Henry Wermuth

Would-be Hitler assassin who told his own reflection: “This muselmann is going to live”


At the age of 19, in 1942, Henry Wermuth attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was working in a Nazi labour camp in Klaj, Poland and having heard rumours that Hitler would be passing through, he managed to slip out of the camp to place heavy rocks and branches on the railway track. It turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to derail the train.

Years later he was presented with a resistance medal in Germany  in recognition of the attempt. He often remarked on the irony that the then German government would have shot him on the spot had he been discovered at the time.

The son of Abraham Heinrich Bernhard and Ida Wermuth of Frankfurt am Main, he grew up as a proud German patriot together with his younger sister Hanna.

With the rise of the Nazis, the family were deported east. They made their way to Krakow in Poland and later to the Bochnia ghetto. It was from there that Henry and his father were assigned to work in the Klaj labour camp, not knowing he would never see his mother and 13 year old sister Hanna again. Many years later Henry discovered they had been sent to Belzec and most likely gassed on arrival. The memories of losing his young sister and mother haunted Henry for the rest of his life.
Henry and his father were subsequently transported to the Plaszow concentration camp, where the infamous commandant Amon Goeth would take pot-shots from his villa at any one he spotted not working. Henry nearly became one of his victims after warning two new inmates who had stopped to talk, when three shots rang out. The two new arrivals were killed instantly, falling onto Henry, who was only grazed by his intended bullet which ripped the collar of his jacket. 

Pretending to be dead for hours, he was finally helped when his weeping father saw him, shocked but relieved to find his son alive and unharmed. Eventually,  six inmates picked Henry up and carried him back to the barracks.

In late 1943 Henry and his father were moved to a slave labour camp in Kielce, described in his memoirs as a relative oasis. They had food and Henry was able to grow strong. But this only lasted for a few months before they were moved on to Auschwitz. On arrival they were sent to the showers. Unsure if they were about to be gassed, Bernard told Henry to “breathe deeply, my son, to get it over and done with quickly.” These words became the title of both Henry’s autobiography and a recent educational documentary of his life.

In 1945, with the Russians advancing, Henry and his father were moved back west. Henry’s father eventually succumbed to injuries during one of these transportations, following a beating by a guard in late April, 1945. It was only a week before Henry was liberated by the US army at Mauthausen.  An emaciated Henry,  weighing only 33 kilograms, remembers catching sight of his reflected skeletal frame in a darkened window and telling himself – “this muselmann is going to live”. 
After the war, and recovering from tuberculosis, Henry came to London where he met his future wife Elisabeth Stösser, They married on March 31, 1963 and had two daughters, Ilana and Tricia. Although his dream was to become an actor, Henry felt he was too short to be a Hollywood star, so instead he built up a successful residential property business in North London, after receiving compensation from the German government for the murder of his mother, father and sister.

Henry also rediscovered his religion, although his favourite part of going to synagogue was enjoying a Chivas Regal whisky or two with the late writer and JC columnist Chaim Bermant at the Hampstead Garden Suburb shtibl, and then Norrice Lea. 

After completing his memoirs in the 1980s (which he wrote in English and translated into German and Hebrew), Henry started to speak about his wartime experiences at schools. He also took up  writing, self-publishing four fictional books in the style of the German author Karl May.

He stayed sharp of mind throughout his later years despite suffering a quadruple by-pass, a stroke that left him unable to use the left side of his body,  and cancer. He was an excellent chess player and enjoyed telling jokes, doing magic tricks and playing word games with his grandchildren on Friday nights.

In his last two months Henry was admitted to hospital with suspected Covid-19, a cardiac arrest, sepsis, kidney failure and pneumonia. Doctors quickly put him on the ‘end of life pathway’ but once again he defied all by recovering the next day and asking for food. 

He left hospital on May 5, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of his liberation from Mauthausen concentration camp – knowing that this time his days were strictly numbered, yet still determined to go out on his terms.      

When Henry was ready to go, he passed away at home peacefully surrounded by his daughters and grandchildren. He is mourned by his beloved wife Elisabeth, daughters Ilana Wermuth-Metzger and Tricia Hartzel, sons-in-law David and Craig and grandchildren, Robbie, Teia and Sophia. 

Henry Wermouth: born April 4, 1923. Died May 18, 2020

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