Kind German Widow: Johanna Eck

Took In Orphans

Johanna Eck was a German war widow who sheltered two young Jews in her home, putting her own life in grave danger to save them.

Johanna was born in Germany in 1888. Not much is known about her life. She was married to a man named Eck who died in the beginning years of World War II. Mr. Eck was a veteran of World War I,and  for decades after the war he kept in touch with his Jewish army buddy, Jakob Guttmann. In 1942, Jakob, his wife and their children were arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a concentration camp. Somehow Jakob’s young son Heinz managed to escape the Nazis’ clutches, but he had nowhere to go. Desperate he approached every non-Jew he knew, but they wouldn’t to put their own life at risk by harboring him. He lived on the street, desperately hungry and sleeping in doorways, digging through garbage to find something to to eat. Finally he remembered his father’s war buddy Eck. 

The boy found Mr. Eck’s home, and learned he’d passed away. But his widow Johanna welcomed him in and assured Heinz that she would take care of him and keep him safe. She shared her meager wartime food rations with him, and spent her days away from home, trying to rustle up additional ration cards from her large network of friends and acquaintances. In November 1943, an Allied air raid destroyed Johanna’s house, but fortunately she and Heinz were unharmed. Before she figured out where she was going to live, she first made sure to find a safe place for Heinz with one of her friends. 

Johanna was assigned a one room apartment, and Heinz moved back in with her. Soon another young Jew, Elfriede Gutmann (no relation), showed up at Johanna’s door and begged for help. The Gestapo had raided her house and arrested the entire family while she cowered terrified under the bed. She was deeply traumatized and had no place to go, and Johanna welcomed her into the small flat. On line at the bakery one day, they ran into Elfriede’s former classmate, Erika Hartmann, a non-Jew who wanted to help her old friend. Erika gave Elfriede her own papers confirming her Aryan identity, and when Erika’s house was destroyed in a raid, Johanna took advantage of the confusion to get Elfriede registered as her official lodger under the name Erika Hartmann.

Johanna kept Elfriede and young Heinz safe until the war ended. Tragically, Elfriede died of a sudden stomach ailment in June 1946, the night before she was set to emigrate to the United States. Johanna nursed the girl until her final breath. Elfriede left no survivors, and Johanna purchased a gravestone for her friend, on which she also inscribed the names of Elfriede’s parents and brother. 

Thankfully Heinz survived the war, and stayed in touch with the woman who’d saved his life. When asked why she helped Jews despite the danger, she responded “If a fellow human being is in distress and I can help him, then it becomes my duty and responsibility. Were I to refrain from doing so, then I would betray the task that life – or God – demands from me. Human beings – so it seems to me – make up a big unity; they strike themselves and all in the face when they do injustice to one another. These are my motives.”

Johanna was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1973.

For taking in two young strangers and keeping them safe from Nazi storm troopers, we honor Johanna Eck as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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