing extremism has been on the rise," says Dr. Alexander Eisvogel, vice-president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.

However, Mensah-Schramm insists that she remains unafraid.

"I have been threatened many times by neo-Nazis, who have seen me remove their works,” she says. “And once, I came across big letters written on a wall that read: 'Schramm, we will get you'.

"Another time, I found my photo illegally posted on a well-known neo-Nazi website, where the subtitle indicated that nobody would care if I was dead," Mensah-Schramm describes.

She filed an official complaint over the violation of her personal rights. "Unfortunately, that got me nowhere because the server for the page was based in the United States," Mensah-Schramm says.

Andy Eckardt, NBC News

This neo-Nazi sticker that reads "nationalism" in German is among the thousands that have been removed by Irmela Mensah-Schramm.

In fact, German authorities are facing a growing challenge when it comes to online enforcement.

Extremist groups are turning to web servers in the United States to host their content and spread their messages beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. While displaying of Nazi symbols and the incitement of racial hatred are outlawed in Germany, neo-Nazi websites take advantage of free speech laws in the United States.

As the retiree counts sticker number 70,076, removed at a bus stop outside a local high school, she turns and says, "There are these small, but very rewarding moments."

"A former neo-Nazi, who had massively threatened me in the past and later exited the scene, stopped me on the street one day," Mensah-Schramm says with a choked voice. "He took off his sunglasses, looked me straight in the eyes and said that he wanted to thank me for never giving up my fight.

"I was so overwhelmed by the gesture that I started to cry," Mensah-Schramm says, before walking off to complete her mission of the day.