A Brit’s life as a German crime scene cleaner

Rob Joseph was stationed in Germany for years as a soldier in the British army. When he went home, he found himself feeling out of place – so he ended up taking an unlikely turn in his career.

A Brit's life as a German crime scene cleaner
A colleague of Rob Joseph's at the home of a hoarder in full protective gear. Photo: Rob Joseph

Cleaning up German crime scenes had never been a part of Rob's plan.

After eight and a half years serving in the British army – mostly in west Germany – he headed back to the UK and found he didn't fit in any longer.

“I went home and spent six weeks in England, but it just felt too weird,” he told The Local.

“I didn't know anyone any more and I had difficulty settling in. I thought, stuff it, packed a bag and came for a holiday – and I haven't gone back since.”

Rob fell into his crime scene cleaning job after work dried up in the building trade in the city of Paderborn, North Rhine-Westphalia.

A colleague at the struggling cleaning company he was placed at by the unemployment office left to start her own firm – and he soon followed.

An animal skeleton found in the home of a hoarder. Photo: Rob Joseph

“Anyone can be a crime scene cleaner – there's no special qualification,” he said (although he himself made a point of getting a distance qualification to set himself apart).

“If you've got a strong stomach and a good sense of humour, you can do it.”

Humour in particular is a critical mechanism for getting past the dark parts of the job, which has seen Rob clean anything from the former homes of hoarders, to the apartments of elderly people who passed away unnoticed, to murder scenes.

Germans often comment that Rob's English humour must be what's getting him through the day – although he also faces constant questions about much-loved German comedy series Der Tatortreiniger (The Crime Scene Cleaner), which he's never seen.

While Rob has “OK” German after 20 years of living and working in the Bundesrepublik, including on building sites and pubs, a comedy about his own profession isn't his preferred choice of viewing.

“Everyone asks me if I've seen it, tells me I have to watch it,” he said.

'Lonely pensioners are the worst'

Rob has been called out to some truly gruesome scenes.

He mentioned one incident at a factory where a man's head had been crushed by a palletizer machine.

“As soon as the police were out the door they called us in,” he remembered. “It had shut the factory down and turned into an emergency.”

Other gory jobs have included places where people have had accidents or committed suicide with shotguns, or a murder where the victim's throat was slashed, spraying blood over a wide area.

A crime scene cleaner examines traces of blood at a home in Paderborn. Photo: Rob Joseph

But in the end, what most affects him is “the old man or woman who dies alone and no-one notices until the smell gets bad,” Rob said.

“There's a hell of a lot of people out there who just die on their own. They can be in a house with 10 apartments, people walk past and there's a horrible smell but they don't notice.”

Sometimes there's nothing for it but a giant tank of disinfectant. Photo: Rob Joseph

These jobs can often be the most personally affecting.

Although the deceased person's remains are difficult to dispose of, what Rob finds more devastating are their personal effects.

“The whole room has to be cleared, and you find so many family things, old photos – a whole life just gone and nobody there,” he said. “It makes me reflect on my own future.”

No plans to leave

But while Rob has struggled with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, he has no plans to quit his unusual job – or the quiet life in Paderborn.

It's a “boring, shitty little place” that's locked down by a conservative church-going community, he said, “but I like it, it's peaceful.”

In his downtime Rob is a street photographer and an avid reader, who likes nothing better than curling up with a book and his cats at home.

In his spare time, Rob Joseph is a street photographer and avid reader. Photo: Rob Joseph

He's deeply integrated into his local community after a stint working at a local pub and making friends when he first arrived, 20 years ago.

And all that means he has no plans to head back to the UK.

“I listen to [BBC] Radio Two quite a bit, I keep in touch with what's happening, an open ear on the news, but sometimes I find it laughable,” he said.

With six years of army life in Germany after he joined up aged 20, plus more than twenty years in Germany as a civilian, he's lived here for longer than he ever lived in Britain.

