Ernest Wertheim Talks About Life In Nazi Germany And U.S. WWII Intelligence Work

Ernest Wertheim - with MacArthur slide show
Ernest Wertheim (middle) confers with General MacArthur over a map.

Ernest Wertheim begins the recounting of his remarkable life, packed with horror and heroism, with an ordinary moment of noticing a crocus in the snow. That crocus, which is used on the cover of Chasing Spring, launches a lifetime woven around plants, even as his family tangles with the realities of life as Jews in Nazi Germany and again when he moves to the U.S. as a young man and scrambles to gain a stable income and, surprisingly, during his years in the military during World War II.

Much of Wertheim’s life is now well-known within the garden retail industry, from his narrow escape from corrupt border guards when leaving Germany to his giving General Douglas his unvarnished and unflattering opinion.

Many other, just as remarkable, stories emerge in Chasing Spring:

  • Wertheim watched Hitler’s Chancellery being built from the unique perspective of his Uncle Wilhelm’s office, high enough above the construction he could see how the bunker was laid out, which he later passed on to his superiors when he became an American military intelligence officer.
  • As he fled to his aunt’s estate outside of Berlin on Kristallnacht, he witnessed death delivered casually to an older man.
  • He strove fruitlessly to convince wealthy German Jews in the U.S. that the worst of the stories about the Nazis were true, to the point of exposing his scarred torso and back during a dinner party.
  • He travels to the South Pacific due to a military snafu and encounters head hunters, guerrillas, a pilot who was able to accurately judge how many weeks of life were left to him by the number of planes on the tarmac, and a number of encounters with General MacArthur.
  • When he musters out, he hires, of all people, Ansel Adams to photograph a garden he designed prior to joining the army.
  • And, of course, he helps create the garden center industry that dominated in the second half of the 20th century.

Interwoven through all of these epic tales are stories of life. He writes poetically of his mother’s compassion and strength. His retelling of his courtship and early marriage with his wife Margit paints a portrait of a strong-willed, quick-witted, and loving woman. And he speaks of his lifelong desire to judge each person for their own personal merits, not their race.

In April, Wertheim and I discussed the stories behind his book. Here are some of Wertheim’s more intriguing answers:

Greenhouse Grower RETAILING: Most people see the persecution of Jews as a gradual process after 1933. That viewpoint gives many people a logical reason why Hitler was able to get away with the atrocities of the Holocaust. He slowly restricted Jewish liberty until it was too late for outside intervention or even a public uprising.

  Yet your own experience was not gradual. Almost as soon as Hitler seizes power in 1933, your father is kidnapped by a few of his employees with Nazi-sympathizing views. How much differently did you feel about your family’s security after the kidnapping? By that I mean, did you feel that the kidnapping was an isolated incidence and that life would return to normal if given enough time, or did it feel like it was part of a bigger shift in circumstances, as history would prove it to be?

Ernest Wertheim: Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish people did not come gradually. The Jewish people simply did not realize how it all happened. If we would have read his book, Mein Kampf, we would have understood it better. As you know from the book, I wanted to leave right away. My dad did leave [after his employer, the Duke of Croÿ, paid his ransom], I do not know all the reason why he returned.

[Editor’s note: Wertheim’s father was arrested as soon as he stepped off the train at the station in Berlin in 1937, four years after he first left Germany. He was taken to Sachsenhausen, one of the earlier concentration camps. You can read an excerpt about how Wertheim rescued him with Heinrich Himmler’s unknowing help here.]

Ernst Wortheim July 2015 Wertheim visited his uncle’s office at Wertheim Department Store in Berlin, where he watched Hitler’s chancellery being built.
Wertheim visited his uncle’s office at Wertheim Department Store in Berlin, where he watched Hitler’s chancellery being built.

GGR: Your grandmother hosted dinner parties, but had to be circumspect about doing so. You say the guests would arrive next door rather than at her home, as if they planned to
dine with the general and his family who lived there. Instead, they were using a gate between the back gardens to enter your grandparents’ home. When did this practice of keeping guests arriving in secret start? Who were the guests and why were they so careful to keep their association with your family secret? Was this a common practice for those who did not want to give up their friendships with Jews?

Ernest Wertheim: You do not fully understand. The guests came through the back door. Several of the top generals lived on the same street as my grandparents. My grandparents became familiar with their neighbors, who in this case were top generals. Under normal circumstances these people would come in through the front door. When Hitler came to power, they did have to protect themselves by not openly visiting with a Jewish family. This is when they did not enter through the front door, but came in through the rear garden and the court. At times it was only the women that came for visits. I do not wish to call these events parties. They involved maybe two or three families at a time, and it would be mostly dinner or afternoon coffee and cake.

GGR: Your family rented a room to Gladys Wells, who was Ambassador Hugh Wilson’s secretary. I’ve not found much about Wilson during my research, other than the bare bones of his life and a copy of a letter he wrote to President Roosevelt about his first meeting with Hitler. That letter, coupled with Erik Larson’s excellent book, In The Garden Of Beasts, has given him a reputation of being sympathetic to Nazi ideology, at least until he witnessed Kristallnacht. Did that make Gladys renting a room from a Jewish family a politically risky thing for her or for your family? With all the restrictions on the type of work Jews could do, it seems renting rooms would be a welcome source of income.

