In the summer of 1944 a postcard fluttered on to the railway lines somewhere between Theresienstadt concentration camp and Auschwitz. It had been pushed through the floorboards of one the airless and filthy cattle wagons used to transport their terrified human cargos from Nazi-occupied Europe to the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
The card was a last hope of survival. It had been written by a desperate 23-year-old Jewish woman called Alice Licht. She was aboard the death train with her entire family. Yet miraculously somebody found her card on the tracks and posted it to the address of a Berlin brush factory owner called Otto Weidt.
Weidt had been Alice’s German, non-Jewish employer. On receiving her card several days later, he set off almost immediately for Auschwitz in an attempt to persuade the authorities to free her and her family. But by then Alice had been moved to another camp and the rest of her family had been murdered in the gas chambers.
Yet Otto Weidt did not give up his quest to save his former employee. He managed to contact her while she was still being held by the Nazis. He arranged a safe house near the camp and planned her escape. Her chance came months after she was first dispatched to Auschwitz. In January 1945 as the Soviet Red Army advanced towards Berlin, the Nazi authorities started evacuating their concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
Alice managed to escape to the safe house arranged by Weidt while on what came to be known in retrospect as the “Nazi death marches” from the camps. Hundreds died on these forced marches. But with Weidt’s help Alice fled her captors, found her way back to Berlin and to her saviour. He kept his former employee hidden until Nazis were finally defeated in May 1945.
Alice Licht was just one of dozens of Jews whom Otto Weidt managed to save from the Nazi Holocaust. In Germany, he is currently being compared to his far more famous contemporary, Oskar Schindler, the Cracow factory owner lionised in Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, who also saved many Jews from the Holocaust. But what makes Otto Weidt’s largely unknown tale so special and so outstanding is the fact that he was blind.
Yesterday, Germany’s ARD television channel paid tribute to the nation’s hitherto largely unsung hero Otto Weidt for the first time in a film entitled The Blind Hero.
It relies almost exclusively on the eyewitness accounts and memories of Inge Deutschkron, the celebrated 92-year-old German-Jewish writer whom Weidt also saved from the Nazis. First he employed her. Then he hid her and her mother at secret Berlin addresses until the war was over. Her acclaimed work I Wore The Yellow Star is an account of her survival in Nazi Berlin.
Otto Weidt, who was in his late fifties when he set up his Berlin brush factory ostensibly to help the Nazi war effort, is played by the actor Edgar Selge. Mrs Deutschkron remarked in an interview before the film was screened: “The most important thing was that he was taught how to move like a blind person as preparation for the part.”
The Blind Hero shows just how different Weidt was from his contemporary Schindler. While the latter seems to have started the business of saving Jews from the Nazis almost as a sideline to running his factory, Weidt was an anarchist and a fervent anti-Nazi who loathed Hitler from the word go. He set out to save those persecuted by the regime and employed Jews, many of whom were also blind, in his factory.
Inge Deutschkron recalls how Weidt used his talents as a brilliant liar and ingenious conman to outwit the Nazis. She was one of the few fully sighted people in Weidt’s factory and worked as a telephone receptionist from 1941 onwards after she was taken on at the age of 19.
Weidt was supposed to deliver all his produce to the Nazi’s Wehrmacht war machine. But as Mrs Deutschkron explains: “In those days a horsehair brush rated as a first-class wedding present.” Weidt chose to market his goods off elsewhere. Most of his precious products were sold on the black market to the German department store chain Karstadt.
The cash gained from the illicit brush sales was used to buy luxury goods which Weidt used to bribe the Gestapo into staying away from his Jewish employees thereby sparing them deportation to the death camps. He bought crates of champagne, boxes of expensive cigars and scent “for the dear lady” and dutifully supplied it to Hitler’s henchmen. They gratefully received the unaccustomed and largely unavailable treats. The promise of more ensured that Weidt was left largely unmolested.
“The film cannot recreate the fear that we felt,” Inge Detuschkron says, “but it also cannot bring back the joy we experienced after Otto managed to save the lives of his staff with his ‘perfume for the lady’.”
In 1943, the Nazis declared that the time had come for Berlin to become totally Judenrein (Jew-free) and Weidt was forced to find places for his employees to go underground for the rest of the war. Not all of them escaped the death camps. Inge Deutschkron and her mother were moved from one hiding place to the next.
The following year Alice Licht’s postcard dropped into Weidt’s letter box. She was a former employee who had not managed to escape. But as the film reveals, despite their age difference, Otto Weidt was by this time desperately in love with her. His feelings explain why, posing as a travelling brush salesman, Weidt takes a madcap gamble and travels to Auschwitz in an attempt to rescue her.
In the end he did. Back in Berlin after her escape from the death march, Alice was hidden by Weidt until the end of the war some three months later. But Alice Licht didn’t stay with him for long after May 1945. She emigrated to America. Otto Weidt never saw her again. He died two years later in 1947.
Inge Deutschkron says his efforts to save people like her placed a great strain on him. In 1993 she arranged for a memorial plaque recalling his feats to be installed on the site of his former Berlin factory. Years after his death Otto Weidt was honoured with the title of “Righteous among the World’s Nations” at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial.