Hermann Göring's younger brother Albert, of all people, rescued Jews from the Nazis, and yet his story is forgotten. But why?
Irena Steinfeldt looks nervously at the clock to reassure herself that she isn't too late for her appointment at the Café Paradiso in downtown Jerusalem. She sits down, shakes her hair and gazes intently through her glasses.
It is important to her to set something straight right away. It really doesn't matter to her, she says, what someone's name was or what rank he had at the time, if he had rescued only one or several Jews and had proven himself to be a good person at a bad time. The true heroes, who remain good throughout their lives, are extremely rare, she says, and they certainly didn't exist at the time of the Holocaust.
Steinfeldt has plenty of experience with the all-too-human. Her desk is covered with letters, documents and files that tell stories of how people acted benevolently in bad times, of islands of good in an ocean of evil. She passes judgment over what it takes to be called a hero. She also helps to decide who will receive the highest honorary title conferred by the State of Israel, a title whose recipients, whether it is awarded during their lifetimes or posthumously, are known as the "Righteous Among the Nations."
Steinfeldt works at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where she runs the department that receives nominations for individuals to be accepted into this circle of nobility. She checks the nominations, does additional research, sometimes asks the submitters to correct something and, only when everything seems to be watertight, forwards the nomination to a commission of 10 Holocaust survivors, who then decide whether a candidate truly deserves to be accepted into the circle of the "Righteous."
It isn't a very large group. Since it was created in 1953, the title has been awarded to 24,356 people from 47 countries. They include 510 Germans, such as the pastoral aid worker Cläre Barwitzky, who rescued 30 children from deportation near the French town of Chamonix in 1943, and Willi Ahrem, the commandant of a forced labor camp, who warned Jews and concealed them when the SS was approaching with the intent to kill them.
For some time, Steinfeldt has been dealing with a case that seems quite complicated, partly because it is so spectacular. It revolves around a man who has also remained an unsung hero in Germany, and who demonstrated humanity in the midst of barbarism.
The file on Steinfeldt's desk makes a very substantial impression. It contains Gestapo reports, the records of US Army interrogations completed after the war, a 1947 court decision from Prague, and statements by people who were rescued and described what was done to help them. The documents seem to present a strong case for doing justice to this unsung hero, be it in Germany or Israel. Or do they?
In some of the photos, the man looks as if he had just emerged from a coffeehouse in the Weimar Republic, with his pencil moustache and cigarette holder, and his misty-eyed and melancholy gaze. There is a certain elegance about him. He played the piano, was popular with women and wasn't necessarily the most loyal person on the planet. He was a snob and a lady's man, an engineer with a bourgeois manner. And yet he was also a good person, someone with moral convictions, as George Pilzer, the son of one of the rescued, says admiringly.
It is difficult to say how many people he saved, Jews and non-Jews. He probably didn't know himself, because he didn't know all the people he helped. He retrieved some from concentration camps and helped others escape abroad. He set up bank accounts for them in Switzerland so that they could survive while in exile. He gave money to members of the resistance, and he looked the other way when they committed sabotage or stole weapons for their illegal struggle at the weapons factory where he held a high-ranking position.
The Opposite of His Brother
He was a good person, but he was also a colorful character.
His name was Albert Göring. He was the younger brother of leading Nazi Hermann Göring, the second-in-command after Adolf Hitler. Hermann Göring commanded the air war against England and prepared Germany's industry and economy for a war that he wanted as much as Hitler did. In 1941, he gave the order to "make all necessary preparations for a final solution of the Jewish question in Europe." Hermann Göring also played a major role in the rise of the Nazis.
Albert Göring was the opposite of his brother. He hated the Nazis, and he said early on that Hitler would mean war and ruin. He didn't join the Nazi Party, and he despised his brother for bowing to Hitler. He distanced himself from Germany, first going to Austria, where he took Austrian citizenship. After the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, he moved to Prague, and from there to Budapest and Bucharest. Wherever he went, he helped those in desperate need, both before and during the war.
On the few occasions that the Göring brothers saw each other in the 12 years between the Nazi takeover and Germany's surrender to the Allies, it was at family gatherings. But Albert needed Hermann, and he also used him. He would have been lost without his brother. Without his support, the Gestapo -- which knew exactly what Albert Göring was doing and with whom he associated -- would have arrested and executed him.
The Göring brothers remained loyal to each other. He is my brother, Hermann would say, reminding the Gestapo thugs that family members were off-limits. The madness of the Nazi era could easily be told from the perspective of these two brothers. Their relationship offers tremendous material for a double biography and, of course, a movie. Contemporary witnesses who are still alive today include family members who knew both men: Albert's great-nieces, Hermann's only daughter and Albert's only daughter.
It's thrilling material. But a small survey of well-known historians shows that hardly any of them was even aware of the existence of Hermann Göring's dissimilar brother.
Still, there is sufficient written documentation describing who Albert Göring was. In 1962, more than 50 years ago, Ernst Neubach wrote a long article ("My Friend Göring") in Aktuell, a now-defunct weekly magazine. Neubach penned the lyrics for popular tunes ("I Lost My Heart in Heidelberg"), wrote screenplays and directed films. He was a Jew who owed a great deal to Albert Göring and fled to France in 1938. His article is part of the material in Göring's file at Yad Vashem.
