In 1973, the Körber Foundation began the "Students Competition on German History for the President's Award." In 1996, the focus was on the history of helping in Germany. Benjamin Herzberg, a fourteen-year-old, submitted the results of his study on assistance to Jews in Hamburg. He documented the life of a non-Jewish woman, Ruth Held, and researched the role of the city's American Consulate General during the Nazi era.
Student Competitions in Germany
Student competitions, especially on historical subjects, are very popular in Germany. The largest national competition is the "Students' Competition on German History for the President's Award," sponsored by the Körber Foundation biannually since 1973. Twice the theme of this competition was "Daily Life in National Socialism"; in 1983, the competition focused on the period "from the end of the Weimar Republic to the Second World War," and in 1985, the focus was on "Germany in Wartime." The students' assignment was to discover the impact of National Socialism on individuals in.their own neighborhoods and towns. The students had up to five months to complete their research.
In 1983, 12,843 students between the ages of 11 and 21 submitted a total of 2,172 individual and group projects. In 1985, some 6,000 participants submitted another 1,168 research reports.
The students conduct research in school and municipal archives, libraries, and local newspaper archives as well as by interviewing witnesses to secure evidence and come to terms with the past. Their research results are usually submitted in written form. But there are also other forms of presentation, such as exhibitions, video or audio recordings, and artistic performances, which attempt to reach a larger audience.
The competition in 1996-1997 focused on the theme "From the Poorhouse to Counseling Addiction: The History of Assistance." Several dozen projects were dedicated to assistance for the persecuted, especially for Jews in Nazi Germany.
"Candles in the Dark: Help for Jews in Hamburg, 1933-1945" was the title of Benjamin Herzberg's project [see Documents]. This ninth-grade student in the Willhöden Gymnasium in Hamburg submitted his project to the Körber Foundation and was awarded first prize. The jury's reasons for the award were:
"…the richness of material used in this work, the organizational clarity and strong writing style, particularly the complexity of interpretation, represented an unusual accomplishment for a ninth-grade student."
Benjamin Herzberg reports on the story of his project.
The Development of My Work on Help for Jews in Hamburg
Even before the Students' Competition in German History for the President's Award theme of "The History of Assistance" was announced, I had been curious about the extent of help for Jews in my hometown of Hamburg during the Nazi period and who these rescuers were. There was a wave of publications on this topic after Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List." However, neither the literature about Germany for this subject nor specific local literature about Hamburg in the Nazi period provided me with many leads about assistance for Jews by non-Jews. Only one person from Hamburg, who provided hiding places and assistance for persecuted Jews, is honored as "Righteous among the Nations" by the Israeli memorial, Yad Vashem. In contrast, hundreds of such cases are known and researched in Berlin.
I tried to learn who had helped in Hamburg. Since my father's family was Jewish, I had no difficulties initially in questioning some acquaintances who had survived the Nazi period. Our closest friends had not survived directly because of help by non-Jews; they had emigrated or had been protected by their relationship to non-Jews. But, in turn, they had friends who told me that they had survived the war only because of the help of non-Jews. In this way, I reached the first relevant witness for my project. Hilde Gordon was born in 1928 and was a "three-quarters Jew" according to the definitions of the Nuremberg laws. She survived the war only because her non-Jewish foster parents repeatedly refused to place her in a Jewish orphanage.
My second witness, Ruth Held, was not Jewish. Through her German teacher, she discovered a Jesuit priest who provided food for persecuted Jews. Ruth Held also participated in these operations. Later she was forced to work in an armaments factory, the "Hanseatische Kettenwerke," supervising Jewish female forced laborers from Eastern Europe. Here, too, she helped with food and medicines and sent letters from the workers to their families.
After I heard this story, I realized that I would have to support my work with previously documented research as well as with original materials. I went to the state and university libraries and located general literature about Hamburg in the Nazi era in order to obtain an overall view of events in the city from 1933 to 1945. I later attempted to do targeted research on specific individuals and events named by eyewitnesses. It soon became clear to me that a library was inadequate for this purpose. I then turned to the Hamburg State Archives, which preserves all Hamburg state records as well as specific institutional files, such as those of the Jewish community. Initially, it was difficult for me to find what I was looking for among the giant quantities of printed material. Luckily, I met a very committed archivist who had been influential in the development of a memorial book on the murdered Jews of Hamburg. He explained to me how an archive functioned so that I could work independently from then on. For obvious reasons, the rescuers had avoided keeping a written record of their assistance. Therefore, I could only look for connecting links to already existing data. During my work in the state archives, in several other Hamburg administration archives, and in university institutes, I noticed something else. I had researched only the type of assistance given once deportations to the killing centers had already begun and not whether assistance -- possibly tolerated or even promoted by the government -- had been given before the war.
In researching the question of how help could have been provided prior to 1939, I discovered very quickly that this was primarily a question of assistance for emigration from Germany, since that was the only option available to German Jews at that time. I decided to add an additional chapter -- on those who helped with emigration -- to the three chapters of individual eyewitness case studies on individual help.
