“Do you know the name Hugo Rothenberg?”
The man who asked me this question—the year was 1987—was then in his late seventies; his name was Gerhardt Riegner. I knew nothing of my fellow Dane, but Riegner himself was familiar enough to me. What he had done on behalf of the Jews during World War II—and especially the role he played in informing the Allies that the Nazis were preparing a final destruction of European Jewry—has been described many times over.
But who was Rothenberg? In 1941 or 1942, Riegner explained, a Danish Jew by that name had come to see him in Geneva, where Riegner was then serving as the representative of the World Jewish Congress. Rothenberg had some remarkably precise things to report about the situation of the Jews in Germany—he was, Riegner recalled, particularly incensed at the “chutzpah” of the Nazis in charging the Reich Association of Jews in Germany, the German-Jewish umbrella organization, for the cost of the trains taking German Jews east to ghettos and camps—and Riegner used Rothenberg’s information in reports to the Allies and Jewish organizations. In later years Riegner had often wondered about the identity of his informant, and about how he knew so much concerning the fate of the German Jews.
I promised Riegner I would try to find out. In the end, I published a whole book (in Danish) on the subject.1
Rothenberg was born into a bourgeois German-Jewish family in the little town of Bad Kreuznach in 1882. He received his early training in the leather and shoe industry in Frankfurt am Main. After serving his apprenticeship, he traveled to Copenhagen, where the head offices of a number of large industrial leather companies were located and where, on a previous visit, he had made the acquaintance of a young Jewish woman by the name of Asta Meyer. He moved to Copenhagen in 1907, and married Asta in 1910.
Not only did Rothenberg win the bride of his choice, he also succeeded in striking up a friendship with Denmark’s leading leather industrialist, Max Ballin. By the end of the war in 1918, Ballin was in need of a young and ambitious business associate with international credentials, and preferably with good connections in Germany. Rothenberg became procurement director for the Ballin industries.
In 1919 a young German flying ace, a hero of the recent war, came to Rothenberg on the recommendation of the German envoy in Copenhagen. The German airman, now demobilized, was eking out a living as a stunt flyer in Denmark. Though successful with the ladies, he had run into severe financial difficulties as a result of his lavish style, and when introduced to the well-to-do Rothenberg in the summer of 1919 he did not hesitate to ask for a personal loan to cover his exorbitant expenses. Rothenberg could easily afford it.
The two men became friends. At the end of 1919, when the German left Denmark for Sweden, he sent Rothenberg a letter:
. . . My heartfelt thanks to you for all the help you have extended to me. I am ashamed that I have had to rely on you in so many different ways, without in any way being able to reciprocate. However, should it be possible—here or in Germany—for me to return your good offices in some way, please do not hesitate, even slightly, to contact me. As a result of your solicitude I have an unsettled account with you, which I look forward to being able to repay in order to demonstrate my gratitude.
With heartfelt greetings, I remain yours, gratefully,
Denmark had prospered during the war by remaining neutral, but the prosperity did not endure. The postwar recession affected Ballin’s empire as well. In addition, Ballin had made a fanatical personal enemy of Lauritz V. Birck, an economics professor and conservative member of parliament who hated capitalists and speculators and was a virulent anti-Semite. Birck accused Ballin and Rothenberg of wartime profiteering; in a historic confrontation, he and Ballin clashed during a meeting at which Ballin, pushed to the limit, called Birck “a simple liar and defamer.” To this Birck responded by attacking Ballin bodily with a chair, shouting at the top of his voice: “I am a white man, you are Jewish, and a professor at the University of Copenhagen cannot tolerate such language.”
In 1921, on the verge of ruin, Ballin shot himself. Rothenberg went personally bankrupt. Although he managed to survive, he never regained his wealth. Instead, he took to traveling around Europe, maintaining his old connections in Germany, where his four sisters still lived, and becoming friendly with German-Jewish leaders. Years later, they turned to him for help.
Nazi anti-Semitism exploded in November 1938 in Kristallnacht—the “night of shattered glass”—when Jews were attacked all over Germany, Jewish stores were smashed, and synagogues were burned. It was then that the German-Jewish leader Wilfred Israel (immortalized as the disagreeable Bernhard Landauer in Christopher Isherwood’s story, Goodbye to Berlin), asked Rothenberg to establish contact with Goering, who at the time was responsible for all matters pertaining to the “Jewish Question” in the German Reich. (This was one of many such efforts on the part of the German-Jewish leadership to communicate directly with high-level Nazis in order to find out more about their plans for the Jews.)
