Waiting Becomes Electric
By Web Ruble
Web writes: "While stationed in Germany with American armed forces after WWII, I had opportunity to talk to former German soldiers about some unusual and surprising (and as of yet untold) events during the war."
A gentle breeze is whipping the Baltic water against the moored boat. But the boat wasn't bobbing much.
We had to get von Sigul aboard The Baltic Tern. Then we had to get him ashore in Sweden. I said please God, let him enjoy freedom and safety even though he had but a short time to live.
That was my intention. But a strange thing happened then -- some 48 years ago -- and that is what put this old man on this train to Hamburg to say thank you to an even older man -- that is, if I could find him.
Oh, I had a last-known address for Artur Kolb. However, that was years ago, and Hamburgians I knew said they were not familiar with the name or the address. Moreover, they have little idea where it might be. And to be probably truthful, they probably don't care.
Not much to go on. That is all the information I have to begin my determined hunt. I must get to Hamburg first; get based, and then start searching. There are some tricks in the old bag. Who knows, maybe I could get lucky.
I would have to get lucky. Because most Germans I encounter routinely these days (the 1990s) were only vaguely familiar with the Nazi era, they certainly never heard of the once-charismatic Maj. Artur Helmet Kolb, once a shaker and a mercurial force during the dying days of the Third Reich.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, again.
Let's go back nearly a half century.
Under way in late 1944 was a diligent search for elusive Jews trying to escape being sentenced to a death camp that the Germans were continuing to operate with gusto. The Germans were doing it even though most of them knew that Germany was losing the war, and soon would have to account for their current atrocities.
The spring of 1944 search was in Denmark, near Germany's Schleswig-Holstein state. The word was out that in the village of Schwendirff, a group of 4-5 Jews had been hiding for years from the Nazi holocaust, right under the Nazis' noses. However, alas, some neighbor apparently had told the SS that the Jewish men were hiding in the basement of a certain home.
Acting quickly, the special task force of German soldiers immediately broke into the home, only to find that the Jews had just left -- escaping still again. Apparently, there had been an informer who had warned the Jews that gestapo or SS troops were on their way and would arrive momentarily.
Terrified, the Jews scattered immediately.
That's where I -- Herman Schmitz - came in. I was in the German-Danish, anti-Nazi underground and I had the responsibility of getting Werner von Sigul, a brilliant mathematician, to safety. Myself, brother Heinz, and his wife Mushie knew of a 32-foot former sailboat moored at Volkingdorf, a tiny seashore village with no harbor and all that it had going for it was a sort of dilapidated rock breakwater.
Nevertheless, we planned to use the Baltic Tern to get von Sigul to neutral Sweden.
However, we were mindful that German SS Maj. Artur Helmet Kolb was heading the search and he was diligent, energetic, and efficient. And the fact that he was leading the hunt for von Sigul was disturbing.
It meant that we had to be extremely swift and careful at the same time to be successful. And, of course, we had to be concerned for our own safety. Capture (with the accusation of aiding the enemy) certainly would bring torture, and probably death. Death I could handle, but torture? It was a known fact that anybody could be "broken" within 3-6 hours. Excruciatingly terrible.
Therefore, I decided to leave brother Heinz and wife Mushie behind and take some young, diligent commando-like workers with me.
We detailed quick plans. Von Sigul was old, somewhat feeble, and handicapped. He could barely walk.
Yet we had to hustle him along. It was a most difficult task, because there would be a 200-300-yard sprint across an open area -- visible, to be sure, by shore sentries -- to get him aboard the boat. Then, once we got the boat going, we had to look casual as we dodged German shipping, U-boats, and shore batteries.
The hour came. We got Von Sigul to the village but one incident almost scotched the plan. A German soldier apparently saw us usher von Sigul into a house near the shore, and reported it. Minutes later a steel-helmeted pacel of somber soldiers rushed to the house, broke down the front door, and rudely entered -- just as we were taking Von Sigul out a side door (not the back, because Germans were being posted there as well).
Somehow, we managed to get von Sigul and ourselves, through the openness, down to the seashore without interruption.
However, that's where things went awry. As we moved along shore, toward the dilapidated sailboat (now motorized with an improvised with an outboard washing-machine motor), the Germans thought they saw us, and came running.
Leading the pack of on-rushing, uncompromising-looking troops was Maj. Kolb.
RATS! Now we're all but had!
Quick decision. There was a tiny fishing shack near the water's edge. We made for it, because we knew we could not reach the Baltic Tern in time. We got there and went in.
Minutes later, Kolb and the troops arrived. Most of us stayed in the shack, but two took von Sigual out the seaside door, flattened themselves and von Sigul on the rocks and made like squids to where the boat was moored. Somehow, they were not seen.
Meanwhile, in the shack there was a great deal of shouting and slapping us around. Kolb entered and motioned everyone to be quiet. He took pushed me out the door. Once outside he quickly glanced around to see if anyone was watching.