Neubach describes an episode in Vienna, shortly after the Nazi invasion. When Nazi stormtroopers raided the Raber paint shop on Wehringerstrasse, they couldn't find the owner and collared his 75-year-old mother instead. They hung a sign around her neck that read: "I am a dirty Jew," and forced her to sit in the shop's window. When Göring happened upon the scene, he pushed his way through the jeering onlookers, removed the sign from the humiliated woman and led her away from the crowd. When a few lower-ranking members of the SS blocked his way, he showed them his identification and they let him go.
"At the time, many people owed their lives and their freedom to the brother of the all-powerful Hermann Göring," Neubach writes. Albert Göring rescued his doctor, Max Wolf, from being sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He obtained exit permits for other Jews, and he transferred the confiscated assets of Jews to Zurich. He personally took his friend Oskar Pilzer, a film producer and former president of Austria's largest film production company, to the border at the last possible moment.
Later, in Prague, he used letterhead with the name Göring printed on it to write a letter to the camp commandant in Dachau, in which he demanded the release of Josef Charvát, a doctor and resistance fighter. The commandant had two men named Charvát in the camp and, to be on the safe side, released them both. As a result, a communist leader named Charvát was also freed.
Protected by His Brother
The Charvát episode illustrates the occasionally comedic quality of the otherwise deadly serious story of the rescue of "Jewish individuals known and unknown to him," as Neubach writes. But the Nazi reports from his time in Prague also show that there were times when Albert Göring risked his own life.
In 1939, Göring went to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, where he was made export director at the koda Works. koda, one of the largest arms manufacturers in Europe at the time, was incorporated into Reichswerke Hermann Göring, a Nazi industrial conglomerate. But it wasn't his brother's influence that got Albert his high-ranking position. He had developed a reputation, which led the plant's management to offer him the job.
The Gestapo had Göring under surveillance and collected incriminating material against him. According to a lengthy report on his activities dated Oct. 23, 1944, he had drawn attention to himself "because of his frequent association with Jewish circles," and because he was acting on behalf of individual Jews and may even have been married to a Jew. In fact, Albert Göring had married a Czech woman, part of the Slavic ethnic group that the Nazis viewed as inferior.
The report also states that Göring took certain liberties, including his refusal to tolerate Nazi conventions. "Worth noting in this context," the document reads, "is a report that a Czech employee advised a German vice-director not to use the 'Heil Hitler' greeting upon entering Göring's office because he would otherwise have been thrown out immediately."
A short note from the Nazi governor in Prague to headquarters in Berlin, dated Aug. 24, 1944, reveals what the Nazis would like to have done with him if their hands hadn't been tied: "Mr. Albert Göring, who in my opinion is a defeatist of the worst sort, arrived in Prague from Budapest yesterday, bringing news of atrocities. Because he entertains relationships with unreliable Czech industrialists, I consider his unrestricted mobility to be dangerous and therefore request permission to transfer him to the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin for interrogation and clarification of serious suspicions."
But this never went beyond a fervent wish. The big brother held his protective hand over the little brother, who did the opposite of what Hermann felt was right. Nevertheless, despite their differences, a brother was a brother. Albert relied on this notion, and he knew that he could, even though the two men presumably never spoke about it.
Members of the extended Göring family say that the two never discussed their differences. Political debates did not take place at family gatherings. The brothers were probably protecting each other from the truth, and each of them probably didn't want to know exactly what the other one was doing.
Albert Göring was arrested several times, but was always quickly released after officials had put in a call to Berlin. Given what we know today, perhaps he was never truly in mortal danger, no matter how much the Nazis would have liked to put him through the wringer.
Rumors of Jewish Roots
But why did Albert Göring help those in need in the first place? There are no written documents describing his motivation for helping people in trouble. It is clear that the Hitler cult of personality was repugnant to him. His brother was the antipode, and his two sisters were married to ardent Nazis. Albert was the exception in the family, an outsider who was respected and derided at the same time. There is, however, a story in his biography that lends a grotesque twist to this case of the unsung hero.
According to a relative who prefers to remain anonymous, it was an open secret in the family that Albert was in fact only a half-brother. He was allegedly the product of an affair between his mother, Franziska, or Fanny, and the Göring family's wealthy physician. In fact, photos show a resemblance between Albert and the doctor, Hermann von Epenstein. Epenstein was rich and sophisticated, and he owned two castles, one in the Franconia region of Bavaria and one in the Austrian state of Salzburg. He was also of Jewish origin.
If Epenstein was the father, Albert Göring, according to Nazi Rassenlehre (racial theory), was a "Jewish mongrel."
Some might interpret this aspect of the family history as a motive for Albert Göring to rescue victims of the Nazis instead of becoming a Nazi himself or leading a life of luxury in his brother's shadow. His life in Third Reich was certainly not without danger because it was possible to exploit the knowledge of his origins. But the Gestapo apparently did not discover the family secret, or else it would have caused more trouble for both Albert and Hermann Göring.