An Act of Kindness
based on a true story
By Lillian Belinfante Herzberg © 1997
Hugo Rothenberg, born to a German Jewish family in Bad Kreuznach, the Rhineland, wanted to better himself, but he could not see his future in the town where he was born. He decided to look elsewhere to make his fortune. He had visited Denmark on a school holiday and was impressed with the open minded people he met, especially with the pretty young women to whom he was introduced. When he finished school he decided to see what Copenhagen had to offer and what he could offer Copenhagen.
He found a position with a Danish food exporting business and quickly learned the intricacies of persuasion with the clients he met. His employers were pleased with his progress and skill in the art of the export business.
He had been at his job for about two years when friends invited him to a dinner party. Sitting beside him at the table was a remarkably attractive Danish girl whose name was Adela. Hugo was enchanted and impressed about how knowledgeable she was about politics and the events happening in Europe.
By the time dessert and coffee was being served, Hugo was smitten. His mouth went dry. He finally got the courage to ask her, “I wonder if I might call on you next week.”
“My, are all Germans so formal? Of course, I would be pleased to have you call on me. Perhaps we might even go out for dinner.”
With a broad smile Hugo answered, “Indeed we will.”
* * *
When he went to pick up Adela she suggested, “I’m famished. I want to introduce you to some good Danish food at one of our oldest restaurant, Lille Peter. You’ll love the Danish specialties, peculiarly the a koldt bord.at least I hope you will.”
Over the kirsebaerkage that Adela chose for their dessert, they talked about business, politics and the European conflict.
“I’m happy Denmark has stayed out of the war,” Hugo said before putting a piece of cake in his mouth. Then he commented, “This cherry cake is marvelous.”
“I’m glad you like it. It seems you enjoyed the rest of your dinner too.”
“I love everything Danish, and if you don’t know it already, I intend to marry you.”
it wasn’t long before they were married in the Great Synagogue on Krystalgade.
* * *
By the time World War I had ended, Hugo and Adela had two children and during the next few years Hugo had acquired a reputation as a successful, well known, honest business man, respected by many friends, and colleagues.
One evening Hugo and Adela were invited to a friends dinner party celebrating Danish Constitution Day which commemorated King Frederik VII signing Denmark’s first free constitution. One of the guests was the German Ambassador, Ludwig Schmitt, stationed in Copenhagen. The following week the Ambassador and his wife were invited to the Rothenberg for dinner. They accepted with pleasure, and soon an intimate friendship started.
One day Hugo and his friend Ludwig, ambled through Tivoli Gardens drinking in the scent and admiring the beautiful assortment of roses surrounding them. Ignoring the many visiting tourists they found a quiet spot in the corner of their favorite garden cafe and ordered coffee. The Ambassador seemed quieter than usual.
“Ludwig, is something wrong? You seem so introspective.”
"My friend, I hesitate to impose on our friendship, but I need your advise and perhaps your help in solving a problem."
Hugo put down a Små Flødekager, the small cream cake he so enjoyed and asked, "What can I do?"
The Ambassador lowered his voice. "Well, this involves a particularly obstreperous individual. I am having a great deal of difficulty working with one of our veteran air force pilots sent here to recuperate from war nerves.”
“And what do you...”
The Ambassador interrupted. “I'm frustrated and at a loss of how to handle his erratic behavior. Do you think you can do something with him?"
"I can only try," Hugo told him, and consented to make an effort unaware this distinguished pilot had been a national hero in Germany during the war.
The German flyer and Hugo established a rapport almost at once. Besides health problems the veteran, a gambler, also had financial difficulties. Hugo never judged the man by his life style, and soon the two men established a relationship.
They had known each other only a few months when the pilot asked Hugo, "Could I impose upon your hospitality to ask for a personal loan to cover my many extravagances. I promised I will repay you as soon as I can."
Since he was financially able, Hugo lent him the amount the man needed.
During the time the pilot spent in Denmark the war veteran was accepted as part of Hugo's family. They saw much of each other on holidays, picnics and family dinners.
Following his recuperation the pilot left Denmark to take a job as a stunt pilot in Sweden. Before he left he wrote the family a warm and friendly letter in which he offered to reciprocate their hospitality at any time, and in any way he could for the kindness he received. He wrote them only once more from Sweden saying he had married a beautiful wealthy widow with a darling young son and was very happy.
Meticulous, as well as a pack rat, Hugo saved the first letter which later became the instrument necessary to rescue and save the lives of many people. The letter read:
“My most respected Herr Direktor!
