“German by culture, Jewish by religion and origin”.
Max Plaut became the chairman of the Hamburg Jewish community, North Germany’s free Hanseatic city, in 1938. During these years the count of the Jews in Hamburg was approx 17,000, and few thousand more in the cities around.
Max was born in 1901, son of a school teacher. He was seriously injured in WW1, was a banker in his education and member of the freemasonry.
He was an anti-Zionist, the Founder of the anti-Zionist Jewish Youth in Germany. A German nationalist, as he defined: “German by culture, Jewish by religion and origin”.
The essence of Max’s role, in these impossible times, was to ensure the safety and well-being of the Jews (including financial management of the community, raising money outside of Germany to help Jews with emigration) and at the same time to fulfill, transfer and execute the orders of the Nazi government, through the Gestapo.
He wasn’t the only leader of the Hamburg community. With him managed and led the community’s life: Leo Lippmann, Joseph Carlebach and Max Warburg who owned theWarburg bank.
Each did whatever they can do and hoped, that with careful planning and navigation of the ship, they could help take the community through the storm of those days.
Max had an excellent diplomatic talent and an even better sense of humor. With the help of those qualities, he stayed in a positive though not an equal relationship with the Gestapo officers, and mainly with the Hamburg police chief in charge of Jewish affairs, Klaus Gottche. They respected each other. He often used manipulations, without fear, with great courage, with black humor and great audacity.
It didn’t always help him and Plaut was arrested and even beaten a few times by Gottche’s subordinates:
For example, in 1938, many Jews from the community were arrested. Plaut was among them. He was held in a cell for a day and a half with no food and water.
Since he didn’t want to die like that, he called the guard. The guard asked him why does he dare to call him, and noted that 1200 Jews were sent to camps from that same prison. Max rudely asked: “so what happens now?”
-“I will go to check” answered the guard.
Not long after Max was released from his cell and transferred to his “friend” Gottche’s office. Gottche scolds him “where have you been? We’ve been looking for you.”
-“You’re supposed to know, you picked me up from the cell”, said Plaut.
-“I don’t know what to do with you”, said Gottche.
-“you better think about it while I’m waiting at my house” Plaut answered him rudely, and so it was. He was sent to his house and was obligated to report to the police station twice a day.
Max’s connections with the Gestapo created serious unjust allegations towards Plaut after the war, of collaborating with the Nazis – It is now possible to understand that Max didn’t actually “collaborated”, he did follow orders. Made lists, but not agreeing to do that wouldn’t have stopped the Nazi plan, at least by acting, he softened the blow until the last moment and sometimes he even saved Jews, as will be described later.
The Jewish brothel
On his role and his special management ways, in those times, we can learn from these few examples:
Because of the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were forbidden to have sex with Germans. The Gestapo and Plaut had to question what will happen when a prostitute reports a Jewish customer.
The solution was to open a Jewish brothel, with Jewish women, for Jews. It indeed opened, outside the red light district of Hamburg.
After a few months, the brothel was closed since no customers arrived.
Usually, as the head of the community and the one in charge of its assets, Plaut had to deal with the situation with brilliant ways:
The synagogue in Grindel neighborhood was burned following the Kristallnacht. The Nazis wanted to build a college for teachers there, and Jews weren’t allowed to rebuild the synagogue anyway.
Against their will, the Jewish community had to negotiate about selling the place. The negotiations were forced but the talks themselves handled as between equals and it took place between Lipman and the municipality.
Since the Jews were obligated to remove the ruins of the synagogue, Lipman suggested to receive a fifth of the property’s value, and with that money, the eviction will be done. That was the agreement – So the community stayed with nothing from the property. That was Max’s plan.
He sold many assets of the community in ridicules prices, intentionally, knowing he had no other choice, but he also lowered the price even more. He did that because of the knowledge he gathered in banking and law. He stated that in any case, with the ridiculous prices, it could have only been sold to the regime by force, he could prove that these assets were taking from the community by force and he could get them back once the Nazis were gone.
The immigration of the Jews – organization
After the Pogrom Night (Kristallnacht) while many Jews were arrested and shipped to camps all over the Reich, Max was able to free and rescue most of Hamburg’s Jews with negotiations, and got them visas and money to emigrate, mostly to south American states.
