Humane personBerthold Beitz

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Born in Germany, Beitz was in the oil business. During World War II, the Nazi war machine needed lots of oil, so Beitz was given a lot of power to keep it flowing. When Germany invaded Poland, Beitz was assigned to supervise the oil fields at Boryslav (which is now in the Ukraine). Once there, as a German official with power, he was witness to the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi regime. When Beitz learned of military actions that were planned against local Jews, he warned the targets about what was being planned. As a longer term strategy, Beitz created fake jobs and recruited labor to fill them — from among Poles and Jews who would otherwise be sent to concentration camps; some that he chose had already been loaded on trains to the Belzec death camp, and were unloaded for him. “I should have employed qualified personnel,” he said after the war. “Instead, I chose tailors, hairdressers and Talmudic scholars and gave them all cards as vital ’petroleum technicians’.”

Why risk his 27-year-old life, sometimes even hiding Nazi targets in his home? “I saw how people were shot, how they were lined up in the night,” he said years later. “My motives were not political; they were purely humane, moral motives.” By giving shelter to his own country’s targets, Beitz saved hundreds of innocent lives, but leaders in the regime apparently never discovered the scheme. Beitz was “one of the great Germans of the past century,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. “He was a hero of the Holocaust at a time when it was a crime to be a humane person.” After the war, Beitz went to work on rebuilding his country, merging two industrial companies into ThyssenKrupp, and leading the company for 60 years. Meanwhile, says his grandson, Robert Ziff, he didn’t like to talk about what he did in the war. Instead, Ziff says, he collected letters from the families he saved from Nazi murder and put them into a book for his own family, and “let that do the talking.” But his contributions were not ignored: Poland awarded him its highest civilian honor; the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel honored both Beitz and his wife Else as “Righteous Among the Nations” — its highest honor for Gentiles who saved Jews from the Holocaust. Beitz died July 30 at his home on the island of Sylt. He was 99.

From This is True for 4 August 2013