I saw two sets of questions here.
One was that of Jewish self-help in emigrating to Palestine. Zionist organizations in Hamburg had set up many training camps for emigration to the "Holy Land." But who were these still very young Jews who were willing to emigrate? How did the Hamburg Jews regard emigration in general?
The other question regarded the policy of the western nations. Here I discovered excellent materials in both published literature and in the archives. In this chapter, therefore, I sought to describe the attitude of the United States -- represented by the U.S. Consulate General in Hamburg -- toward the persecution of Jews and especially toward the wave of emigration out of Germany. Through the press, the American public knew about conditions in Germany and Nazi plans; the U.S. government was also informed about such matters through the diplomatic corps and intelligence agencies. However, Undersecretary of State Cordell Hull remained immovable for years, never changing the quota regulations, the "welfare clause," and other laws that impeded the emigration of thousands of Jews.
With the addition of the survival narrative of a third eyewitness, Helmut Wolff, who had been rescued by a non-Jewish actor, my work on these two chapters on "organized assistance" was complete. Since my time was limited, I was not able to conclusively research everything, and so I hope that I can later expand my work.
One of the "helpers" discovered during my research was Ruth Held. She let me use her unpublished, handwritten manuscript about her experiences in my project and was available for consultation and dialogue. I have excerpted the following section of my project:
Ruth Held: "... I only want to help these people in distress."
As she entered the upper classes of Gymnasium [high school], Ruth Held became interested in literature. Her German teacher, Dr. Strehl, met after school with some of the interested female students, including her. Naturally, the teacher soon realized Ruth Held's political opinions as well as her parents' views. She considered her student to be responsible enough to undertake an important task.
Dr. Strehl had converted to Catholicism some time before and was in touch with Father Ludger Born, the superior of the local branch of the Jesuit order in Hamburg-Eimsbüttel called "Beim Schlump." Before the war he had already tried to assist the small number of Jews who had converted to Catholicism, since conversion did not protect them from defamation and exclusion. Father Born was transferred to Vienna in 1939. Austria had "rejoined the Reich" ["Heim ins Reich"] as the Ostmark [the new name for incorporated Austria], and Father Johannes Kugelmeier took over his position.
Father Kugelmeier was not one of the churchmen in Hamburg who could identify with the new Germany. He continued the assistance that Father Born had begun. Whenever he found "non-Aryan Catholics" -- that was the terminology of those offices concerned with the emigration of that group -- in his chapel, he gave them food and tried to give them spiritual counsel, even though he knew that most of them had converted from necessity rather than conviction.
But Father Kugelmeier felt that such assistance to this small group was not enough. Together with Ruth Held's teacher, Dr. Strehl, and with other older schoolgirls and young female university students, he organized food deliveries to a "Jewish house" on Rappstraße in the Grindel district. Young men and women met there to transfer food and provisions to other Jewish families in surrounding "Jewish houses."
In 1942, Dr. Strehl was sent along with the Lerchenfeld Girls Secondary School to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia as part of Kinderlandverschickung [sending.children to the countryside]. Ruth Held now had to take over the job that her teacher had transferred to her. She collected food from hospitals, nuns, and stores designated by Father Kugelmeier. Rudolf Degkwitz, a pediatrician at the university hospital in Eppendorf, who was later arraigned before the Volksgerichtshof [People's Court], was similarly helpful. And Mother Archangela, head of the Ursuline order, gave Ruth Held whatever she could, amidst the sharpest accusations that none of this would be of any use since she would someday be arrested and things would go as badly for her as for the Jews.
Father Kugelmeier, who was in charge of this operation, acted according to the motto "The left hand should not know what the right hand is doing." What was then essential, namely to prevent leaving evidence for the Gestapo, makes it more difficult today to find proof of these rescue operations. Ruth Held did not even know the names of other women helpers; she was never allowed to mention her own name or to speak of this assistance to anyone, no matter how trustworthy they seemed. Once there were children in an apartment, who asked, "What is your name?" Instinctively, she answered, "Ruth…" and then bit back her surname.
As we look through Ruth Held's 1943 pocket calendar (containing preprinted "dates of national exaltation," such as the "Day of National Awakening," the "Death of Horst Wessel," "Incorporation of Austria into the Reich," etc.), it becomes a document that confirms her courage in a difficult time. We repeatedly find notes that go beyond the usual calendar entries. On April 22, it states: "4 o'clock: at Dr. Strehl. Goes to Protectorate." The day thereafter, Good Friday, again: "Helped Dr. Strehl. Very nice evening."
Today Ruth Held believes that a certain amount of naïveté was necessary to implement these deeds of help without any hesitation.
"I walked through the streets with my bags full, without any fear. I wanted to say, were I arrested, 'I have nothing against your policies, I only want to help people in need.' And I really believed that then nothing much would happen to me!"