After the visas to south America started to end Max started, with the help of the Gestapo to fake forging visas to those countries.
The Nazis used the forced escape of the Jews to bring in foreign money in the country: a Jew could only leave if he paid in foreign money, which helped the economy greatly, and imprisoned those who had money but couldn’t get foreign money (the family of the person writing these lines, was a wealthy family from Hamburg, and couldn’t leave the country because the money needed for it was asked from my grandmother in Palestina, she didn’t have it as an emigrant, and that’s how they found their death at the camps).
The Nazis did everything to make the Jews leave. The law didn’t interest them and they mostly ignored border rules when someone without a visa left.
Adolf Eichmann’s travel agency
Adolf Eichmann went even further and established the “Travel Agency” of the Reich to coordinate and hold the cruise line from Germany to Palestina, even during the war when the borders were closed.
After a while and after saving many Jews, the German shipping company accused him of its entanglements overseas due to illegal passengers. He was tried in Germany, but the main Gestapo headquarters in Berlin asked for the charges against him to be dropped. As a result, he was asked by the headquarters in Berlin to stop forging visas and Plaut told them that this is the only way to save Jews from the camps and everything was done with the approval of the Gestapo headquarters in Hamburg.
The beginning of the war was confusing for Plaut and the Jews. A number of months earlier, in a speech he gave, Hitler promised that the Jews will suffer if a war will be “forced” on Germany. Also, his ties inside the SS told him “If there will be a war, the Jews will be the first to lose” and “initially, the older Jews will be taken to forced labor camps”.
Max Plaut in a testimonial from the Eichmann trial:
“June 1939 I came back to Germany from London. I was in the main office of the Gestapo in Hamburg. I was questioned by the Jewish department because I came from abroad. There was a war psychosis and the topic came up immediately and the man said that if there would be a war the Jews would be the first to lose. “you’ll see miracles and wonders” he said.
…and what happened in November 1938 is a dress rehearsal only.” The Gestapo officials and the Nazi party every time they had good news they said their thinking about making detention and concentration camp for all the Jews.”
But when the war started everything stayed as it always was, at least in Hamburg. At the beginning, though, mostly in small villages, activists from the Nazi party took the law into their own hands but were ordered to stop very quickly by the Gestapo.
Jews received the same food stamps, gas masks and stayed in the same bonkers as the rest of the Reich. The promises seemed like idle threats.
Later, as we know, things developed int he worst matter possible, Max describes:
“…(They) specifying the new rules every time, mostly on the rules to hand over the radios delivered on Yom Kippur. Later he said it became unsurprising very quickly that holidays and Saturdays were elected by the Nazis for anti-Jews actions. In a diabolical and vicious way, they looked at the Jewish calendar. We expected that something will happen on the Jewish holidays. We were always afraid before every holiday and could breathe again as they passed with only short whims. I remember that on Sukot evening the Gestapo demanded from me that within two days I’ll create a referendum stamped by all the Jews. And when I mentioned the holiday and if it can be postponed and I was denied. I was always told “sorry, orders from above” and then he came to me personally and said “ya, those in Berlin think about everything, so you don’t have to think too much.”
In 1940, the first event of mass deportation happened an area close to Plaut.
Plaut was in Berlin when 1200 of the Stettin Jews were banished to Lublin, Poland. The ones that could work of course.
In the city remained the old and the ill without anyone to take care of them. All of their “strong” relatives were banished.
Plaut knew that something had to be done. The Berlin rabbi, Ravi Black, asked Plaut to go there.
-“why me?” asked Plaut.
“Stettin is in the Baltic sea, that’s not my area”, said the rabbi and added: “and you’re the only one without family.”
When he arrived in Stettin managed Plaut to convince the Gestapo that the Jewish community will buy back the property that was confiscated from them in the deportation, and so, he could get back meds, beds and more equipment that was needed for relief of the helpless community.
Clues for mass murder:
In September 1940, the German’s second attempt at gas killing was made. 100 of the Jews in the hospital in Langhorne were transferred to “another hospital”.
Max who was responsible for one of the girls in the institution, suddenly received a letter saying she will be transferred tomorrow to the “other” hospital. He arrived there and understood that all the patients are being transferred. With great effort he managed to arrange for some of the patients to be released to their homes, the others were allowed a visit from their families to say goodbye.
