Haaretz, November 30, 2012, By Ofer Aderet
At a moving ceremony this week in Berlin, Yad Vashem recognized the previously unknown heroic rescue of Jews by an active Wehrmacht soldier during the Holocaust.
A year and a half ago, an e-mail arrived at Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department. The sender, a resident of Germany, wished to inquire whether a deceased relative of his, a Wehrmacht soldier named Gerhard Kurzbach, was worthy of being granted recognition as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
In response to the e-mail, the department’s director, Irena Steinfeldt, opened an investigation in the Yad Vashem Archives. “And suddenly a fabulous story started coming together for me,” she related this week.
Thanks to advanced software that makes it possible to conduct a search that focuses on various cross-sectional data, she was able to locate testimonies from the 1940s, ’50s and ’70s of various Holocaust survivors.
“All of a sudden, loads of testimonies popped up, which described a rescue story we had not been familiar with previously, at whose center was Gerhard Kurzbach, the Wehrmacht soldier,” she said. With the material in hand, Steinfeldt applied to a German archive in Berlin, where the personal files of the millions of soldiers of the Third Reich are maintained to this day. The archive’s staff tracked down Kurzbach’s file for her.
Master Sgt. Kurzbach, born in 1915, was drafted into the German military in August 1939 and, shortly before World War II broke out, was assigned to the artillery corps. In May 1941, he was appointed commander of a workshop for refurbishing military vehicles in the town of Bochnia, near Krakow, Poland. The plant employed hundreds of Jewish forced laborers from the Bochnia ghetto.
Survivors from Bochnia recounted that Kurzbach saved a large number of Jews from roundup and deportation by concealing them in the plant he managed. He even was able to smuggle a few into hiding places. One testimony came from Romek Marber, an 87-year-old survivor who today lives in Britain. Marber, who was born in Poland, was deported to Bochnia in 1939 from Turek. Two years later, together with 200 other Jews, he was sent to work at Kurzbach’s plant.
“On August 23, 1942, the day of the big aktion in the ghetto,” said Marber, in conversation with Haaretz this week, “we were told that we had to stay during the night and work, since there was more work than expected: more lorries to be finished than planned. The gate of the factory was also closed, which was very rare. Usually it was always open.”
The next day, when the workers returned to the ghetto after work, they found it was empty. “We realized that Kurzbach had actually saved us from the aktion and from deportation,” he said. “I never saw him again,” Marber added.
Anyone who was not hidden at the plant was sent that very night to the Belzec death camp. For example, that was the fate of Marber’s mother, sister and grandparents. Later in the war, he was moved around between various camps, including Auschwitz. Marber did not know what happened to Kurzbach, who had saved his life. All he recalled was that Kurzbach disappeared in March 1943.
In fact, Gerhard Kurzbach had been transferred suddenly to another unit. The last sign of life from him came from Romania, in a letter he sent to his family in 1944. He died in 1945 in a Red Army prisoner-of-war camp. The question of why he was transferred from his post and whether he was sent to the front as punishment for having saved Jews remains unanswered to this day.
When the war was over Marber reunited with his father and brother, who had immigrated to the United Kingdom. He managed to rebuild his life and became a successful graphic designer. Among other things, he designed the covers of Penguin books (including 200 titles from the Penguin Crime line ) and covers for both The Economist and New Society magazines. He also served as art director of The Observer newspaper. At the height of his career, he was chair of the graphic design department at London’s Hornsey College of Art.
“If you live constantly with hate, you will eventually destroy yourself,” said Marber. “The tragedy is so big, but you continue. Without forgetting.” he said.
In early 2010, Marber published a memoir, “No Return: Journeys in the Holocaust,” in which he mentions Kurzbach and his efforts in saving Jews.
Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department has a staff of 10 employees, and is multilingual. In an average year, they review the cases of several hundred candidates for the distinction. The criteria are clear: A candidate, who need not be alive, must be a non-Jew who saved Jews in the Holocaust, at the risk of his or her life, and not for monetary gain. Every year some 500 new righteous gentiles are added to the list. In the course of the 50 years during which the honor has been bestowed, some 24,500 people have made the list.
Kurzbach met the criteria, and Marber’s testimony played a key role in the decision to name him a Righteous Among the Nations. In accordance with protocol, the case was sent for approval to a public committee that consists of Holocaust survivors and headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel (not a survivor himself ). After it was decided to grant the distinction to Kurzbach, Yad Vashem with the help of the Israeli Embassy in Berlin worked to locate his relatives.
It turned out that Kurzbach’s family is split between two German states, Bavaria and Brandenburg – one in former West Germany and the other in the former East – and that the two branches had never met. “It is hard for me to describe the excitement that took hold of them when I got in touch with them,” said Sandra Witte, a staffer at the Israeli embassy in Germany, which is in charge of organizing the ceremonies for German Righteous Among the Nations. “None of them had known Kurzbach, but they began to cry.” Kurzbach’s daughter died early this year. Her son and daughter – Kurzbach’s grandchildren – were located, along with other relatives.
One of the latter, Kurzbach’s nephew, sent Yad Vashem photos of his uncle and a rare and special document: a letter Kurzbach’s wife received in 1943 from the Jews he saved, immediately after he had left the workshop and vanished. “Two-hundred people mourn his departure. We bade farewell not only to our supervisor, whom we loved and respected, but also to one who was like a father and a good friend to us. Each of us owes him gratitude,” they wrote to her.
A few weeks ago, during a vacation in Israel, Romek Marber got a surprising telephone call from the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, in which he was informed that Kurzbach would be named Righteous Among the Nations at a ceremony in Berlin. Such ceremonies are usually held abroad to facilitate the participation of family and friends. As the only person still living who knew Kurzbach, he was invited to be the guest of honor at the event, and to meet the family of the man who saved his life.
“I did not agree to it at once,” said Marber this week. “I had to think about it. So many years had gone by since then. One must not live the past.”
The decision to attend the ceremony in Berlin was not an easy one: Marber had not visited Poland or Germany since the Holocaust. In the end, however, he decided he must go. “I’m pleased that he is getting this ‘hasid umot olam,’” explained Marber, using the Hebrew term for the honor. “I guess he could not live with what was done to the Jews,” he said.
Thus, at the ceremony on Tuesday in Berlin, Marber joined 26 of Kurzbach’s relatives at the ceremony at which Kurzbach was named Righteous Among the Nations, under the auspices of the Israel Embassy. Along with the ambassador, Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, the ceremony was attended by Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, who rose from his seat to embrace Marber.
“I stand here before you today, thanks to the man in the picture on the screen [projected on the stage],” Marber said. “Kurzbach managed to save me and other Jews, but the fact that he tried to save is even more important than that he succeeded. He did this with great personal courage … We learn from this that those who hate and spread an ideology of hate lose in the end. There is no future for hatred.”
Hundreds of German high-school students attended the ceremony. “They were riveted, and gave Marber a standing ovation when he was done speaking,” reported Itay Tagner, spokesman of the embassy. “Most of them were 15 or 16 years-old – the age Marber had been when he worked in Kurzbach’s plant.”
Added Sandra Witte: “I have organized quite a few of these ceremonies, but I never saw anything like this in my life.”
For her part, Irena Steinfeldt commented that, “I have a habit of saying that I’ve seen it all, but really each case is exceptional. And when a story like this falls into your hands – it is unbelievable.”