When Teaneck author Helen Maryles Shankman dug into her family history, she hoped to unearth stories about her ancestors’ experiences during the Holocaust. But the award”“winning author never anticipated that she would discover a Righteous Gentile.
|Helen Maryles Shankman|
Now Shankman is campaigning for an 82-year-old German to be conferred with the status of Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Shankman found the unlikely hero, Dieter Schlueter, because of her blog, where she chronicles the experience of researching her family’s history and their life during the Shoah in a Polish village called Wlodawa. Schlueter, who lives in Ludwigshafen, Germany, discovered her blog last June and sent her an email. Thus began their lively exchanges, as he told stories about what had happened years ago.
Schlueter, who spent his school vacations in the same town as Shankman’s family, remembered her relatives. He also told her that he had helped several Jewish families hide in the attic of his family’s home and he had delivered food to them, even as he strolled about town in a Hitler Youth uniform.
After sifting through letters and photos and speaking both with Schlueter, and with historians who study that era, Shankman is convinced that Schlueter, who now is frail and sick, may have helped save dozens of Jews during the Shoah.
She has written to Yad Vashem asking that he be recognized as a Righteous Gentile. Yad Vashem, which confers the Righteous Gentile title on those who acted selflessly to save Jews during the Shoah, said it requires documentation before it can take that action.
|Dieter Schlueter wears a Hitler Youth uniform as he sits with his mother in this wartime portrait.|
The quest to find documentation is challenging. “It would have been easier to get recognition for this man 15 or 20 years ago, when the people he helped were still alive – except there wasn’t an Internet yet, so we couldn’t have found each other,” Shankman mused. “Right now, it’s a race against time, to see if the children of the people he helped are still alive, and if their parents told them any stories about him.”
Shankman’s own family benefited from Schlueter’s kindness. His stepfather hired her grandfather, Shaul Soroka, to make saddles and harnesses. During one organized terror riot against Jews, Shankman’s grandfather was working out of town, so her grandmother put three of her children, including Shankman’s mother, in the cellar. But there was no more room there, so she went off with Shankman’s Uncle Philip, who was 12, to find another hiding place. The Poles all locked their houses during riots, so none of their neighbors would let them in. But Bernard Falkenberg’s gate was open, and the two went in.
The man who ran his stable was Joseph Glincman, a family friend, who ordered them to hide in the stable.
“Dieter Schlueter came into the stable and discovered them in the stall. ‘Who is this?’ he asked. Glincman answered, ‘This is the wife and son of the man who made your new saddle.’ Schlueter, who was then around 12, understood, kept quiet, and allowed them to stay in the stable behind his home,” Shankman said. “He chose not to give them away.”
Schlueter’s stepfather, Bernard Falkenberg, was a prominent German whom Yad Vashem recognized as a Righteous Gentile in 1969. Although the local Nazis repeatedly urged him to join the party, he refused to bow to the pressure, according to historians. Then he saved hundreds of Jews by employing them to dig a drainage canal for his civil engineering company, and scrambled to keep them out of Nazi hands. He pulled them from lines when they were selected, hid them in his stables and home, and gave them additional food rations. He even provided assistance to the partisans.
Schlueter saw much of this, and clearly was influenced by it. He helped his stepfather by delivering food to the Jews hiding out in his attic.
“My favorite story is how he donned his Hitler Youth uniform and went biking jauntily across the ghetto, his luggage rack carrying a basket of food for his little Jewish girlfriend Lydia, the daughter of his father’s office worker,” Shankman said. “As a Reich German, no one would stop him.”
Both Falkenberg and his wife were arrested in 1943 for hiding Jews. Falkenberg was sent to Mauthausen, where he was imprisoned until the end of the war. Schlueter’s mother was tortured by the Gestapo, and she never was the same. By the end of the war, Schlueter was drafted into the German army, spending five weeks as a Waffen-SS soldier in Czechoslovakia. He was then 14 years old, according to historical records.
Afterwards, he continued to suffer because of his parents’ resistance work. In 1949, he was rejected from a school he had hoped to attend, although he was among the top five students in his class. Anti-Semitic teachers apparently had discovered his background and blocked him, Shankman said.
He joined the police force. In 1950, he was living in Berlin, posted to a riot squad. One day, hundreds of Jews demonstrated in front of a theater, protesting the appearance of anti-Semitic actor Werner Krauss. The protesters were arrested and taken away on trucks, but when the Jews didn’t board the trucks quickly enough, the police beat them with batons. Schlueter intervened to stop the beating and promptly was fired from his job, he relates in his book, “Shoah and Fascism: What Have You Done?”
Today, Schlueter still seems to be consumed by the war that occurred over a half century ago; he has written both his book and a screenplay, “Last Stop, Sobibor.”
Meanwhile, Shankman has been moved by her encounter with Schlueter, and feels driven to understand what would compel someone to risk his life to save a stranger. “I have so many questions for people who are no longer here to answer them,” she said.
Schlueter’s story rings true to Shankman.
“He has been trying to tell his family’s story for seventy years,” she said. “I hope I can help him.”