* * *
Almost twenty years had passed since the end of the First World War, and once more war clouds were gathering over Europe. During the 1930s Hugo had been traveling around Europe, forming numerous influential friends and business contacts. Some trips included visits to Germany where his four sisters and brother-in-law still lived.
Before I say anything else here are most heartfelt thanks for helping me once again. I am ashamed that I have taken advantage of your kindness repeatedly without having an opportunity to reciprocate. Should there be an opportunity, however, here or in Germany, to be of service to you, you must let me be at your disposal. I beg of you.
You have shown such interest and sympathy for me that
I claim the right to be able to show you my
gratefulness in return. You must not forget me now.
I should refer particularly to Germany where, after
all, I do have connections. Here I am nothing. It would be a delusion to think that here I can do something for you. That's a laugh!
Again my thanks, I mean it. I also hope that there
is some evening that we can spend together. You work too hard. Too bad that I was busy the other day. You must have had a good time from all I hear. Please remember me to the ladies.
With the best of wishes I am your grateful
One November evening, in 1938, Hugo's family gathered in their living room after dinner as was their custom, to have coffee and cookies while listening to a concert given on a local radio station. The music suddenly stopped. A Danish announcer interrupted the broadcast and informed his audience of the assassination of a minor German attaché in Paris by a Polish Jewish refugee.
Adela shivered. Everyone stopped talking. Hugo quickly moved to the radio and switched to a German station. They heard a lengthy harangue by the German announcer against all Jews he accused of being responsible for the murder.
The next day Hugo received numerous desperate telephone calls from Germany, each one describing the chaos and frenzy which occurred the night before.
His sister called and described how uniformed Nazi hooligans had "spontaneously" trampled all over their city setting fire to synagogues. They were safe because they hid in the cellar and didn’t answer the banging on the door.
Another caller spoke of how storm troopers had smashed windows of shops and homes identified with a star of David.
One man said he saw Jewish homes being invaded. “My God, Hugo,” aa caller cried, “find someway to help us."
In the early afternoon the wife of a business friend called. She sobbed telling him how her husband, their friends, their frightened teenaged sons, and even dignified older men had been dragged by their arms or yanked by their hair from their homes.
He was told how some avoided the violence by keeping quiet, keeping lights off as if they were not at home.
Hugo’s cousin called and said, “I'm calling from a public phone. From what I saw there doesn't seem to be a window still in tact. Glass covers every sidewalk. This is a living nightmare!"
Hugo felt appalled when he was told Nazis Storm Troopers had seized children as hostages when they could not locate their fathers. Rioting took place all over Germany and most of the country's synagogues had been broken into, burned and desecrated beyond repair. This is how Hugo’s friends and family had described Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass.
Hugo needed no further persuasion. He assured his terrified callers he would do what he could to help.
The Danish radio continued broadcasting the latest reports of Nazi atrocities the following night. International newspapers revealed details of how Jewish businesses all over Germany had been broken into and violated by “arrogant uniformed ruffians.” The Danish papers reported, “Anyone even suspected of being a Jew was pushed around and beaten up.”
Hugo knew his immediate family was frightened for his safety, but he felt he had to do whatever he could to be of use. "I'm leaving for Berlin as soon as I can," he informed his family.
"I beg you Hugo, do not do this. There is too much danger," his wife pleaded.
"Adela, my dear, I cannot stand by and do nothing. Maybe I can use some of my connections to help."
He explained to his children, "Unlike our own remarkable country, civil liberties for Germany's Jews have long been restricted, so the Nazis are able to carry out such shocking destruction. We should be grateful we are Danes.
"This latest terror is the most blatant effort since the Nazis took power to hurt, humiliate, threaten, violate and destroy the Jewish community. Something must be done. Someone must protest. I cannot sit back in the comfort of my own home when I may be of use to others who need help."
He assured his family, "I plan to protect myself every step of the way. I will keep careful notes so no one will misunderstand my motives."
When he arrived in Berlin he arranged a secret meeting with his former friend, Hermann Goering, the same Hermann Goering who was Adolph Hitler's second in command, in charge of "the Jewish problem."
"I'm sure he must have known why I came," he wrote to his wife. "He actually seemed genuinely glad to see me.”
Hugo waited for Goering to finish his reminiscences before he
called the Field Marshal's attention to the inhuman cruelties being perpetrated on the streets. He told him he had heard rumors about concentration camps, and urged him to consider a moratorium from these policies.
For two hours the two strong headed individuals engaged in a heated discussion as they did in the old days.
