Helmut Kleinicke was a German engineer who supervised construction projects at Auschwitz while saving Jews from the gas chambers.
Born in 1907, Helmut grew up in the forest of Lower Saxony – literally. His parents were forest rangers. Helmut studied civil engineering and joined the Nazi party in 1933. In 1941, right after getting married, Helmut was hired to join the team planning the construction of Auschwitz concentration camp. He moved to Chrzanow, Poland to work on the project.
In Chrzanow, Helmut was ordered to select local Jews who were young and healthy to work on the construction site. He treated them well and didn’t allow the SS to harass them. One survivor remembered, “Those of us who worked for Kleinicke were like VIPs. We had a certificate that we worked for him, and that was our insurance policy.”
When he heard about plans to round up local Jews, Helmut located every person on the list and warned them they were about to be arrested. Then he transported many of them to the border and helped them escape. Others he hid in his attic and basement. Helmut didn’t keep track of the Jews he saved, but it’s estimated there were hundreds.
By late 1943, the higher-ups at Auschwitz noticed that Jews who interacted with Helmut kept disappearing. He was removed from his job and drafted to an artillery unit, then sent to the front lines. When Germany surrendered in 1945, Helmut was arrested by the British because of his membership in the Nazi party. While he was in prison, Jews he had saved submitted affidavits testifying that he had rescued them “without regard to his person” and that many Jews owed their lives to Helmut Kleinicke. He was exonerated in 1949. For the rest of his life, he did not talk about his wartime activities. He told his daughter only that he’d saved some Jews, but wished he’d saved more. He never considered himself a hero. In 1979, the American miniseries “Holocaust” aired on German TV. Helmut watched it and was deeply shaken. Three days after that he had a stroke from which he never recovered. He died a few months later.
Helmut’s heroism was unknown until recently. In a 2015 documentary, Josef Konigsberg, an Auschwitz survivor, testified that Helmut Kleinicke saved his life by pulling him out of a line of people being deported. This interview, and corroborating evidence that Helmut had saved many Jewish lives, led to Helmut Kleinicke being honored posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. The ceremony was held at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, and was attended by Helmut’s daughter Juta Scheffzek. Also in attendance was Josef Konigsberg, who told his story of being rescued by Helmut. “I owe him my life,” said Josef, describing how Helmut rescued him from a transport line to Auschwitz: “My mother came and begged him to rescue me. Kleinicke grabbed me and said that I was his best worker.” Josef’s mother and sister were not so lucky and both died in the gas chamber. Crying as he addressed Juta, Josef said, “This is one of the most beautiful days of my life. Thank you, thank you.”
Juta was deeply touched. “It verified what my father said to me in very few words – and I never knew if he had been telling the truth.” She told the Times of Israel after the ceremony, “It was a very long and emotional search to discover the truth about my father, and I hope that people in America, the UK and Israel will hear about it.”
Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff, who hosted the event honoring Helmut, commented, “When you’re in the context of Germany, you’re never free of the historical dimension of the Holocaust, and it’s a very heavy burden to bear for the Germans, and also obviously for the Jewish people, and it’s always there. And I think it’s really important that this type of ceremony also recognizes that there were a few really important people who did the right thing. And that, to me, is the main message that should come out of this.”
For saving Jews while his peers were killing them, we honor Helmut Kleinicke as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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