Essence of berlin

Otto Weidt: The Blind Schindler

Sam Bavin 15 mins
Otto Weidt: The Blind Schindler

For regular Germans living under Nazism, the price paid for opposing the state was steep. No matter how small an act of resistance, how trivial a perceived transgression, the Nazi state would respond with the utmost brutality. 

Still, though, there were those within Germany willing to stand against the tyranny of National Socialism, regardless of the consequences. 

Some felt compelled to act having witnessed atrocity. Returning from the Eastern Front where they learned of mass murder in Poland and Russia, students Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell formed the White Rose Movement – later the German Resistance Movement. They conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign calling for active opposition to the Nazi regime. Having dropped a suitcase full of leaflets from the top floor of the atrium of Munich University’s main building, Hans (aged 24) and his sister Sophie (aged 21), along with fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst (who had written the leaflet and been implicated by his handwriting) were convicted of treason and executed. 

Some people were motivated by personal tragedy. Working class couple Otto and Elise Hampel, for example, distributed over 200 hand-written postcards in Berlin denouncing Hitler’s government after Elise’s brother was killed in action in the early stages of the Second World War. When they were eventually caught they were both beheaded in Plötzensee prison in April of 1943. Their story was then fictionalised after the war by author Hans Fallada as ‘Alone in Berlin’ or ‘Every Man Dies Alone’.

For others, resistance came in the form of risking their own safety to protect those who were being hunted by the state. Otto Weidt, a blind brushmaker, was one of these people. Between 1936 and 1945 he used his workshop in Berlin to shelter blind and deaf jews from deportation and persecution. 

 

Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind

 

Weidt was born in 1883 in Rostock, and grew up in modest circumstances – training to be a paperhanger like his father. When the family moved to Berlin a young Otto was drawn into anarchist and pacifist circles and became involved in the German working-class movement. He managed to avoid the draft for the First World War due to an ear infection. He met Else Nast in 1931, and they married five years later in 1936. 

By this time Weidt was already losing his eyesight, and had taught himself brush making and broom binding so he could support himself and his family despite his blindness. He opened his first workshop – registered as Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind – in a cellar apartment of Großbeerenstraße 92 in Kreuzberg. Else worked with Otto as the couple toiled to grow their business. Their efforts paid off, and in 1940 the Weidt’s moved their factory into a much larger space at Rosenthaler Straße 39, in Mitte – the heart of the city.

In his new space Weidt began to supply the Wehrmacht – the German armed forces – with brushes designed to clean soldiers’ jackboots, and his factory was officially classified as “important for the war effort”. This designation was the primary shield with which Weidt was later able to protect his workers from the SS and the Gestapo. 

Blind and deaf Jewish workers began to be allocated to the factory by the ‘Deployment Section for the Jews’ – a branch of the Berlin Labour Office. By 1941, nearly 40 people, most of them jewish, were employed in Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. Bernard Bromberger and Rosa Katz were two such people. Bromberger had served Germany in the First World War and opened a textiles factory in the northwest of Berlin after the conflict’s end. Shortly after he lost his sight. His four children escaped Germany just in time in the 1930s, emigrating to Shanghai, but Bernard did not want to join them because of his blindness and stayed behind with his wife Lina. Rosa Katz had been blind since childhood. Her sister Ruth emigrated to Palestine in 1933. Her brother, Siegbert, was imprisoned from 1933 until 1936, and then deported to Buchenwald concentration camp as a political prisoner. Katz’s parents, Moritz and Henriette, delayed their emigration to wait for their son’s release. It would never come – Siegbert was eventually deported to Auschwitz and murdered there in 1942. Her parents finally decided to flee in 1939, but Rosa was denied an entry permit into Palestine because of her blindness. She then lived in the Israelite Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Weißensee, and then later in the Jewish Community Hospital at Auguststraße 16 in the Mitte – a short walk from Weidt’s workshop. 

