In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, former Harvard historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argued that millions of so-called ordinary Germans made the Holocaust possible.
The majority of Germans remained silent as their Jewish neighbors and co-workers disappeared into the Gestapo's “night and fog,” which delivered them to concentration camps. Some Germans actively participated in the Holocaust, denouncing Jews or helping in their roundup.
But a handful of Germans and others risked their lives to help Jews, friends as well as strangers.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, honors these Good Samaritans as "Righteous Among the Nations". Some of the righteous were members of the Nazi Party who became disillusioned as the Third Reich’s anti-Semitism grew progressively lethal.
Most of Yad Vashem’s honorees have been forgotten. But one of them has gained prominence because his life and rescue work were dramatized in 1993’s Schindler’s List.
Steven Spielberg’s film deals with Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and a member of the Nazi Party who took over two factories in Nazi-occupied Europe that had been “Aryanized,” that is, confiscated from their Jewish owners and handed over to Schindler.
Despite opportunism that allowed him to take control of the factories without qualms, Schindler had a moral awakening and saved 1,200 Jews, among them the elderly and infants, whom he claimed were essential war-workers, which prevented their deportation to death camps.
This is the story of other righteous Germans who have yet to receive recognition and the Hollywood treatment:
Anton Sauerwald, the Nazi Who Saved Sigmund Freud
Freud and his daughter, Anna, safe in Paris
In 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria and immediately began arresting Jews. Within days of the annexation or Anschluss, the Gestapo showed up at the door of Vienna’s most famous resident and a Jew, Sigmund Freud.
The founder of psychoanalysis ignored the pleas of friends to flee Austria until the Gestapo arrested his daughter Anna and held her over night in jail. After her release, Freud agreed to leave the country, but his escape would have been impossible without the help of Anton Sauerwald, an Austrian Nazi.
Sauerwald had met the great man through one of his teachers who was Freud’s friend and poker partner. After the annexation of Austria, Sauerwald was put in charge of Freud. He signed Freud’s exit visa which allowed him to leave for Paris on the Orient Express and also kept secret the existence of Freud’s foreign bank accounts.
Sauerwald also ignored orders to burn Freud’s personal papers, including unpublished manuscripts on psychoanalysis. The irreplaceable works were hidden in Austria’s national library, where they survived the war.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Sauerwald was arrested and charged with stealing Freud’s fortune. Anna Freud came to the rescue of her father’s rescuer and contacted her cousin, Harry Freud, the American army officer who had arrested Sauerwald.
She told her cousin, “The truth is that we really owe our lives and our freedom to [Sauerwald.] Without him we would never have gotten away.” Her intervention led to Sauerwald’s release from prison.
Georg Duckwitz, Savior of Denmark’s Jews and Gestapo Officer
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
The German attaché in Copenhagen during World War II, Duckwitz was a more equivocal character than Oskar Schindler. Both men were members of the Nazi Party, but Schindler was only an opportunistic fellow-traveler who didn’t join the party until 1939.
Duckwitz was a true believer who had joined in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power and before Duckwitz could derive any financial benefits from membership in the party. But he eventually became disillusioned with Nazism as the number of its victims grew.
In 1943, Duckwitz’s superior in the Gestapo told him of the imminent arrest of Denmark’s entire Jewish population. After failing to stop the round up of Danish Jews, he flew to Stockholm and met with Denmark’s prime minister, who agreed to receive Danish Jews.
Through intermediaries, Duckwitz warned the chief rabbi of Denmark as well as the leader of the Jewish community, who in turn warned their co-religionists. With the help of non-Jewish Danes, 95 percent of the nation’s Jews, more than 6,000, sailed to Sweden and safety. Duckwitz returned to his post at the Gestapo. In 1971, Yad Vashem honored him as Righteous Among the Nations.
While awaiting film immortality, other righteous Germans have already been memorialized in books by Jews they saved or by their relatives.
Karl Plagge, a Righteous Concentration Camp Commandant
In The Search for Major Plagge, Michael Good writes about the Nazi who saved his mother and more than 200 other slave laborers in Vilna, Lithuania. Another Nazi who joined the party before Hitler came to power but became sickened by the treatment of Jews, Plagge was in charge of a camp in Lithuania where military vehicles were repaired. Like Oskar Schindler, Plagge had his list of Jews he claimed were skilled workers and indispensable to the war effort. In fact, many were unskilled and included women and children.
After the war, Plagge went on trial as a war criminal. Testimony by Jews he had saved resulted in his release. He died in 1957 and was honored by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations in 2005.
The Small Army of Righteous Germans Who Sheltered a Jewish Student
In Inherit the Truth: A Memoir of Survival and the Holocaust, former Auschwitz inmate Anita Lasker-Wallfisch mentions Konrad Latte in passing, but The New York Times Magazine ran an extensive interview with Latte in 2000, the same year Lasker-Wallfisch’s memoir was published.
A high school student before World War II in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Latte only learned that he was Jewish when a teacher told the “Aryans” in his class to raise their hands. Unfamiliar with the term, Latte raised his.
The school expelled him for lying, and he ended up at a Jewish school where he felt like a fish out of water because he had been raised a Protestant.