“I've been back twice in 20 years,” Rob said, and he has no plans to make a more regular habit of it.

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Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

Borys Shyfrin fled as a young child, along with other members of his Jewish family, from the Nazis.

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

More than eight decades on, the Ukrainian Holocaust survivor has been forced from his home once more – but this time he’s found a safe haven in Germany.

Shyfrin is among a number of Ukrainian Jews who lived through the Nazi terror and have now fled to the country from which Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich launched its drive try to wipe Jews out.

He never wanted to leave Mariupol, where he had lived for decades. But Russia’s brutal assault on the Ukrainian port city made it impossible to stay.

“There was no gas, no electricity, no water whatsoever,” the 81-year-old told AFP from a care home in Frankfurt, recalling the relentless bombardment by Moscow’s forces.

“We were waiting for the authorities to come… We waited for a day, two days a week.”

Bodies of people killed by bombs and gunfire littered the streets, recalled Shyfrin, a widower who had lost contact with his only son.

“There were so many of them… no one picked them up. People got used to it – no one paid attention.”

People scraped by finding what food they could, with water supplied by a fire engine that made regular visits to his neighbourhood.

Shyfrin’s apartment was damaged during the fighting in Mariupol – defended so fiercely that it became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance – and he spent much time sheltering in the cellar of his building.

Became homeless

The elderly man eventually left Mariupol with the aid of a rabbi, who helped the local Jewish population get out of the city.

He was evacuated to Crimea, and from there, travelled on a lengthy overland journey through Russia and Belarus, eventually arriving in Warsaw, Poland.

After some weeks in Poland, a place in a care home was found in Frankfurt.

In July, he was transported to Germany in an ambulance, with the help of the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation that has been aiding the evacuation of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

Shyfrin, who walks with the aid of a stick, is still processing the whirlwind of events that carried him unexpectedly to Germany.

The outbreak of war was a “very big surprise”, he said.

“I used to love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin very much,” said Shyfrin, who is a native Russian speaker, did military service in the Soviet Union, and went on to work as a radio engineer with the military.

“Now I do not know whether Putin is right to be at war with Ukraine or not – but somehow, because of this war, I have become homeless.”

Shyfrin was born in 1941, in Gomel, Belarus.

When he was just three months old, his family fled to Tajikistan to escape German Nazi forces who were occupying the region.

Many of Belarus’s Jews died during the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

In neighbouring Ukraine, the once-large Jewish community was also almost completely wiped out.

After the war, his family returned to Belarus and Shyfrin completed his studies, did military service, and settled in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s.


The pensioner seemed philosophical about the twist of fate that has forced him to leave his home.

“Well, it’s not up to me,” he said, when asked about having to flee war for the second time in his life.

His most immediate concerns are more practical – such as how to access his money back home.

“I can’t even receive my honestly earned military pension,” he said.

He recently moved to a new care home run by the Jewish community, where there are more Russian speakers.

As well as helping Shyfrin on the final leg of his journey, the Claims Conference provided him with financial assistance.

It has evacuated over 90 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany since the outbreak of the conflict, a break from the organisation’s usual work of ensuring that survivors get compensation and ongoing support.

The body had long been helping to run care programmes for Holocaust victims in Ukraine.

But, as the conflict intensified, it became clear such care programmes could no longer be sustained, particularly in the east, said Ruediger Mahlo, the Conference’s representative in Germany.

“Because many of the survivors needed a lot of care and could not survive without this help, it was clear we had to try to do everything to evacuate (them),” he told AFP.

Getting them out involved huge logistical challenges, from finding ambulances in Ukraine to locating suitable care homes.

For many of the frail Holocaust survivors, it can be a struggle to grasp the fact that they have found refuge in Germany, said Mahlo.

They are fleeing to a country that “had in the past persecuted them, and done everything to kill them,” he said.

“Certainly, they are traumatised,” he said.