In the midst of the Second World War, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels triumphantly declared in 1943 that Berlin was now Judenrein — cleansed of all Jews.
Not quite. Of the 180,000 Jews living in pre-Hitler Berlin, some 7,000 still remained in 1943, who at that point went underground (as self-styled “U-boats”). When Russian troops conquered the German capital in the spring of 1945, an astonishing 1,700 Jews had survived and came out of hiding.
Among the latter was my young second cousin, Ernest Gunter Fontheim, the only one to escape when the Gestapo sent his parents and sister to their deaths in concentration camps.
Although nothing in his past experience or appearance had prepared Ernest for his new role, in 1943 he transformed himself into a German “Aryan” and survived thanks to his wits, good fortune and the help of some brave German civilians.
As German war casualties rose, Nazi authorities were searching not only for Jews but even more for possible draft dodgers or army deserters. When thus confronted, Ernest pulled out skillfully forged papers showing that he was about to report for military duty and was engaged in vital war work.
But having eluded the Nazis for two years, Ernest’s life was still in danger. As Berlin fell to the Russians, a drunken Soviet soldier confronted my cousin and ordered him to stand against a wall and prepared to shoot him.
Ernest’s plea that he was a Jew, and not a Nazi, fell on deaf ears with the soldier insisting that Hitler had killed all the Jews.
Fortunately, the soldier’s pistol chamber was empty and though he insisted that Ernest wait in place until he got more bullets, my cousin wisely took off when the Russian turned his back,
With art imitating life, a newly released German film The Invisibles tracks the ingenuity and bravery of four young German Jews whose dangers and escapes closely parallel those of my cousin Ernest.
Based on the actual wartime experiences of four young men and women, the quartet includes a art student-turned-document-forger and a brunette-turned-blonde who passes as a grieving German war widow.
A second young man hides out with German communists and joins their anti-Nazi resistance group, while a second young woman finds work as a maid to a high-ranking Nazi official who entertains his colleagues at lavish banquets.
What did it take to stay alive when the slightest suspicion or slip-up led to a concentration camp and death?
“The common characteristic of Invisibles was that they were young,” the film’s director Claus Rafle told the JC. “They had to make instant decisions and if questioned or eyed with the slightest suspicion know how to respond in a self-assured, relaxed manner.”
As for my cousin, he emigrated to the United States after the war and had a distinguished career as professor of physics at the University of Michigan. Now 96, he is retired and lives with his wife in Washington, DC, near their two children.