“I don't consider myself a Jew. I have no tie to the Jewish community – or any other community,'' Latte told a horrified Israeli television audience 50 years later, adding, “I can't let the Nazis have the last word. I can't let the Nazis tell me, 'You're a Jew, you belong in this corner, this drawer.'''
After Johannes Piersig, an organist in Breslau, accepted Latte as a student, the youth revealed that he was Jewish. Piersig replied, “I didn’t ask you about that. I’ll see you at 2 o’clock Friday for your lesson.”
In 1943, Latte and his parents moved to Berlin, where they hoped to hide in plain sight among the millions in the capital. When they turned up at a cousin’s home, he refused to give the family shelter, but referred them to Ursula Meissner, a 20-year-old non-Jewish actress.
Her large apartment in Berlin already sheltered Jews, and she agreed to let the entire Latte family stay indefinitely.
During air raids, Meissner remained in the apartment with her Jewish guests because it would have been dangerous for Jews without identity papers to seek shelter underground. But when neighbors began to comment that the people in her apartment “looked” Jewish, the Lattes fled.
For the rest of the war, strangers kept them alive at great risk to themselves and their families.
Ursula Reuber, a student stenographer, spent six months in jail for buying shoelaces for Latte. Shoes tied with string would have been fatal because an unkempt appearance identified a Jew in hiding who didn’t have ration cards to buy clothes.
Harald Poelchau, a prison chaplain and a self-taught forger, created a false identity card that made Latte a member of the Volkssturm or People’s Army of children and pensioners charged with the defense of Berlin. The Protestant minister also found Latte and his parents jobs.
Baron Gottfried von Einem, a composer and anti-Nazi, met Latte through a mutual acquaintance. The aristocrat gave Latte his pass to the Berlin opera and a job rehearsing singers for an opera von Einem had composed.
Through the baron, Latte met Leo Borchard, a conductor who had quit the Berlin Philharmonic in 1937 because he didn’t like to perform for Nazi officials.
When Latte, who hoped to become Borchard’s student, lied about his identity, the conductor said, “Lessons with me are based on one condition – you have to trust me.”
Latte did and revealed his identity. “Now I know, and now I have forgotten it again.”
A Jewish friend took Latte to the apartment of Anne-Lise Harich, the widow of an author. Latte was wearing his Volkssturm uniform and Harich was horrified that his friend had brought him to her home, another sanctuary for Jews. The friend told her Latte’s real identity. Like his earlier rescuer, Ursula Meissner, Harich invited Latte to stay indefinitely.
When the Gestapo arrested Harich’s brother for desertion from the army, they also seized Latte and discovered that his papers had been forged. Latte was only saved from deportation to a death camp because the Gestapo needed him to testify against Harich’s brother, the deserter. With the help of another prisoner, Latte escaped from the detention center where he waited to testify against Harich’s brother.
For the rest of the war, Latte was sheltered by anti-Nazi Germans. Baron von Einem, who had given him a pass to the opera, also found Latte a job as an extra there.
In a scene suitable for filming, Latte once appeared in an opera attended by Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second in command. At the end of the performance, Latte took a bow in front of the Nazi chief.
Göring was a bad German who unknowingly helped Latte too. To bolster morale as Germany’s defeat became apparent, Göring sent musical troupes to entertain troops at the front. Using new forged identity papers, Latte got a job as band leader of one of the troupes and traveled throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.
While on tour, he met the woman who was to have a profound effect on his life, and not only by saving it. Ellen Brockman was a singer who traveled with Latte’s band.
When another member of the troupe told Brockman she suspected Latte was Jewish, he called his accuser’s bluff and suggested they both go to the Gestapo to confirm his identity as an Aryan. The woman backed down because of severe penalties for falsely denouncing Aryans.
Near war’s end in March 1945, Latte’s band found itself near Frankfurt when the Americans liberated the area. Latte and Brockman had the chutzpah to go to General Eisenhower’s headquarters and ask to be married.
After the war, Latte presumed he’d be offered a job as a conductor since he had studied under the renowned conductor Leo Borchard. Instead, the state employment bureau offered him a job in a coal mine.
It took almost a decade for Latte to resurrect his career. In 1954, he become director of the Berlin Baroque Orchestra, which eventually took up residence at the Berlin Philharmonic. Latte’s wife and Ursula Meissner were both named Righteous Among the Nations.
The 50 or so people who sheltered Latte were a diverse group, among them authors, composers, churchmen, retirees, and others who fought Nazism by helping its chief victims, Jews.
Unfortunately, these righteous gentiles represented a tiny minority of the 60 million-plus Germans who ignored or actively participated in the extermination of the Third Reich’s 500,000 Jews.
Only 10 percent of Germany's Jews survived the war with the help of Good Teutonic Samaritans.
Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, Volume I. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Good, Michael. The Search for Major Plagge. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006.
Lasker-Wallfisch, Anita. Inherit the Truth: A Memoir of Survival and the Holocaust. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.
Rings, Werner. Life With the Enemy: Collaboration and Resistance in Hitler’s Europe 1930-1945. New York: Doubleday, 1979,
Schneider, Peter. Saving Konrad Latte. The New York Times Magazine, February 13, 2000.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders