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Fritz Barth admits he thought long and hard before including a chapter on Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel in an account he wrote about Calmbach's best-known personalities.

"For two years, I was wondering whether to write about him or not," recalled Mr. Barth, a retired mechanic, municipal politician and amateur historian who has published no fewer than eight books on Calmbach, a town of 4,500 in Germany's Black Forest region. "I don't agree with Zundel's theories, but he is the most famous Calmbach citizen of all.

"I was afraid that because there were assassination threats against Zundel that if I wrote something against him, the Jews would come and burn down my house," Mr. Barth said. "It's very dangerous to write about things like this. But I decided that I am an historian and I had to do it."

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Mr. Zundel's notoriety as a Nazi sympathizer hasn't gone unnoticed in his hometown, which he abandoned for Canada 44 years ago. But that local recognition of the hometown boy who has become famous abroad is mixed with a heavy dose of embarrassment and just plain denial.

"I can't help Ernst because he did what he did," said Magdalena Locker, one of his four sisters. (His younger brother, Joerg, lives in Florida.) "If I were to call someone an asshole, I would have to take the consequences myself."

Ms. Locker, a plain-speaking, 67-year-old retired innkeeper who lives just down the road from Ernst's birthplace, says she last saw Ernst in 1990 when he was in Calmbach for a visit.

"He just dropped by for an hour and he didn't talk about politics."

Three years ago, Ms. Locker travelled to Canada on vacation, but said she didn't drop in on her brother, who was living in Toronto at the time. "Ernst wasn't the main point of my trip," she said.

Ms. Locker did get a call two weeks ago from Pierre Zundel, Ernst's son, a professor of forestry at the University of New Brunswick. He phoned to say that his father was in jail and the family might like to know before reading it in the newspaper.

Despite her willingness to speak to a visiting reporter, Ms. Locker protested strongly when asked if she minded if her photo were taken. " Nein, nein, nein," she kept repeating. Gertrud, the eldest sister and self-appointed boss of the Zundel clan, refused outright to talk about her brother, although she was clearly aware of his legal problems. "Nobody else will talk with you, and it won't help him in any case," she said during a brief encounter at her front door yesterday.

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Michael Locker, Magdalena Locker's son and a local building contractor, also refused to have his photo taken and would not talk about his uncle. "I won't comment on his public opinions. It's his thing and I won't comment."

Ernst was born in Calmbach in 1939, the year the Second World War broke out, the fourth in a family of six children. His father was a lumberjack, a traditional trade in a part of Germany where hillside forests are pockmarked with fresh clear-cuts, and sawmills dot the valley towns.

The old Zundel homestead still stands on the outskirts of Calmbach, a tumbledown farmhouse with a half-timbered upper floor and lace curtains hanging in the tiny windows, even though the place has been uninhabited since Ernst's mother died in 1996.

Ernst, who was convicted in Germany in 1991 on hate-crime charges, stayed away from the funeral, apparently afraid of being jailed if he returned to his hometown. Pierre travelled from Canada to represent his father.

Next-door neighbour Hermann Kroner, who's 80, recalls the family well but says Ernst didn't make much of an impression.

"He was a boy like any other."

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Mr. Kroner, a onetime furniture maker, makes it clear he doesn't share Mr. Zundel's views.

"I'm no Nazi," he said, although he admitted he was in a Nazi youth group as a young man.

"It's true the Jews were gassed," he said. "But during the war, we Germans didn't know anything about this."

He said that the Zundel family had a tough time during and after the war because Ernst's father Fritz was a German soldier and prisoner of war who didn't return home until 1947.

"His mother had to feed all six kids," said Mr. Barth, the local historian. "She worked as a cleaning woman, did anything she could to make ends meet."

A talented artist, young Ernst studied graphic art in the nearby city of Pforzheim. When he was 19, he decided to leave Germany, anxious to duck the draft. His official biography says he was a pacifist and devout Christian who chose Canada because it didn't have conscription.

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Mr. Barth insists that Ernst wasn't involved in right-wing causes as a young man. "As long as Zundel was in Calmbach, he wasn't a neo-Nazi. He only became a neo-Nazi in Canada."

Mr. Barth said he still doesn't understand what sparked Mr. Zundel's far-right views.

"It could be that after the war, the hatred towards Germans was so strong in Canada that he thought that Germans needed to stand together," he said. ... Tomorrow: Peter Cheney on the wives of Ernst Zundel

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