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"Against the Tide" at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt
"Against the Tide" at the Jewish Museum in FrankfurtImage: Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main

Unsung heroes

May 11, 2012

Hans Rosenthal survived the Second World War hiding in a Berlin garden. The author Valentin Senger survived with fake papers. These are the fates of two Jews documented in a new exhibition in Frankfurt.


After the end of the Second World War, Oskar Schindler, businessman and savior of more than 1200 Jews in Poland, lived a lonely and impoverished life in a small apartment in Frankfurt. Only a small number of people knew about his courageous efforts during the war. He could never have predicted he would one day be the subject of an American film.

There were however less prominent people who, despite all the dangers, made attempts to help persecuted Jews during the period of National Socialist rule. They have long remained unsung heroes, whose stories have taken time to come to the public's attention. A number of these feature in a new exhibition "Against the Tide: Help and Solidarity for Persecuted Jews in Frankfurt and Hessen" at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.

Failed escape

Nicole Jussek-Sutton stands before a photograph depicting a man in a swimming costume, arms outstretched, ready to spring into the water. It is Arthur Schaub, a Swiss man married to Nicole's grandmother, who fled to Switzerland in 1940. The photograph was sent as a postcard to her daughter (Nicole's mother) who was left behind in Germany and contained a secret message. Schaub wanted to rescue the young woman by swimming across the Rhine, and twice swam over to the German side of the river. The audacious endeavor ultimately failed.

"My mother survived in Germany by hiding in an isolated house. This was despite the huge danger she was in, being both a Jew and a member of the resistance," explained Nicole Jussek-Sutton, who today lives in Ireland. Her mother died in 1996. She rarely talked about her experiences during the Second World War. She continued to feel persecuted, right up until her death.

A small number of Jews survived the Holocuast using fake identity papers
A small number of Jews survived the Holocuast using forged identity papersImage: Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden

Gesture of solidarity

It was ordinary German people who fought to help persecuted Jews during the war. Out of Christian charity, friendship, love, or because they did not agree with the politics of the National Socialists. They provided food and supplies, forged documents and hiding places. They saved Jews from deportation trains or even from concentration camps. Such as the caretaker who helped to alleviate the suffering of an elderly man in a Jewish retirement home. The married couple from Frankfurt who hid a young man in their attic who had fled from the Majdanek concentration camp. The priest who acted as an escape agent. The police officer who tampered with registration papers so that it was possible for a number of Jews to survive in the city of Frankfurt.

Wetzlar businessman Ernst Leitz – a leading producer of optical instruments and cameras – purposefully sought to employ Jews after 1933 so that they could acquire professional qualifications which would help them to emigrate and build a new life elsewhere. Leitz employed around 600 female Ukrainian laborers. He and his daughter ensured the women had a half dignified existence and above all, enough to eat on a daily basis. Leutz's daughter was imprisoned in a Frankfurt jail for this and other work assisting Jews. But there was also the British consul general, Robert T. Smallbones, who during the November riots in 1938 took persecuted Jews into the consulate, providing shelter and later helping them flee. Around 48,000 Jews were able to travel to Great Britain with transit visas and from there make their way to other countries.

The British consul general Robert T. Smallbones provided assistance for Jews during the November Pogroms in 1938
The British consul general Robert T. Smallbones provided assistance for Jews during riots in 1938Image: Sandra Wellington, Brasilien

Taboo subject

For a long time, little was known about such attempts to help the Jewish community. After the war, the issue of Germans having assisted persecuted Jews was taboo: "In comparison to other European countries, only a very small number of Germans helped Jews," said Raphael Gross, director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. There was never any recognition given for their work. "For German postwar society it was a provocation. The fact that a minority of Germans had sought to help Jews really highlighted the inaction of the great majority of Germans, as well as the fact that it was possible to do something, despite the terribly difficult political situation." The people who did assist Jews were themselves reluctant to make a fuss about the work they had done, since they felt it was the only natural thing to do. The political climate in the young German republic also forbade such actions from being talked about.


For a long time, opponents of the Nazi regime were considered traitors. Later, protracted debates ensued concerning what exactly "resistance" to the Nazi regime constituted, and then concentrated almost entirely on military resistance. But even that was limited, explained historian Wolfram Wette: "The German armed forces had around 18 million members, up to now, the number of rescuers we know of remains under 100."

Mutiges Zeichen der Solidarität nach dem November-Pogrom: die Frankfurterin Anneliese Steffan, 1938 © Hans Cetin, Frankfurt am Main (Pressebild Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt/Main) Fotos aus dem Jüdischen Museum Frankfurt/M.
Some non-Jewish Germans wore the yellow badge as a mark of solidarity with Jewish communitiesImage: Hans Cetin, Frankfurt am Main

Social recognition, but also the research that was required into the subject, came late. "It was a very laborious process," said the curator of the exhibition, Heike Drummer. Historical source material was difficult to locate. Even today no central archive exists even today. Museum director Gross explained: "The few who were active did everything they could to cover their tracks because their lives were in danger." In the meantime, the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin exhibits documentation on the work of these unsung heroes and their courageous acts. Now the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt is also making its own contribution to the existing evidence and research.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard

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