Tuesday, July 12, 2016

M Y  M E E T I N G  W I T H 
H E I N R I C H  H I M M L E R
A P R I L  20/21, 1945

N O R B E R T  M A S U R 


During the last year of the war, Jewish organizations within the neutral countries of Europe tried their utmost to bring help to their brethren in the German concentration camps. In Sweden, the Swedish section the World Jewish Congress was one of the active participants in this aim. Many endeavors were in vain, but some led to positive results. 

During the course of negations, one of the members of our section, Mr. H. Storch, started to negotiate with Dr. Felix Kersten who through his medical treatments was in touch with Himmler. We had been told that Kersten, at the behest of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, was partly responsible for the freeing of a large number of prisoners from both German prisons and German concentration camps. At the request of Mr. Storch, Dr. Kersten volunteered to try to negotiate with Mr. Himmler to better the situation of the Jews in the concentration camps.

In the beginning of March 1945, Kersten visited with Himmler and told him of our desires. Several important things resulted from this. It is quite possible that through these negotiations several concentration camps were surrendered to the Allies without a fight. To achieve further concessions, Kersten proposed that Himmler should negotiate directly with a representative of the World Jewish Congress. Himmler agreed to this and promised safe conduct for the person who would in the company of Kersten, come for the session.

We discussed the plan in our section of the WJC. Because of the unusual precarious aspects of a meeting with Himmler, the section did not want to make a decision, especially as it was impossible to contact New York in this regard. It was therefore decided to leave it up to a volunteer for this mission whether or not to go ahead. 

We discussed the matter with the Swedish Foreign Ministry, which was of the definite opinion that direct contact with Himmler would be valuable and would lead to worthwhile results, very much in line with the desires of Sweden, for a rescue operation. The three local embassies of the Allies who were informed by us did not have any objections, in fact the delegate of the War Refugee Board located in Stockholm encouraged us in this. Therefore we asked Dr. Kersten to let Himmler know that a member of our section as a private citizen would come on this mission. Himmler was agreeable with this. Several of our members volunteered for the trip and it was myself who finally was chosen to make the trip.

Several weeks passed without a date being set for the meeting. The war situation in Germany got more critical every day, and we assumed that it would not be possible to go ahead with the plan. However, suddenly on the morning of Thursday April 19, I was notified that Himmler was awaiting us on Thursday or Friday and we were asked to take the noon airplane from Stockholm to Berlin. I had some doubts as to the value of the trip at this late date, however, an inquiry with the Foreign Ministry resulted in a positive opinion, in that they still held the trip to be worthwhile. The Foreign Ministry prepared several lists of names of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners, whose freedom we were to try to achieve. After receiving this information, Kersten and I decided to leave immediately on the trip.

At 2pm on April 19 the airplane, marked with the swastika, left Stockholm for Berlin, Kersten and I were the only passengers, otherwise the plane was loaded fully with Red Cross packages. Now I had time to think about the mission. For me as a Jew, it was a deeply moving thought, that, in a few hours, I would be face to face with the man who was primarily responsible for the destruction of several million Jewish people. But my agitation was dampened by the thought that I finally would have the important opportunity to be of help to many of my tormented fellow Jews. I had been in the midst of other help missions before, but always from the safety of Stockholm. This time it was action at the front lines.

The trip to Berlin was without incidents. The North-German plain was peacefully in front of our eyes. The fields seemed to be tended carefully. Only once did I discern a bomb crater, the first sign of war, otherwise there were no traces. No soldiers or motorized columns were visible, only an occasional farmer. However, when we approached Berlin, the signs of war became more evident, bombed out houses, factories without roofs. And still, from my bird’s eye perspective, it appeared that Berlin was not quite as destroyed as I had expected, and as I later on saw during my drive though the city.

At the Tempelhof airport, my companion showed his passport, however, I kept mine in my pocket. I did not have a visa, because only Himmler and his closest associates knew about our visit, it was held in complete secrecy from all the other Nazi bosses. Because of this, I could not apply for a visa at the German embassy in Stockholm. The Gestapo simply ordered that a man in the company of Dr. Kersten should be admitted without passport control.

At the airport, the limousine of the Swedish embassy was awaiting us to take us into the city. However we could not use this car, and had to wait for a Gestapo car, as we were to proceed to an estate approximately 70 km north of Berlin. Unfortunately, we had to wait almost 2 hours. 

In the meantime, I had the opportunity to get a first impression of the atmosphere in Berlin. I had a conversation with some of the workers at the airport, and was able to discern that they were war-weary and without hope. Every night there were air raids lasting 5 to 7 hours, therefore they had to spend that long a time in uncomfortable air raid shelters without sleep, that is too much even for the strongest person. The air raids occurred with the punctuality of a time table. Every evening, shortly after dark, the Russians began the attacks, followed by the Americans, and the British would finish the raids.

Because of this, it was important for us to get out of town before the beginning of the air raids. Around 10 pm, the car arrived, and the excuse was that the telephone connection with Stockholm was interrupted, and they did not know for sure if we were coming. The car left immediately, it was dark, and the moon was shining. The ruins of the houses were like ghosts. The driver sped through the city, which looked as if it was dead. Just now and then a lonely pedestrian who immediately tried to hitch a ride with the car, as public transportation was minimal. We passed piles of destroyed houses, and drove through the narrow openings of tank traps. Several times we had to take a detour to avoid streets that had recently been closd because of bombings.