Rothenberg traveled immediately to Berlin, where he was able to meet with Goering in the Air Ministry. His minutes of this and subsequent meetings with Goering have survived. This is from the first, which took place on November 29, 1938:
. . . I had the opportunity to discuss the Jewish question with complete frankness. I pointed out that in the course of my numerous visits to Germany I had had plenty of opportunity to see for myself that the information trickling out with Jewish emigrants was not exaggerated. I described to him what I myself had been able to observe and quoted examples of atrocities perpetrated during the recent excesses [Kristallnacht]. I put the question of whether Goering himself was really convinced that the official German line was correct in maintaining that on that particular Thursday night three or four thousand Germans happened simultaneously and spontaneously to become so incensed about the Grynszpan attack [in which a young Jew of Polish-Jewish extraction had killed a German embassy employee in Paris] that things developed as they did. By a movement of the hand, repeated several times while I was speaking on these matters, I inferred that Goering was conceding that I was right, but his only oral reply was: “You must not forget that many of these people have probably had a Jewish employer at one time or another, and have therefore seized the opportunity to take revenge for their earlier mistreatment. . . .”
I then mentioned the concentration camps, opening with the remark that I could not really understand why he, Goering, had not long before seen to it that the camps were placed under the jurisdiction of his own people. I then told him that what had happened and was still happening in the camps was the most atrocious thing ever heard of. I was able to relate to him some examples, for whose veracity I could personally vouchsafe, and particularly one I had only learned about the night before. He was very interested in that particular case, and asked me to ascertain whether the person in question had been mistreated. . . .
Goering openly and without any constraint admitted that especially the last incident [Kristallnacht] had been harmful to Germany’s foreign trade, and he mentioned specifically that Germany had lost the business of some big foreign department stores, particularly English and American ones. He repeatedly called himself the “Führer der deutschen Wirtschaft” [leader of the German economy]. It was clear throughout this conversation that Germany’s economy was of exceptional interest to him.
The entire conversation took two-and-a-half hours and slowly it turned into a lively discussion in which we both sometimes strode up and down his office. That the Jews had to leave Germany in any case was beyond question, according to Goering. I repeatedly pointed out to him that if so it was mandatory that emigration take place in a reasonably decent manner. He assured me he would have preferred that many of the events of recent times had not occurred, and he also said, “I can assure you that these incidents cannot and will not be repeated here in Germany, and I am also willing to do my best to ensure a decent mode of emigration.”
We also touched upon Palestine as a destination for the emigrants. He expressed surprise at the fact that the Jews were still bent on this goal. He explained his personal views on Palestine, referring to the serious difficulties the English were experiencing in their Mandate territory. Only by including Transjordan in the prospective area of emigration—which he thought would be impossible—might there be a chance [of accommodating the influx of Jews]. His conclusion was that the best one could hope for was to maintain the status quo, that is, the approximately 500,000 Jews now living in Palestine would be able to remain there in peace, but any additional emigration should be resisted.
Among the gentlemen in Berlin, my closest contact has been with Wilfred Israel of the well-known department store N. Israel. Mr. Israel is, in my opinion, the leading person among German Jews, and has contributed on an enormous scale to German Judaism. . . . During my talks with Goering I had occasion to mention Israel, and, at my request, Goering has consented to receive him. In my opinion, this visit will be of the utmost importance, since no German Jew has ever before been able to get into direct contact with one of the leading individuals in the German government. . . .
Between 1938 and 1941 Rothenberg had several more meetings and telephone conversations with Goering, and also with Jewish leaders all over Europe. During those years Nazi policy toward the Jews remained somewhat inconsistent, varying with the fortunes of one or another element in the internal power struggle of the Nazi party. The SS, with Heinrich Himmler at its head, preferred to get rid of the Jews at a forced clip, by expulsion from Germany—which, since nearly every country in the world had closed its borders to the Jews, would condemn them to life as stateless refugees. Goering, on the other hand, seemed to prefer a “proper” emigration, providing the Jews with visas and tickets in an orderly manner. (No one, as yet, had mentioned extermination camps or gas chambers.) One way or another, until 1941 thousands of Jews were able to emigrate from German lands, to some extent in an orderly manner.
How important a role Rothenberg played in all this, and how much real influence he had with Goering, it is hard to say. It is possible that Goering liked having Rothenberg around only as a point of honor, or even just for the fun of it. An example: Rothenberg, according to his notes, tried to persuade Goering to centralize the Jewish emigration offices in Berlin, as had already been done in Vienna. At one early meeting—on January 27, 1939—Goering sent for the dreaded SS leader, Rein-hard Heydrich, and in Rothenberg’s presence ordered him to put the visa process under coordinated management. Yet according to other sources, Goering had already decided on a coordinated approach prior to his meeting with Rothenberg, which suggests that he and Heydrich were indulging in a bit of playacting.
Nevertheless, it is my impression that Rothenberg did sometimes succeed in holding Goering to his word about ensuring an orderly emigration. Moreover, on his repeated visits to Berlin he was able to bring crucial information from abroad to such German-Jewish leaders as Paul Eppstein, Otto Hirsch, and Wilfred Israel.