At the train station, doctors and nurses from the Red Cross stood there, allegedly financed by the railway company “Columbus” where it was written that the patients will be taken to a modern facility in Poland. It’s unclear what was the purpose of bringing the doctors to the train station, and who they were trying to convince that being transferred was good – the patient’s families or the Germans who witnessed the first deportation of Jewish Germans in Hamburg.
The full understanding of the fate of these Jews, at the beginning of the extermination program of the European Judaism finally seeped into Plaut’s head after this event.
The Gestapo encouraged him to write to the older people that were sent to Lublin to visit the patients that were just sent there. But answers that he received from there indicated that this sort of institute did not exist there, and the people he noted never arrived there.
When a death certificate of one of the patients arrived, that only one day before the deportation was released to his home alive and well, Plaut realized that none of the patients even made it to the Poland boarded. He writes:
“Ever since that moment, we realized that the purpose of the concentration camps is the death of the worst kind. We now understand the most important point in Hitler’s and his party’s plan, the solution to the Jewish problem, which is the extermination of all Jews within the Reich’s territory. We now understand. Our reaction can not be despair; it should be to stand tall.”
Only when hidden messages started to arrive from Minsk camp, Plaut learned about the conditions in the camps, about the fact that even if they don’t kill Jews there, surviving in those conditions for a few more years was unreasonable.
In 1941 the same happened to the heads of the Jewish community, Joseph Carlebach who was well respected by the Gestapo officers, was sent with his family to a concentration camp.
Carlebach sent a letter of encouragement to heads of communities in concentration camps and said that someday they will be released and the sun will rise again. this spread with the Germans as a premonition that the Nazi state will collapse soon. At the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, they were furious and instructed the Hamburg headquarters to send Carlebach to the worst of the camps, Auschwitz, that at the time was not used to house Jews outside of Poland and Russia, but Jews of special interest were sent there individually from Germany.
Plaut arrived at the Gestapo headquarters and begged for his release. “why did that idiot have to write that letter?” asked the head of the Gestapo in Hamburg. “I can’t do anything about the orders from Berlin,” he said.
Plaut asked that Carlebach will be brought to the headquarters to beg for his life. Eventually, he was able to convince them to send him on the train that was supposed to departure the next day with the town Jews to Riga camp.
He went on the train with his family, and when he arrived at the camp he was murdered in the forest. Only one member of the Carlebach family survived the camp.
The “Hamburg Today” newspaper reported Carlibach’s death as natural causes. It was a rear occasion that a newspaper was interested in a Jew who died.
Beginning of the deportation in Hamburg
After the war, Max insisted that his office had no control or ability to change the deportation manifest. He would get a list of Jews that need to be prepared for deportation – and so he did. He did everything in his power to help those people towards their journey and rarely he could delay sending them for a short while. We can learn from the lists that those who received a decoration from World War I was sent later on, but nothing else. The community office that Plaut was the head of was obligated to give the Gestapo every information that they asked – marriage, profession, the number of children and so on.
What he could have done, he probably did. Every shipment was escorted before boarding the trains by voluntaries from the community that provided warm food and beddings for those who were sent to the unknown. Something to make the journey a little bit better. Rarely, depending on which camp they were deported to, you could communicate with them by mail after they arrived at the camp, for a short while, and ensure their well-being and give them letters from those left behind.
Differently from other cities, shipments were not accompanied by violence by the Gestapo. Plaut’s good relations (and obedience of the community) had a lot to do with that.
Most of the Jews who were sent from Hamburg in 1942 were sent to Theresienstadt camp. From Theresienstadt eventually, the Jews were sent to Auschwitz.
Every family was allowed to receive one package per month. Plaut arranged huge shipments from Hamburg to the families. Once he even shipped a piano. He filled it with meds and groceries. The mail that arrived from Theresienstadt provided a false picture. No one dared to write about the real situation in the camp, the Gestapo would open the letters.
Plaut’s office was also known as the center for information on the deported ones, information that their relatives demanded. The letters that arrived from the camps, when they arrived, arrived at Plaut’s office, and he was in charge of delivering the information to the recipients.
