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The Story of Wilhelm Bachner Hoodwinking the Gestapo

By: Marilyn Silverman

A Jew pretending not to be a Jew, demanding that the Gestapo release a man suspected of being a Jew. A Jew accusing the SS that detaining this man would be detrimental to the war effort - all the while unaware that the Star of David arm band was stuffed in his coat pocket. All this upon the orders of his boss, a German non-Jew who was too scared to confront the Nazis himself. An ironic turn of events to say the least since this was Poland during the days of the Holocaust. A Jew defiantly marches into the dreaded SS HQ, into the hellish world of the Nazis, a world defined by the towering walls of the Warsaw ghetto. A world where its Jewish inhabitants were tortured with a daily diet of savage beatings, indiscriminate arrests, unrelenting humiliation, random shootings, and communicable diseases.

Is this a fictional account or was there ever such a man who dared to defy the Nazis? If he did live and breathe how did he pull off this extraordinary stunt? As you can see yet another Oskar Shcindler in the annals of history. Who Shall Live The Wilhelm Bachner Story, by Samuel P. Olinex, Ph. D and Kathleen M. Lee, chronicles Bachner's heroic exploits as a Polish engineer who engineered the rescuer of more than 50 Jews and Gentiles alike, during the Holocaust, most of whom survived the war.

This book was written under the auspices of the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University, Arcata, which documents accounts of rescuers of Jews during WWII. Initially the authors' knowledge of Bachner, who they interviewed in 1983 (he died in 1991) after living quietly with his wife in San Francisco (as an engineer), was that he was rescued; they soon learned the truth - he was a Jew who saved Jews - thereby, once and for all, destroying the myth of the passive Jew.

A Jew Hiding his Identity in Nazi-Controlled Poland

Bachner's Germanic name, engineering degree from a German university, flawless German accent, and a distinctively non-Jewish appearance, easily qualified him for an engineering post in a German architectural firm, that was officially proclaimed kregswihtig (important to the war effort). Rapidly rising in its hierarchy and becoming a supervisor, thereby facilitating his rescue endeavors by issuing false papers, he was responsible for hiring Jewish-Polish work crews.

The narrative unfolds against the ever-present background of the war, as Bachner and his fiancee Cesie and her family (her father was a prosperous textile merchant) huddled together in fear in their basement in Warsaw in the year 1939 as the German aerial bombardments rained on the city below. An intimidating German voice bellowed in the radio air waves that Warsaw's defeat was imminent - not an empty threat as thousands of triumphant Germans the next morning marched through the city in frightening unison, with the dreaded question - Sind sie eih Jid ? (are you a Jew) echoing incessantly.

A chance encounter with his cousin Annie, who camouflaged her Jewish identity, begins our saga as she suggested that Bachner apply for an engineering post outside the ghetto. His diploma safely ensconced in his pocket he discretely slipped off his arm band. he was no longer Wilhelm Bachner the Jew - he became metamorphasized into Wilhelm Bachner the Gentile; inwardly quivering fear, but outwardly authoritative and confident.

He was hired on the spot by an unsuspecting Johannes Kellner. Day one on the job meant working amid an intimidating sea of swastikas, crisp uniforms and shiny black boots. Ever-resourceful and conniving, he convinced his boss that the requisite building materials for their construction project were more affordable within the ghetto, thereby justifying why he should be issued a pass to ease his exit to and fro the ghetto.

Conquering Russia provided another lucrative opportunity for Kellner and for Bachner, who now supervised 500 workers. They relocated to the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine where new ghettos and old atrocities continued unabated. Guilt gnawed at his conscience since he didn't share his family's agony, instead opting to work with their oppressors.

A Jew Summoned to the SSHQ

At a slave labor site Bachner recognized his favorite uncle - Uncle Fabish, once a successful contractor. Accosting a Ober-sturmfhuher (colonel), Bachner ordered his uncle's release, accompanied by official-looking requisition forms. Denied his request and desperate, he hired a driver which was risky and managed to whisk away Uncle Fabish right under the nose of the Nazis.

Again Herv Engineer Bachner was summoned to the SSHQ in Kiev to see the Ober-stabsfeldwebel (chief warrant officer). The interrogation wasn't too intimidating - it was to renovate the office for a visit of the highest-ranking SS officers and ironically, Bachner - the Jew - was highly recommended.

On top of everything he had to deal with the foolish behavior of his Jewish staff, including his very own family. Bachner, in the presence of the SS, had to convincingly humiliate one of his workers accused of stealing vodka - in order to win his release. His own father insisted on praying in Hebrew while clutching a small stained prayer book. His cousin insisted she was fasting on Yom Kippur only because she had an upset stomach. This carelessness was dangerous since their co-workers were Gentile Jews who could report these Jews to the Gestapo in the blink of an eye.

Again his lifesaving mission and double identity was jeopardized when an SS storm trooper barged into his office with drawn rifles demanding to see Bachner. Why? They accused Bachner, the Jew of hiding Jews. He defiantly denied their accusations, even to the point of arrogantly telling his interrogators that they were wasting his time.

The labyrinthine web of deception was over when Bachner, at long last in 1944, shortly before the Third Reich war machine and reign of terror came to a screeching halt when he revealed his identity to Kellner to save his father from being fired on the grounds of being a poor worker. The revelation stunned his boos who feared for his own skin if discovered by the SS, yet nevertheless was grateful to Bachner for his contribution to his firms success.

The facts herein were verified via interviews with the Bachners and their survivors, as well as via an examination of historical archival war records and the German railroad that hired Kellner's firm and the rail-based construction units that also employed Bachner.

Once can only speculate as to how many more Wilhelm Bachners Holocaust researchers will unearth.

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