"Now you know that I know you have von Sigul," he all but whispered. "Let's not pretend or get cagey.
We'll go easy on you and the others if you just surrender him."
I looked Maj. Kolb in the eyes. He looked reasonably calm and kind. I did what I had to do. I tried a gamble. I decided to be honest with him:
"Yes. He's here. But he's dying. He won't live but a few days. What harm would it do to just let him go, and live his final moments in peace over in neutral Sweden? He is now completely incapacitated and can do Germany no harm. How about it? What harm could it do?"
Kolb stood there, looking trim in his crisp green-gray uniform, staring at me. One could almost see the wheels turning in his temples.
Then something almost unbelievable happened. Kolb's eyes softened and he nodded. He turned to his soldiers and shouted, "Forget it. There's nothing. Von Sigul isn't here. The men you have there in the shack are just fishermen. Let 'em, go. Time is wasting. We need to look elsewhere."
So he rallied his soldiers and they marched away route-step.
I and the others in the shack stood silent, dumbfounded.
That night we went our separate ways. I never heard from the others again. I ended up in Switzerland.
Off the "underground telegraph" I heard that the boat, von Sigul, and his escorts made it to Sweden without incident. I also heard that von Sigul died a few days later, extremely thankful and happy to spend his last days in tranquility and freedom. He never was able to share his mathematical genius with the allies but his story -- circulating eventually through the underground -- gave cheer to those working to undermine Germany in the last months of the Third Reich.
This is my second trip back to Germany since the war. I have an old, old address (supposedly) for Kolb in Hamburg. I have been waiting for this day for a long time. I want to thank him for what he did (or didn't do) that day in Denmark.
I get off in a train station and take a taxi to a reasonably priced hotel in the area where I had that last address for Kolb. My plan is to get the hotel first, get squared away on the ins and outs of Hamburg, and then start with Kolb's ancient address (alleged), and go from there. Who knows? I might get lucky.
Somehow, after doing a lot of inquring throughout the day, I find Johann-Brunner Strasse, and the relatively grimey dirt-brown, stone apartment building that supposedly houses Kolb. It is jammed between two larger, modern, edifices which have glass fronts and awnings.
Because I am now old, suffering a little from arthritis, and otherwise bad feet, I waddle to the old building, and there is a residency list in the glassed-in, bronze-framed intercom box. I peer and squint, and WHOA! I am shocked. There's his name right there before God and country -- Helmet Kolb.
I am flabbergasted.
I push the buzzer opposite his name. NOthing. I push it again. Again nothing. I push it a third time, and now just as I am about to give up and walk away when a growly, raspy voice answers, "Ja?"
I explain who I am, why I am there, and ask to come in.
There is a long silence, and finally the gravelly voice says, "Well . . .I am and old man . . .and I don't receive visitors anymore . . . besides my place is not tidy . . .. .oh, what the heck . . .come on in. Unit 5."
The buzzer sounds weakly and I push through the old, dirty-windowed door, and enter onto a landing in front of a staircase. I slowly climb the stairs to a second floor and find Apartment 5. Just as I am about to knock, the door opens and this old, wizened man -- stooped, and standing about 5-foot- 6 with spectacles and a patched elbowed cardigan sweater -- greets me and beckons me in.
Once inside, he stares at me a moment. Perhaps he is expecting someone younger. I can see he is trying to make up his mind about something. Finally he says, "Well, I knew sooner or later it would come to this. I sort of welcome it, I guess. It's sort of a relief. I am oh so tired of hiding and looking over my back. Come on in. Let's get it over with."
He motions me to a chair in his tiny, stuffy quarters stacked high with books -- including a Bible and some books in English -- opposite what I guess is his easy chair (no doubt where he now spends most of his life.
I tell him that I was the one he talked to about von Sigul on the Baltic shore of so many years ago, And I tell him that after all of these years, I want to thank him personally for the very heroic thing he did (or did not do) for Germany in regards to von Sigul. It was the right thing, I tell him, adding that it would not have served Germany at all to compromise von Sigul.
I tell him that I understand that after that incident he had to go into hiding -- at first from the SS, and soon afterward from the allies, who sought to prosecute all SS and former SS soldiers. Very few allies at that point knew anything about von Sigul and the role Kolb played in von Sigul's deliverance.
Later, soon after the new West German government assumed command, Kolb sensed there was a new effort to recapture German honor. And, rightly or wrongly, he suspected that he would be (unofficially, of course), despised, hunted down, and killed by a new generation of neo-Nazis.
The swelling intensity is now crackling. Helmut Kolb's eyes, already misty, begin to shed big tears. He cries, gets up, and with difficulty shuffles across the room. He pauses, looks back at me, and says that he really isn't that much of humanity's hero.
He says, "I had to do what I did . . .you see, my mother was Jewish. The SS didn't know that. May God bless you Christians. You understand."
He sobs again, goes to an old cabinet and extracts an old dust-covered bottle of 1940-vintage wine and two glasses.
(© 2012 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)