It wasn’t difficult for Freddie Knoller to assume the role of “fixer” to the Gestapo in German-occupied Paris. He had the charm, the looks, the sophistication to convince the Nazis to trust him as their local guide to the red light district. He could offer a night away from the drudgery of war and lure them into the sensual charms of Parisian night life. The “safe” bordelles or brothels, free from “contamination” by the locals, favourite spots like Cité Pigalle, café La Brune, or cinemas featuring German names, such as Deutsche Soldatenkino on the Champs Elysees. There was glamour and luxury galore. To the victor the spoils.
For the Gestapo Parisian life was indeed a cabaret, and Freddie was their man. Little did they know that he was doing it to save his life. A Jew who, under the pseudonym, Robert Metz, allegedly born in Alsace-Lorraine, earned a commission by introducing the Nazis to the nightlife of Paris. A Gestapo officer once boasted to him that he could identify a Jew by the circumference of his head. After tracing Freddie’s head he insisted the “fixer” was indeed born in Alsace-Lorraine.
Freddie meeting the Duchess of Cornwall
But the reality was very different. Robert Metz was actually Vienna-born Freddie Knoller, who lived with his easy-going, happy-go-lucky mother, from whom he learned the value of optimism, his father and his two brothers, Eric and Otto. As a child he was often attacked by children on the way to school, subjected to antisemitic abuse, which was sadly the fate of most of his contemporaries
But things worsened for the Jews after the Anschluss in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria. Freddie, who has died aged 100, would never forget seeing Jews beaten and forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes, or how some former friends became Nazi supporters. On Kristallnacht ( November 9 1938), the local synagogue was burned down and one of their Jewish neighbours was killed.
Freddie’s parents agreed that their children should leave Austria. Freddie joined his cousins illegally in Belgium, and both his brothers were fortunate enough to reach America. But their parents were unable to leave.
In Belgium for the next five years he his life was constantly on the move. He endured hunger, separation, hiding, exhaustion and facing official questioning. He stayed in various refugee camps supported by the Jewish Aid Committee and played cello in camp orchestras. In May, 1940 he joined the masses of panic-stricken refugees heading for France. Forced to leave behind his beloved cello his parents had sent him, he would later mourn the loss of “the part of me which had tied me to my life in Vienna, and to my parents”.
Freddie and Freda Knoller on their wedding day in 1950
Freddie entered France with a German passport but was arrested at the border and sent to a French internment camp, St.Cyprein, as an enemy alien. He escaped the appalling, disease-ridden camp in the night during June 1940, walking for 10km until he reached his aunt and uncle in Galliac. From there he went to Paris later that year.
Sheltered by a Parisian Jewish family, he decided to take up his alternative identity as a Frenchman from Alsace to become a ‘guide’ to German soldiers visiting the red-light district. In May, 1942 he witnessed the round-up and deportation of the French Jews and was shocked by the collaboration and antisemitism of the French police. In July, 1943 Freddie was taken in for questioning by the Gestapo and although he was released, he decided his false identity was becoming too risky.
He left Paris for Figeac, in south-west France, and joined the French Resistance. He helped blow up a German troop train before being arrested by the Vichy police in September, betrayed by his French girl-friend from the next village, to whom he had admitted his true identity. Arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, he chose to confess he was a Jew rather than denounce his comrades. He was sent to Drancy, followed by Auschwitz, where he experienced brutality, starvation, and slave labour. During his time there his parents were murdered. He survived the death march in the wake of the Red Army advance and as the American forces advanced, he was finally taken to Bergen Belsen where inmates were dying of starvation. He was liberated by the Americans in April, 1945.
After being reunited with his brothers, Freddie joined them in the USA where he lived between 1947 and 1952, and where he met his British-born wife, Freda. The couple had two daughters and settled in London where he became a larger than life presence at AJR events. He also contributed to their social welfare work helping disburse aid to fellow Austrian survivors through the Austrian Holocaust Survivor Emergency Assistance programme. The Knollers founded the Lady M fashion shops and in 1984 he became a director of State of Israel Bonds. He was awarded a BEM in 2015 for services to Holocaust education and two years later had the honour of escorting the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to Vienna.
After retiring, Freddie campaigned tirelessly for recognition and reparations for the slave labour he suffered, alongside countless others. He wrote two books about his experiences, Desperate Journey and Living with the Enemy, co-written with John Landaw.
Like many survivors he was insistent that the Holocaust should not be forgotten and he addressed schools on his experiences. Interviewed at Salisbury’s Chalke Valley History Festival in 2014, at the age of 93, Freddie appeared handsome, youthful and well spoken, with a gentle hint of an Austrian accent. He admitted to his young interviewer that his story had remained a secret for 35 years. He had kept the trauma to himself, until one Friday night his daughters Marcia and Susie, aged 19 and 21, reproached him for not revealing it to them. They needed him to tell them, they said, otherwise, what would they tell their own children?
At that moment, something suddenly began to unravel and make sense to him. Freddie remembered that his own father had never spoken of his own history. That he knew nothing about him. “That night, until 4 am in the morning, I told them my whole story,” he said. “After that my nightmares stopped.”
He is survived by Freda, their daughters Marcia and Susie and their grandson Nadav, born in Israel.