At Great Risk, Ernest Wertheim Helps Others To Escape Nazi Germany [Book Excerpt]
Editor’s note: Ernest Wertheim met the famous Pastor Niemöller at his cousin’s wedding. Niemöller is credited with saying:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialist, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Niemöller told Wertheim about a ski instructor at a mountain resort that was half in Germany and half in Czechoslovakia. Here is an excerpt from Wertheim’s memoir, Chasing Spring, that recounts why Wertheim, renowned for his love of skiing, learned to ski.
By January 1938, I decided I had saved enough money for a one-week ski vacation in Riesengebirge. This was my first vacation paid for with my own earned money, a big event for me. I contacted the ski instructor Pastor Niemöller had recommended and asked if he was available for ski lessons. When I received a positive answer, I arranged for the four-hour train ride from Berlin, feeling very proud that I was able to treat myself. I was still considering the pastor’s suggestion of assisting citizens in their escape from Germany, but had not yet committed to the task.
The ski vacation package included bed, breakfast, ski lessons and equipment. The instructor was a very personable, athletic man in his thirties, whom I liked immediately. His lodging was located at the base of Schneekoppe, the highest peak in Riesengebirge range, at over 5,200 feet. Equipment was quite basic back then: bindings were leather and ski boots were just like hiking boots. The skis were carved and waxed wood. My instructor was a very skilled teacher and I learned quickly. After spending the first two days practicing on the beginner hill, we rode the single-seat chairlift part way up the mountain to practice turns, carving our skis down the hill. The rest of the week we walked up the mountain beyond the end of the chairlift to have a longer run. Once I became more proficient, we climbed even further up the mountain to a ridge, which divided Germany from its neighbor, Czechoslovakia. At the eastern end of this ridge was the top of Schneekoppe, a cone-shaped pinnacle, similar to Mount Shasta in California, although much lower in elevation. The cone rose just above the ridge and on top there was a small hütte (basic lodge). The hütte contained a restaurant with a fireplace and cots for sleeping.
Arriving at the hütte after the vigorous trek up the mountain, my ski instructor and I sat at a corner table with a lovely view of the scenery and the village below. We both ordered a beverage, a mug of beer for him and Mit Schlag (hot chocolate with whipped cream) for me. Since our table was a bit private, we felt we could safely discuss the escape route. My instructor spread out a detailed map of the area, pointing out the course to ski down to arrive at the meeting place in Czechoslovakia. Since Pastor Niemöller had mentioned the border crossing, I had learned my mother had been helpful in a couple of similar missions through her work at the Jewish organization. Evidently, people went to Switzerland and Austria via a ski route, until Hitler marched into Austria.
The hütte on the Schneekoppe was right next to the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, almost precisely at the top of the mountain. German border patrol guards stood in a line every fifty feet or so, checking passports of those skiing down the Czech slope. In the afternoon a fog often rolled in, making for poor visibility that got even worse when it was snowing. Obviously, this was the best time to attempt to cross the border. With a cold, thick fog or snowstorm outside, the guards often left their posts for the comfort of the hütte. On my visit, it was a clear day, and I was able to see the top of the route quite easily.
Upon returning to Berlin, I decided to help with an escape mission. A group of us met a few times, in different shops and offices, to discuss the plan. We studied maps, photos, and weather forecasts. I met the boys and girls I would be escorting out of Germany, and I met a few of the parents not yet imprisoned in the camps. It took about three weeks to formalize our plan. Before I knew it, I found myself back in the hütte on Schneekoppe.
There were nine young adults – men and women – that I would be escorting across the border. Half of them were the children of non-Jewish Nazi resisters. Everyone traveled to the ski resort independently.
The plan was that I would relax in the hütte, drink my hot chocolate, and wait for the fog to come in. The others would like up the mountain on their own or in pairs. Slowly, they started to trickle in. One small group pretended to be getting a ski lesson. They arrived carrying all their belongings in small rucksacks.
As the weather worsened, I signaled it was time for the crossing by standing and putting on my hat and coat. Most of the guards were inside the hütte by then, waiting out the weather.
It started snowing as I put on my skis, and I could see that the first members of the group were just getting ready. I took a deep breath and pushed off downhill. I skied down the German side of the mountain to fool the guards that had stayed outside. After a few hundred feet down the hill I made an abrupt, almost 180 degree turn taking me to the very steep part of the mountain on the Czechoslovak side. It was a difficult turn even for a more experienced skier. When skiing in fog and now, it’s hard to tell whether you are going uphill or downhill. You can’t see very far ahead. Obstacles, like boulders and trees, can suddenly appear right in front of you. We planned to use some of the trees as guideposts, but they were very difficult to see. The group wouldn’t be able to linger. They needed to follow my tracks in the snow before wind erased them.
Once I had skied about 300 feet down the mountain, I stopped in a grove of trees and waited. I felt this was far enough that bullets couldn’t reach us.
The others were to exit the hütte in staggered intervals, and take the same path. Though it was less than 10 minutes before the first two arrived, it felt like forever. Then the others showed up a few at a time until the whole group of nine was present. I was able to breathe a little easier. We skied together the rest of the way, more slowly so no one would get hurt or lost. We still feared a German border patrol guard might follow us into Czechoslovakia. This of course, would have ruined everything, since none of the group had a legitimate visa or passport to enter the country.
We made it down the mountain undetected and walked on through a valley to our destination, a sheepherder’s hut in a snowy meadow. We passed a couple of barns and could hear the animals inside. In winter, the herders’ huts were normally empty. But inside one of them, a group of Quakers waited for us. They took care of the group from there. Everyone in the group was ecstatic to be out of Germany, but also weary of their uncertain future. It didn’t help that the Quakers were British and did not speak German very well. However, most of us spoke some English and so we managed.
After a few quick “thank yous,” everyone except for two Quaker men assigned to help me get back to Germany. They were expert skiers and had a car. We drove to another part of the mountain, put skins on our skis, and walked up to the German border. We all had our passports but were thankful no one stopped us. I said goodbye and skied down the mountain back to the instructor’s bed and breakfast.
I collapsed onto my bed. I was exhausted and at the same time exhilarated to have helped nine young adults, many my age, who might otherwise have ended up in concentration camps. They did not have the opportunity I had of acquiring a visa to go the United States, or for that matter, to any other country. I was fortunate to have sponsors who could assist me. If need be, in my new country.
The next morning, I found myself back on the train to Berlin.
After a few days back home, I was still amazed at what I had accomplished. It was a dangerous mission to take on, and yet, I hadn’t really felt afraid, except when I was worried the guards on top of the mountain might follow us downhill.
I repeated such an escort two more times, helping eight people on each journey. Only when I was safely back on the train to Berlins did I let myself feel the stress and danger of these missions.
When a representative of the church asked me to take another group, I refused. After three successes, I didn’t want to push my luck. It was time to focus on my own plans for leaving Germany.
You 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:
- Ernest Wertheim Rescues His Father From An Early Concentration Camp With Himmler’s Unknowing Help
- At Great Risk, Ernest Wertheim Helps Others To Escape Nazi Germany
- A Homeless Ernest Wertheim Makes Lasting Connections On His First Day In California
- Ernest Wertheim Tells General MacArthur He’s Not His Favorite General
- Carol Miller’s Review of Chasing Spring
- Carol Miller’s Interview With Ernest Wertheim