But by 1941 Goering’s own glory days were very nearly over. The SS, under Himmler and Heydrich, had been made responsible for the “Jewish Question,” and a far more heavy-handed emigration policy was instigated that resulted in the forcible expulsion of Jews to the newly established ghettos in the East.
Already at the end of 1940, Rothenberg sensed the way things were going. Although he kept trying to influence Goering, there was really very little hope from that quarter. It was then that Rothenberg tried to contact Jewish leaders elsewhere—including Gerhardt Riegner in Geneva—and give them what information he had on the plight of the German Jews.
Aside from Riegner, at the end of 1940 Rothenberg was also able to establish a link to the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which from its European headquarters in Lisbon played a leading role in the effort to rescue European Jews. In the course of 1941, Rothenberg traveled several times to Lisbon, meeting with JDC representatives and bringing them information from Germany. He also became financially responsible for JDC contributions to the refugees in Denmark and, later, Sweden. Since the Allies had decided that the German war machine should not be aided in any way, not even by money transfers to suffering Jews, JDC was not allowed to send money to Germany or German-occupied territory, which after 1940 included Denmark. Clandestine channels had to be set up, and Rothenberg became one of them.
Here a word of explanation may be in order. Since it is widely known that the majority of Danish Jews were rescued in October 1943 by the Danes, who got them safely to neutral Sweden, it might be thought that Denmark would also have been a place of refuge for Jews fleeing from neighboring Germany, and that Rothenberg would have had the cooperation of Danish authorities in the rescue or relief of those Jews. This, however, was far from the case.
Toward Danish Jews, Denmark’s policy was indeed characterized by solidarity and care. But foreign Jews were not treated so generously. From early on, the Danish authorities held that these people must be prevented from entering the country. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the Social-Democratic Minister of Justice, K.K. Steincke, announced in parliament that German Jews did not qualify as refugees and hence were not entitled to asylum in Denmark. He had full parliamentary support for this attitude. Taken as a whole, Danish policy toward non-Danish Jews was no more humane than that of other Western countries, and in certain cases, Danish authorities acted in so cynical and even depraved a manner that to peruse the refugee files today can be a shocking experience.
So Rothenberg could not rely on the Danish government for help. He did, however, have a personal friend at police headquarters in Copenhagen. This man provided Rothenberg with visas to a number of countries that would otherwise not have allowed a Jew to enter, and it was partly through his good offices, as well as through Goering’s “benign neglect,” that Rothenberg was able to continue traveling in those years. And travel he did, incessantly. One moment he was in Berlin, then he was moving on to Zurich, Brussels, Lisbon, back to Berlin, then on again to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and so forth. Once again it is hard to say precisely what role Rothenberg was playing, although whatever his activities were, they would almost certainly, if discovered, have been construed by the Allies as criminal. In the JDC case file on Rothenberg a slip was attached which reads: “Delete Rothenberg’s name from all correspondence.”
During this period, Rothenberg met Paul Werner Meyerheim, the financial officer of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany, and the man responsible, among other things, for the distribution of JDC funds. Meyerheim, in 1941, needed somebody who could travel freely in and out of Germany and was able to pass secret information about the plight of the German Jews to Jewish relief organizations abroad. Until 1943 Rothenberg served as the middleman between the Reich Association and the JDC in Lisbon.
In 1943 Rothenberg himself became a refugee, in Sweden. But he did not remain idle there. Goering had a Swedish stepson, Thomas von Kantzow, who occasionally saw his stepfather in Berlin. Rothenberg contacted von Kantzow and pleaded with him to speak to Goering about the concentration camps. Von Kantzow carried out the commission. Did the appeal lead to anything? The American diplomat Ivar Olsen, who represented the U.S. War Refugee Board in Stockholm and was responsible for sending Raoul Wallenberg to Hungary to try and save the Jews there, reported through official channels that the von Kantzow/Rothenberg intervention perhaps helped to mitigate the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt.
At war’s end Rothenberg returned home. In a grotesque turn of circumstance, however, no sooner had he set foot in Denmark than he was arrested and charged with having been a German spy. He languished in prison for three weeks before being released.
To a man who had risked his life to save his fellow Jews, being accused of spying for the Nazis (to say nothing of the prospect of possible execution) was a devastating blow. Though he was cleared of all charges, the experience left him a broken man. Until the day of his death in 1948, he never mentioned his activities again to anybody. And so, until now, his story has remained untold.
1 So far as I know, there is no mention of Rothenberg in the published historical literature. The following narrative is based to some extent on his private archives, which are in the possession of his family. (A copy has been deposited with the Leo Baeck Institute of New York.)