Wertheim: No, Gladys Wells was not a political risk. She was an American diplomat. In the book, In The Garden Of Beasts, not everything is correct. The ambassador did know at an early stage what Hitler was all about, but President Roosevelt decided not to listen. The ambassador’s daughter was a real problem. It was not a good situation.

[Editor’s note: The ambassador’s daughter Wertheim refers to is Ambassador Wilson’s predecessor’s daughter, Martha Dodd, who is central to Larson’s In The Garden Of Beasts, which follows the lives of the U.S. Ambassador and his family during the early Nazi years.]

Ernest Wertheim
Ernest Wertheim

GGR: Around the same time this happened, you got involved in leading those who wanted to escape Germany into Czechoslovakia. Between the famous Pastor Neimöller trusting you with information about the ski instructor who would be your contact and the fact that you lead several escapes, I couldn’t help but wonder if you were part of an organized resistance group.

Wertheim: No, I was not a member of a resistance group. I met Neimöller at my cousin’s wedding and he arranged everything for me. As I describe in the book, once I had taken a few groups into Czechoslovakia, I felt one more trip may be one trip too many. My visa [to the U.S.] was finally coming through, and I needed to prepare to leave.

GGR: Why did you want to immigrate to the U.S.?

Wertheim: The United Sates had the possibility to make money for me. I only met those who succeeded there. English was close to my heart at that time. In our dreams, the U.S. was a golden place. South America also had a good reputation. My brother went to Chile.

GGR: You took a bus to California at the invitation of a designer, who had a nervous breakdown just before you arrived. As a result, you slept under a rhododendron that first night. Were you regretting choosing the U.S. as your new country at that point?

Wertheim: No, I never regretted coming the U.S. However, I will say that when I arrived in San Francisco on January 30, 1939, I stepped out of the bus, and the first thing I heard was the radio. It had Hitler’s voice – it was his 6th anniversary of coming into power, and there was no friendliness in his voice. It was a tremendous psychological wound. I wanted to get back on the bus.

A phone call at that time was only a nickel. I called the lady who had a recommendation for a job. I found out quickly that she was ill. I said, “I’ll call back tomorrow,” but the man told me that would be no good. And that was the end of my nickels, more or less. I was down in the dumps. My future… What am I going to do? I put my bag in the locker and walked outside. Mom used to tell me when things were difficult, to take a deep breath in the sunshine.

[Editor’s note: Wertheim met several people that day who would influence the rest of his life. You can read an excerpt recounting the experience here.]

GGR: During World War II, you were trained for a classified mission into Germany when there was a snafu and you were shipped to the South Pacific. Have you traced how, first, you were transferred, then later why you were not returned to your mission? Do you know if your original team was successful in its mission?

Wertheim: I cannot answer your question if the group did go into Germany. I never contacted the other members of the group. This was a no no.

[Editor’s note: You can read an account of Wertheim’s first encounter with General MacArthur here, in which MacArthur explains why he blocked Wertheim being returned to Washington once the mistake of his being shipped to the South Pacific was uncovered.]

GGR: You met MacArthur several times. Since you recount your experiences as a young man, there is a tone of deference in your descriptions — a young officer who is grateful for the recognition he receives from such a high-ranking commander. Now with more life experience, how would you describe MacArthur’s character based on your experience with him?

Wertheim: Before I met him, I was like everyone — we were all influenced by the media. He was not presented as a top-notch general. He did not save Bataan. But he wasn’t treated fairly. As you can tell from the conversation in the Jeep, his retreat wasn’t his fault. We didn’t have supplies. My personal impression is my own. I can tell you that, from the moment I was brought in to report on the Japanese lumber mill I’d taken, he took care of me. He asked, “When did you eat last?” I told him it was my K rations at breakfast, and it was now very late. He made sure I was taken care of. He never made you feel like a little person.

GGR: As you describe your family, you likewise describe those who served the family. You describe your shock after learning of the U.S. history of slavery and when you see segregation in Oklahoma. And the most marked instance of this theme is when you see your friend Toichi Domoto the first time after returning from war. You had to grapple with the sharp antagonism you felt because of his race. Many with a similar background to yours do not nurture the same sense of tolerance as you do. How did you come to value this trait as a child and young man?

Wertheim: I was born that way. My mother’s example had a lot to do with it. I must have unconsciously followed her example, and she provided me with her genes. I’m grateful for that. It makes life worthwhile. You need to know how to appreciate doing things for others. It’s important to keep a balance. I try to not make an opinion until I’ve really thought about it. It’s amazing all the things we don’t know.

Ernst Wortheim July 2015 Chasing Spring by Ernest WertheimYou can buy Chasing Spring in either black and white or in full color.
• Black/white: Lulu.com.
• Color: Contact Jacquie Courtwright
(who owns Alden Lane Nursery) at
925-447-0280 or [email protected].

Read all our coverage of Ernest Wertheim’s memoir:

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