The Ringmaster Who Saved Jews: Adolf Althoff

They saved a family of Jewish acrobats.

Adolf and Maria Althoff were German circus owners who put their own lives at risk to save a family of Jewish acrobats during the Holocaust.

The Althoff Circus, founded in the 17th century, was famous throughout Europe. Adolf Althoff was born in the circus wagon while a performance was going on. In 1939, he married Maria, who also came from a long line of circus performers.

In 1941, the Althoff Circus stopped in Hesse, Germany for an extended run. One night, a young girl named Irene Danner came to the show. She was a talented acrobat and a descendant, through her mother, of the well-known Lorch family of German-Jewish circus performers.

Irene’s father was not Jewish, and he had been drafted into the German army. But Irene was Jewish, and faced increasing persecution. After Kristallnacht in 1938, she and the other Jewish students were expelled from school. She had to give up violin lessons, dance classes, and other normal activities that teenage girls enjoyed.

Things were getting worse and worse for Jews in Germany, and Irene knew that not only her education, but her very life was at risk.

With courage born of desperation, Irene approached Adolf Althoff that night at the circus. She begged him to let her join his troupe of acrobats. Adolf knew she was Jewish, and it was strictly forbidden by the German Ministry of Culture to hire her. However, with Maria’s encouragement, Adolf accepted Irene into his troupe under an assumed name.

Irene performed with the Althoff circus as they toured Eastern Europe, keeping her heritage secret. In 1943, facing deportation to concentration camps, Irene’s mother Alice and sister Gerda, also long-time performers, managed to escape to the Althoff Circus. Adolf welcomed both of the women. He later said, “There was no question in our minds that we would let them stay. I couldn’t simply permit them to fall into the hands of the murderers. This would have made me a murderer.”

At one point, Gestapo officers showed up, looking for Jews they’d heard were there. Adolf plied them with drinks and free tickets to the show while Irene and her family hid until they were gone.

Until the end of the war, Irene, Alice and Gerda remained safe with the Althoffs. Meanwhile, Irene’s non-Jewish father was sent home from the front and ordered to divorce his Jewish wife. Instead, he sought refuge in the circus and he, too, was welcomed by the Althoffs.

Adolf and Maria were honored by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Adolf said, “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.”

For saving three Jews from certain death, we honor Adolf and Maria Althoff as this week’s Thursday Heroes at Accidental Talmudist.

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