Max also had to answer to the “Aryan” relatives of the deported people, that just like the Jews, knew nothing about the fate of those.
In one case, Max correspondent with an “Aryan” resident that his Jewish wife was sent to a camp. That man tried to contact the Gestapo and they always gave him the answer that she will soon be released. He asked Plaut what he thought of that and he responded that he hopes they are right. After that Plaut re-writes to that same person, that he received word that his wife is at Birkenau camp. He asked what type of camp is that and if he could send her packages.
Plaut responded that it’s a work camp, and he will help with the packages, and he hopes again that his wife will be released as the Gestapo promised him.
In the last letter, that same person announced he received his wife’s death certificate. He asked for Plaut’s opinion, and if he should notify the Hamburg authorities of course.
In that time Plaut already knew much more, and he also knew what Gestapo promises about the residents of the camps were worth. But what would help besides comforting or raising hope for that person? Maybe if “Aryans” like him knew more about the fate of their loved ones they would have stood up against the regime? after all, even those who opposed were sent to camps. It was hopeless and it was an impossible task and so hard for Plaut.
After he was deported. A Jew’s property would be sold in a public auction. The public could make an offer, but such an offer was officially prioritized lower than Gestapo and Government Office offers. Plaut had an interesting trick. Plaut didn’t know or imagined what will happen after the war, that Germany will take responsibility and compensate anyone whose property was looted, but that was his plan. He tried to make sure that the property of Jews would be sold at ridicules prices and sometimes even without cost (once a piece of furniture was sold for a song) that was in order to have legal basis to sue and claim the property after the war, and the ridicules prices will be proof that the property was sold under duress and not willingly.
The Gestapo in Hamburg managed to seize property worth 58 million from Lion Reichsmark, the money was transferred to a bank account in Berlin.
Eventually, on the first of August 1942, 500 Jews remained in Hamburg, that were not protected due to Intermarriage. Plaut’s mission to fill all the shipments was completed.
A year later, on June 10, 1943, the Gestapo announced on the closer of the Jewish Community Offices. The shipments were over. There were almost no Jews left in Hamburg to take care of. For the benefit of the employees of the institution, they were sent to Theresienstadt, a camp that wasn’t a death camp and that there was a connection with.
Plaut himself wasn’t sent to a camp but was placed under house arrest. He lived there with his mother. In that house, he still had an Aryan housekeeper. He would get groceries beyond what he was allowed to keep from Aryan friends he had. It was a weird time, life went on, but outside everything was collapsing. He helped 22 other Jews that stayed in the city and their houses were ruined from the bombings. During the bombings, they would sit in the same bunker.
On January 24th, 1944 managed Dr. Max Plaut to leave. Paritz Warburg managed to arrange his “release” from Germany in exchange for Germans (the Templars) that were staying in Palestina under the British Regime. Such exchange of citizens saved several Jews with contacts.
He was placed in Bergen-Belsen, where he was transferred to Bavaria and from there to France, where, together with a number of Jews who were fortunate, passed through the Balkans and from there to the Middle East until he reached the boat, along with his mother, to the port of Haifa.
Max could have emigrated during the whole war and before that. His connections and his status allowed it. He decided to stay and help the community, even if it was by working with the Gestapo.
When arrived in Israel, there were few who blamed him with cooperating with the Nazis. But Max knew what will happen if he will resist – It won’t help anyone. The terror regime of the Nazis would use this to arrest, torture and kill more of his family and community, and will find a way to complete the mission he refused to carry.
A lot of the German Jews in Israel knew that he helped, and they thanked him for that. He spent many months in updating and answering to people who asked about the faith of their loved ones.
People in Israel knew very little about what is going on in Europe, and lots of rumors were around. He brought with him his lists, and answer to each person about that last place he knows about his relatives, usually, confirming that the person was deported to a camp, and no news since.
The German Jews community in Haifa even collected money for him to stay there and tell about the fate of the Jews of Hamburg.
Plaut lived in Israel for a few years but returned to Germany in 1950, he has a family and he died in the year 1974.
Sources: The Eichman trial testimonies The book: The Jews and Germans of Hamburg: The Destruction of a Civilization The profile of Max Plaut: Moshe Ilon Leo Beck Institute Archive