During this meeting, Goering finally admitted, "Those bloody idiots. Didn't they know the results of these organized riots would have a negative effect on our country's influence to gain the necessary financial good-will of other governments?
“Hugo, if I had known, I would have done everything I could to have prevented this disaster! Believe me."
Hugo nodded, then strongly suggested, "People with visas, even in the camps, must be allowed to emigrate. If this took place it might create a positive slant to those countries you need for support."
Surprisingly, Goering agreed.
* * *
Back in Denmark, with his visit documented in his diary, Hugo anxiously awaited news from his sisters who still lived in their home town. He managed to obtain Danish visas for his siblings and other relatives through influential friends.
Unknown to Hugo, shortly after he had returned home, his very frightened siblings had been picked up by a truck belonging to the infamous SS, Death head division, the most feared division of Nazi policy enforcement. They had been instructed to pack a few things and get in the back of the truck. They were taken to the Danish border, commanded to get out of the truck, and to keep walking straight ahead, and not turn around.
They found their way to the nearest police station and told them what happened, and for whom they were looking. One of the policemen knew Hugo’s name and ordered a police car to take the frightened quartet to Hugo’s home.
Hugo and his family were shocked when they answered the door.
“My God, how did you get here. Come in. Come in.” Hugo thanked the person who delivered his family.
“Some men in Nazi uniforms came to the door and ordered us to pack a few things. Then they ordered us to get onto their truck.”
"We were so upset, Hugo," one sister told him between sobs.
"They didn't tell us where we were going, only to take a few things and get on the back of a truck," the second sister repeated.
"Although they treated us with every courtesy," his brother-in-law told him, "we were very anxious throughout our journey even though I thought they were going to kill us, but when we got out, they turned the truck around and sped away."
"That's when we realized we were at the Danish border."
Hugo never told them, but he felt sure Goering must have been responsible for the swiftness with which they were transported out of Germany.
Unfortunately, after "Kristallnacht," the Danish parliament supported the position that non-Danish Jews do not qualify for refugee status, a similar regulation lamentably maintained by many other Western countries. This made visas even more precious and the lack of them caused the loss of many more lives.
* * *
For a price, the Nazis still allowed Jews with visas to receive the necessary Nazi documents granting them permission to leave Germany. Still concerned for the many Jews being detained, tortured and killed, Hugo used business trips as an excuse to do whatever he could to obtain help for Nazi victims. Some friends provided him with visas to countries which otherwise would not permit emigration.
* * *
Meanwhile, as a Dane, Hugo was still able to freely travel in and out of Germany with help from many who were willing to take risks. By this time he also made several trips to Switzerland to meet with Jewish organizations working out of this country. While there, a man who introduces himself as a Major in the British Intelligence Service, contacted Hugo.
* * *
l943, and the Germans were finally about to occupy Hugo’s beloved Denmark. He knew his friendship with Goering was not going to protect him and his family from the barbarous treatment of Jews. The eleventh hour was upon them. So, swallowing his pride, he finally accepted asylum for his family, his friends and himself.
Along with others, they reluctantly left their homeland and escaped in small boats to Sweden, navigated by courageous Danish countrymen. Here Hugo stayed and remained as active as he could.
He was able to contact Goering's Swedish stepson, who cooperated by delivering appeals, money and requests to his opportunistic stepfather who, upon receipt of some gold, was instrumental in releasing a few prisoners.
In 1945, the Nazi war machine finally met defeat, hostilities ceased and Hugo and his family happily sailed back to their beloved Denmark.
Ironically, while getting off the ship, Hugo was arrested. “But why are you doing this to me?” he asked the Danish government official.
“You are to be imprisoned as a German spy.
“You must be out of your mind,” Hugo told him.
It was to no avail. Hugo was taken away.
After several hellish weeks of being treated as a German spy in prison, Hugo's friends finally rescued him with the evidence needed to clear him, but the experience left him devastated. His health was badly effected from this last ordeal. He never left his country again.
* * *
Hugo never discussed his war time activities and experiences until after he was accused of doing things to hurt his beloved adopted country. But he wanted people to know the truth for his family's sake. He put his papers together hoping someone in the future would read his diary and confirm that he could not, would not nor did not do anything to damage the love he felt toward his adopted country.
Hugo Rothenberg died in 1948. He never fully recuperated from being charged by Denmark with such a heinous and reprehensible crime.
Lillian Belinfante Herzberg is the
author of Kindness of Strangers, Stephan's Journey, Artemisia, and an Outstanding Wolman
from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine