Ernest Wertheim Rescues His Father From An Early Concentration Camp With Himmler’s Unknowing Help [Book Excerpt]
Editor’s note: After graduating from agricultural college, Wertheim worked for his aunt as her estate manager, maintaining the gardens on her estate. He had a lifelong friendship with her chauffeur, Herr Glaubitz, who taught him how to drive. After his father was arrested upon re-entering Germany after a lengthy absence, his family heard there may be a way to free him in 1937.
Here is an excerpt from Wertheim’s book, Chasing Spring, recounting what happened next.
At Aunt Martha’s Bendlerstrasse apartment and while visiting with Uncle Alfred and Aunt Hilde, Father’s imprisonment was spoke of in whispers. Through the Jewish welfare society, we learned that a hefty bribe might get father out of Sachsenhausen.
One day I found Herr Glubitz alone in the garage and told him what we wanted to do. He leaned back on the car and looked at me for a moment with great concern before nodding.
“Fritz is coming tomorrow. I will talk to him. Do you have white asparagus in your garden?”
Fritz was a fellow chauffeur. He and Herr Glaubitz had been friends for a long time. Until the previous year, Fritz had worked with a family who lived a couple of blocks away. Then the family left suddenly, and Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS and Gestapo, moved in. The government gave Himmler the estate free of charge as an official residence. Fritz had little choice but to work for this new family, though he was in no way a Nazi sympathizer.
He and several of the other chauffeurs came regularly for cherries, apples, and seasonal vegetables from Aunt Martha’s gardens. She had always shared these with her neighbors. The drivers took some for themselves and delivered the rest to their employers. When I took over the estate, they came to me for these gifts. The favorite of Fritz’s boss was white asparagus.
The next day I had a basket of beautiful white asparagus ready. Fritz was in the garage with Herr Glaubitz, and I could hear them speaking in muted tones as I approached. Usually their conversation was animated.
“Hello,” I called out before entering the garage. I asked Fritz how he was and handed him the basket of white asparagus. “Beautiful,” he graciously replied before his face took on a taut seriousness. “I will help arrange things. It might take a while.”
During the days before I was to go to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to bring my father home, I could not sleep. The August nights were very warm.
“You don’t have to go,” my mother said to me the evening before the big day.
“But I do,” I replied.
The following morning I rode my bike to Aunt Martha’s in a daze. I had nearly 5,000 Reichsmarks in an unmarked envelope under my newly pressed shirt when I got into the Chrystler with Herr Glaubitz, my stomach was tight, adrenaline fueling me after many sleepless nights. I had provided some of the money myself. We barely spoke as we drove north for nearly 30 minutes. Herr Glaubitz turned off onto a side road where Fritz was parked and waiting. I changed cars and Fritz drove me the last few miles to Oranienburg, where the camp was located.
As we turned down the driveway, everything abruptly turned gray – gray stone, gray steel. Beside the road was a stone wall, about ten feet tall, outside of which was an electrified wire fence that was even taller. We passed a guard tower in which a soldier stood in front of a menacing machine gun. At the front entrance gate, Fritz stopped to show our IDs to a guard. They recognized him and his car as belonging to Himmler, so they made short work of it. I stared ahead at the metal work of the black gate that contained the words: Arbeit Matcht Frei (Work makes you free).
The guard waved us through, and we drove inside. I would not let my mind ask, “Will I make it back out?” So much could go wrong.
After that day, I knew what a concentration camp was. There was a huge parade ground. I had never seen so many SS officers or so many guns. Barrack huts sprawled out beyond the parade ground. Prisoners, some very old, all thin and lifeless and wearing gray, striped uniforms, marched somberly across the square as several Nazi soldiers walked beside them, holding guns and yelling horrible insults. On each prisoner’s uniform were numbers and upside-down triangles of different colors: red, pink, and yellow. I could see the look in their eyes for many nights afterwards, the vacant stares of weariness, lifelessness, fear, and exhaustion. I blinked at a scene in the distance, not believing it to be real. A prisoner standing alone against a wall, a soldier raising a pistol and firing, and the prisoner crumpling to the ground. I began to shake. There was more, much more: a gallows, the smell of decay, and soldiers joking and laughing in contrast. I tried not to see anymore. I still don’t want to remember.
Fritz led me to the camp administration office just inside and held the door open for me to pass. “I will wait for you in the car,” he said quietly.
Inside, I tried to make my voice calm and low as I told a Nazi soldier sitting behind a desk I had an appointment and told him the name of the officer. “Follow me,” he said. He ushered me to another office where another assistant sat at a desk and closed the door behind me. This man pulled an envelope from out of the desk drawer, a replica of the one under my shirt. I took out my envelope full of money and exchanged it for his, as planned. Then he led me back out the door and into the yard. He pointed at a building about 60 feet away. “Go there to receive the prisoner.”
What choice did I have? Every step farther away from the safety of Fritz’s car felt heavier, every footfall louder on the gravel. I entered a green building. It was not well lit inside. There were many tables and chairs and an empty bar against one wall. It smelled of cigarettes and stale beer. No one was inside. I stood waiting for what seemed like an immeasurably long time. I didn’t even think of sitting down. Much later, I learned this building was nicknamed the “Green Monster” and at night became a makeshift casino for the drunken Nazi soldiers.
Finally, a door swung open with bright light spilling in and silhouetting a guard who shoved in another man. Clear of the light, I saw my father. His head had been shaved, and his face was rough with whiskers. He was in work clothes that didn’t fit him, smeared with dirt and oil, his shirttail out. He looked at me, and it took a moment for him to understand what he was seeing. Stunned, he began to sway. I took his elbow as his knees buckled.
“Go on then,” said the guard. Back outside, I saw Fritz’s car. I wanted to run to it, but my father moved slowly by my side as I supported him. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stared sideways at me. Fritz opened the door behind us, put the car in gear, and drove us out the gates of Sachsenhausen. We had made it.
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