 

Fighting the Gestapo

 

When persecution of Jews intensified and the extermination centres such as Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in German-occupied Eastern Europe, Wiedt took brave measures to protect those workers who had been ‘allocated’ to him. His main weapon against the SS and the Gestapo was the workshop’s designated status as “important to the war effort”. Weidt was able to argue that his workers were essential to the continuing function of the workshop, and thus the war effort, so couldn’t be deported. In one instance in 1942 many of Weidt’s workers were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the nearby deportation assembly point at Große Hamburger Straße.  Weidt turned up at the assembly point himself, pointed out that his products were classified as “important for the war effort,” and gave bribes to the Gestapo officers. He succeeded in getting all of his workers released. 

If Weidt had foreknowledge that any workers were under threat in their homes, they were brought into the factory and hidden. At the rear of the workshop, behind a large cabinet with a sliding back panel inside, was a secret room where workers could be concealed until the danger had passed. Otto also employed three Jews in his office, even though this was strictly forbidden by the state. An internal bell system was installed that would warn if the Gestapo arrived for inspections. The office staff would then hide in a recess under the stairs. 

Weidt couldn’t protect his employees and their families alone, and his work to aid the persecuted was only possible with the support of a close circle of trustworthy associates. Hedwig Porschütz, a friend of Weidt’s, obtained food for his workers on the black market. She was arrested for ‘hoarding foodstuffs’ in 1944 and imprisoned. Theodor Görner, who owned a printing press in a neighbouring building, organized forged identity cards and gave work in his firm to family members of those employed by Otto Weidt. Karl Deibel, an advertising agent, hid victims of political and racial persecution in the basement of the Weidt’s old premises at Großbeerenstraße 92. Hans Rosenthal, who was a supplies manager for the Jewish Community, used the information available to him to warn Otto Weidt and his employees before the Fabrikaktion – ‘Operation Factory’.

 

The Fabrikaktion

 

Conducted by the Gestapo on the 27th February 1943, the Fabrikaktion was the term applied to the last major roundup of Jews who were working in factories or for the Jewish welfare organisation in Berlin. Having been forewarned by Rosenthal, Weidt closed his workshop that day. Despite this most of his workers were arrested in their homes or on the street and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Weidt managed to save Inge Deutschkron and the Licht family. During the Fabrikaktion Wiedt hid the Licht family – Georg and Käthe, employees of the factory, and their daughter Alice – in the secret room in his workshop. Deutschkron promptly went into hiding with her mother, and survived the war in Berlin. The Licht family were arrested in October of 1943 and deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia – a way station for those being deported on to Auschwitz. Weidt continued to fight for them, supporting them with parcels filled with whatever they needed. All 150 of them arrived. Alice and Otto communicated via postcards in code. If she and her family were starving, for example, Alice would address the card to ‘Otto Weidt, Potato Farmer’. Weidt, in response, would send food. 

The Licht family would eventually be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Alice managed to send a postcard to Weidt who promptly travelled to Auschwitz to try and help them. When he arrived Alice’s parents had already been murdered, and Alice herself had been transferred to Christianstadt – a subsidiary of the Groß-Rosen concentration camp. Weidt followed her and hid clothes and money in a nearby pension. At the beginning of 1945 Alice successfully escaped and, using the aid left to her by Weidt, managed to travel back to Berlin where she lived in hiding with the Weidt’s until the end of the war before emigrating to the United States in 1946.

 

After the War

 

Between March of 1943 (immediately after the Fabrikaktion) and May 1945, the workshop for the blind continued to operate with a skeleton crew of employees – mostly jews who had been spared deportation because they were married to Germans. After the war the workshop continued to function and Weidt also opened the Jewish Home for Children and the Aged in the north of Berlin – a safe haven for children and the elderly who had managed to survive the concentration camps and Nazi persecution. 

Otto Weidt died of heart failure only two years later, on the 22nd of December 1947. Else took over the running of the workshop, now located in East Berlin. She was arrested by the East Berlin police 5 years later for alleged “offences against trade regulations between East and West Germany”. Her business license was revoked and on the 22nd April 1952 the Provisioning Office of East Berlin City Council shut down the Workshop for the Blind.

In 1971 (just before Else's death) Weidt was posthumously honoured as a ‘Righteous Man of the World’s Nations’ by Yad Veshem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, Israel. The former workshop in the courtyards of Rosenthaler Straße 39 has been open as a museum since 1999 – with the secret chamber in which the Licht family were hiddenon display for visitors.  Entry is free of charge – we can’t recommend it enough.