Finally, after half an hour, we were out of Berlin on the highway. It only took a few minutes before a military patrol stopped us and asked the driver to turn off the headlights, as there was an air alert. The nightly show over Berlin had started. We now had the choice to go into the woods, and wait, or to continue without lights in the dark. We decided to continue.

The anti-aircraft searchlights began to play in the sky, and we stopped and got out of the car to watch the sinister, but fascinating show. From all sides we heard the whirring of propellers, which our driver, with his trained ears, identified as Russian. We saw how illumination flares spread out like a carpet, slowly descending to the ground, lighting up the entire area, how planes would be trapped in the spotlights, but we did not hear any flak. At my question as to why there was no shooting, I got the significant answer that all the flak ammunition had been sent to the front.

We continued past suddenly appearing military vehicles, past mounds of destruction in the town of Oranienburg, which had suffered an air raid recently. For me, the name Oranienburg was ominous, as here many of my closes relatives became acquainted with the terror of concentration camps, before I was able to rescue them to emigrate to Sweden. 

Finally, close to midnight, we arrived at our destination, an estate belonging to Kersten. Here we were supposed to await the visit by Himmler. That night I was not able to sleep. Not because of the constant noise from the planes, but the tension at the thought of meeting with Himmler, the feeling that possibly the destiny of thousands of Jews were dependent on my words. Even though I knew that Himmler’s reason for negotiating was the catastrophic war situation in Germany still many important results could come out of these negotiations. I was especially concerned about the prisoners in the Rawensbruck camp, which was only 30 km from the estate.

Friday morning, one of Himmler’s closest associates, Brigade Commander Schellenberg, arrived at the estate to greet us. It was April 20, the birthday of the Führer, and Schellenberg told us that Himmler was to participate at the birthday dinner that night and then would get to the state as quickly as possible. Hitler should only have known that Himmler, after the birthday party, would be negotiating with a Jew!!

Schellenberg made some very ironic remarks about the birthday party. I had the feeling that it was a birthday dinner, but that, as often occurred in history, some of the participants who fell into misfortune, would come into conflict with each other with dire results. In addition to the Nazi top honchos, several other well-wishers were on the way to Hitler. The air space above us was full of allied bombers all day long, which were traveling in formation like migration birds, to reach their destinations. The house, in which we were staying, suddenly began to shake from the explosions of bombs, which were destined for the railroad tracks 2 km away.

During the morning, I had extensive conversations with Schellenberg. I was surprised to see a good-looking young man with soft features, in civilian clothing, not the hard Nazi type which I had expected. He was terribly depressed, considered the war as lost, and was very pessimistic about Germany’s future. The main cause of the defeat in his opinion was the systematic air warfare, which destroyed the material and psychological will to resist of the German people. He seemed to have complete understanding for my attempts to rescue the Jews, and promised energetic support of my wishes with Himmler. However, he mentioned that the circle around Hitler even now are strongly opposed to any betterment of the lot of the Jews. 

In the fall of last year, when Himmler allowed 2700 Jews to flee to Switzerland, upon hearing this, Hitler became a raving maniac and prevented any further planned freeing of Jews. I had the impression that Schellenberg was sincere in his talk with me. It was especially meaningful for me to find out that the military situation in Germany was much worse than had been assumed by us in Stockholm based on the news reports, and the total collapse was only a question of a few weeks or evens days. The reasoning for our petition to Himmler to rescue people would have to be based on this realization.

I spent the afternoon inspecting the estate and talking with the workers there. It was an odd assemblage of people. All of the field and office workers were former prisoners from concentration camps who had been in the camps between 5 to 8 years. They belonged to a sect which refused military service on religious grounds, also they would not say “Heil Hitler”, as “heil” (salvation) can only come from God. 

Because of this, all of the followers of this sect were put into concentration camps during the first years of the Nazi regime and had to stay there until Kersten was able to get some of them released in 1941/42. Several of the people who had been in Buchenwald for a number of years, talked about the severe abuse they were exposed to, and which did not abate until 1938, when Jewish prisoners were brought to the camp and the guards were able to pursue their sadism towards them. In addition, there were a number of refugees from eastern and central Germany on the estate, relatives of the owners, all of them traveling for weeks and fleeing the front lines.

During the course of the evening, we received a telephone call to tell us that Himmler would not come until around 2:30 am. We were sitting in the living room by candlelight, as the electricity, as always during air raids, was turned off. I was greatly worked up. Would this man, who was the real ruler of Germany, whose days however were numbered, appear as a man at the top of his power or would he already reflect the shadow of defeat?? I was excited at the thought that in a few minutes I would be face to face with one of the greatest murderers of the Jewish people.

At exactly 2:30 am we heard the noise of a car arriving. Kersten went outside, and after a few minutes, Heinrich Himmler entered, followed by Brigade Commander Schellenberg, adjutant Dr. Brandt, and Kersten. In spite of my inner excitement, I appeared outwardly perfectly cool. Himmler greeted me with “Guten Tag” instead of “Heil Hitler”, and conveyed his satisfaction at the fact that I came to see him.

End of Part I

Translated from original by Henry Karger, 1993
Published with kind permission, WJC