October 19, 2004

Wallenberg Medal honors officer who hid family, refused to join Nazis

Source:

Heinz Drossel, a German army officer during World War II who refused to join the Nazi party and helped members of a neighbor Jewish family escape the Gestapo, will be awarded the 14th Wallenberg Medal from U-M.

Provost Paul N. Courant will confer the medal on Drossel, who then will deliver the Wallenberg Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 in Rackham Auditorium.

Drossel (Photo courtesy Rackham Graduate School)

The son of ardent anti-Nazis, Drossel was drafted into the German army in 1939 after refusing to join the Nazi party. He became an officer and served until May 1945. Drossel refused to order the execution of a Russian officer in the summer of 1941. Instead he led the officer into a forest and pointed him in the direction of Russian troops.

Ordered by an SS fighting unit to attack Russian troops in May 1945—just weeks before the war’s end—Drossel refused. When the SS threatened to execute him, Drossel ordered his men to open fire on them. He was immediately court-martialed and slated for execution. The rapidly advancing Russian army distracted the SS, sparing Drossel’s life.

Earlier in 1945, Drossel and his parents had come to the aid of U-M senior research scientist emeritus Ernest Fontheim, his future wife, Margot, and her parents, Jack and Lucie Hass. Fontheim is research scientist emeritus in the department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, College of Engineering.

While living quietly with forged identification papers in the town of Senzig near Berlin, Fontheim and the Hasses learned that a neighbor and Nazi sympathizer was about to report them to the authorities. They asked the Drossel family, who lived on their street, for help. Heinz Drossel was home on leave at the time. He personally took Fontheim and Jack Hass to a room in his apartment in Berlin. Margot and her mother found shelter in another Berlin apartment. Shortly after the war ended, Fontheim learned that the Gestapo had come looking for the four of them on the day after they had left Senzig.

”The immediate help offered to us generously and unselfishly by all three members of the Drossel family enabled the four of us to survive those last five weeks of the war,” Ernest Fontheim says. ”Obviously they risked severe punishment and, in the case of the son, Heinz, a court-martial, which almost certainly would have resulted in the death penalty. They offered their help freely because of their friendship to us and because they were fiercely opposed to the Nazis and especially to the brutal persecution and murder of the Jews.”

Today Drossel, 88, is a retired judge. At the Israeli embassy in Berlin in May 2000, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial to victims of the Holocaust, named him one of the Righteous among the Nations. In September 2001 the German government awarded him its highest civilian medal.

The award Drossel will receive is named for Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish citizen who graduated from the College of Architecture in 1935. In 1944 the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest, where his personal courage and ingenuity saved 100,000 Jewish lives.

The Raoul Wallenberg Endowment was established at U-M in 1985 to commemorate Wallenberg and to recognize other individuals whose own courageous actions exemplify Wallenberg’s extraordinary humanitarian accomplishments and values. Previous Wallenberg Medal recipients include Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Miep Gies, the woman who supported Anne Frank and her family in hiding.

The medal ceremony and lecture are cosponsored by the Wallenberg Endowment, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, and U-M Hillel.

A reception in the lobby will follow the lecture. The events are free and open to the public.

For additional information, contact Lynne Dumas at (734) 647-2644 or ledumas@umich.edu.