Actually there was one occasion that could have had serious consequences, had it turned out differently. On June 14, 1943, Whit Monday, after walking with her parents.along the Elbe River, something peculiar occurred when Ruth Held wanted again to go to Rappstraße. She had already put on her coat and held two packages of food, wanting to close the apartment door behind her, when a disguised figure came upstairs, stuffed a note into her hand, whispered, "Stay at home!" and immediately left again. Rather upset, she went back into the apartment and read the note: "Please call 53 31 77 quickly, it's urgent! Please call no matter how late. Hamburg, 14 June 1943. Greetings, Mrs. Seeberger."
Since the Helds had no telephone, Ruth had to go to a telephone booth. She dialed the number and was again unequivocally told to stay at home. She had never before seen the name on the note, "Seeberger"; she never again heard from the woman who had warned her.
What could have happened? In her pocket calendar, which at times served as an abbreviated diary, Ruth Held wrote under the date for Whit Monday, "Note, at Father Kugelmeier, all probably gone (horrible)." Was someone who had participated in the deliveries arrested, maybe even Father Kugelmeier himself?
She visited him that evening at "Beim Schlump." There she learned the details: based on the increased amount of garbage at the Jewish households on Rappstraße, the SS had established that they must have received additional food. SS men placed the houses under surveillance and waited for further deliveries. But the apparently perfect police net had a weak point. SS Captain Wolff's daughter, a student of Father Kugelmeier, learned that her father had scheduled a meeting with SS subordinates in his residence at Harvestehuder Weg and explained the operation there. The girl guessed at the connection to Father Kugelmeier. She told him what she had heard and Father Kugelmeier acted not a second too soon. He knew that Ruth Held would come again, but he did not know her nonexistent telephone number or her address. So he looked up the addresses of all families named Held who lived in the right district. He sent each of them an absolutely neutral message through acquaintances. The right person was also among the many unintended recipients. Thus Ruth Held was protected against running into the arms of the Gestapo. Another student of Father Kugelmeier was arrested shortly thereafter. Ruth Held thought that she would have to surrender to the police in order not to endanger the arrested girl, but Father Kugelmeier told her that this student had no idea about the deliveries. She was released after a few days. The deliveries were resumed by Saturday, June 19, and again Ruth Held -- as verified by her calendar -- brought food to Rappstraße. In any case, Father Kugelmeier found another house where representatives of Jewish families could meet.
After the war...
After the war, Ruth Held continued her studies in German and English. She became a teacher in Hamburg-Harburg and participated in the Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit [Association for Christian-Jewish Cooperation] in an attempt to create dialogue between the two religions.
Shortly after the war, Father Kugelmeier was assigned to the priests' seminary in Frankfurt-St. Georgen as a spiritual advisor. He was active there for 18 years. He retired to Nette Monastery near Osnabrück and died on July 25, 1993, during a vacation in Trier.
Mother Superior Archangela had already died in Reinbek near Hamburg in 1970. Father Kugelmeier gave her eulogy. He spoke of her as a woman "who assisted persecuted Jews in Hamburg, fully conscious of the risks she assumed."
He was silent about his own work. Many of his acquaintances know nothing about it even today, and even his good friends first heard about the courageous deeds of the then superior of the Jesuit order only recently. But he told the complete story to one person: Dr. Bernd Nellessen, a journalist who had reported the Eichmann trial for the daily newspaper "DIE WELT" in 1961 and later wrote the 1992 book "Das mühsame Zeugnis" ["Struggling with Evidence"] about the Catholic Church in 20th-century Hamburg. Nellessen spoke to Kugelmeier a few years before the latter's death because he needed information about the Hamburg Catholic Church in the Nazi period. Father Kugelmeier told him about the organization of his relief activities, including the successful last-minute warning, but he did not want his name to be mentioned in this connection. Thus, Nellessen wrote only,
"We can confirm the help given by a tiny group of students who provided Jews with ration cards and hid food under their laundry when they went to the laundromat with their hand carts. One Jesuit Father warned the students in time about police surveillance lying in wait for them."
When this Jesuit died, Ruth Held wanted to visit his grave. She traveled to Münster, where he had been buried in the order's cemetery at Haus Sentmaring. She made an appointment with one of the superiors there. The priest offered her a cup of tea and asked where she had known Father Kugelmeier. She then told him the story. The Jesuit was thrilled: "You know what?" he cried. "You must write it all down!" And then, more euphoric, he corrected himself: "That's nonsense. You shouldn't write it. I will send an editor from the weekly magazine 'Der Spiegel.' This is just spectacular that the Church did help…"
But Ruth Held did not want this. She said, "You want an exoneration for the Church and you won't get it." She felt that Father Kugelmeier had not helped as a clergyman, but as a private individual, and that it was not in his spirit to make a fuss about it, especially not to rehabilitate a church that had been more or less inactive in this area.
I have tried to collect and prepare information that goes beyond the recollections of Frau Held. While this additional evidence is sparse, all of it supports what she told me and shows that the past has yet to be "overcome."