A Narrow Escape: The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross
How one brave survivor escaped the Gestapo hours before being taken to Auschwitz.
In his bestselling book The Last Jews in Berlin, Leonard Gross shares the fascinating true stories of 12 German Jews who went underground in the heart of Hitler’s empire during the height of WWII. One of these brave survivors, Fritz Croner, is captured by the Gestapo, but while awaiting departure to Auschwitz, he strikes a bargain with one of the prison trusties, Metz. In exchange for an exorbitant sum of money, Metz agrees to help Fritz escape to his wife Marlitt, by way of Fritz’s gentile friend Makarow.
Unfortunately, Fritz learns that Metz has deceived him, so he has to think fast. Fritz pretends to faint and is consequently ordered to the sick room until he can be put on trial for bribery.
In celebration of the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, read more about this tale of survival in an excerpt from The Last Jews in Berlin below. Then download the ebook on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.
As the guards led him away Fritz could not help thinking how ludicrous it was. He was too sick to go to Auschwitz! In a few days he would be murdered, but he was too sick to keep the appointment.
The sick bay was on the third floor. It was a small room with two beds. A man of thirty and a little boy were lying on one of the beds. Between the beds was a window. Fritz walked to it. He could not believe his eyes. The window had no bars. He turned to the man, an obvious question on his face. The man nodded his understanding. “I couldn’t try it because of the boy,” he said. He reached under the mattress and began to pull out a homemade rope.
“Wait!” Fritz whispered. He took a broom handle and inserted it through a handle on the door, so that anyone pulling on the door from the outside could not open it.
The rope had been fashioned from strips of blanket. The moment he tugged at it, Fritz knew it would never hold. But there was more material. Fritz made another rope. Then he braided the two ropes together. As he worked he told the man about the transport that was scheduled to leave for Auschwitz in the morning. They agreed that they would try to escape that night.
That evening the lights outside the building went out, and a few moments later Fritz could hear the drone of the approaching bombers. Soon the bombs were whistling down on the city. The first explosions sounded like the beat of muffled drums. The fires from the incendiary bombs slowly spread along the horizon, and the darkness of the night lifted like a curtain rising on hell. At ten o’clock Fritz opened the window very slowly and eased his head outside. The guards were gone—in their shelters, no doubt.
There were several raids that evening. Each time a new wave of bombers came over, the explosions moved closer. Now all of the sky was red, and there were fires only a few blocks away. Several times during the raids Fritz peered out the window. There were no guards, and the street was empty.
“We’ll go at two,” Fritz whispered. The man nodded. “I’ll go one way, you go the other,” Fritz said. They played a game from childhood to determine who would choose. The game was rock / scissors / paper. Fritz showed scissors. The man showed rock; rock dulls scissors, so he had won. He elected to go to the left.
Fritz undid his belt and extracted two hundred marks from a secret pouch and gave it to the man. Then he gave him a fresh pair of socks from the supply that Marlitt had sent and told him to pull the socks over his shoes so that they would cut the scent.
At a few minutes before two Fritz lashed the little boy to his father’s back. Then he eased the window open and nodded to the man. The man stepped over the sill. Even in the darkness Fritz could see the whites of his eyes. The little boy was also frightened, but he didn’t make a sound.
As soon as the man reached the ground Fritz went over the side. They waited together on the ground for an instant. “Go,” Fritz whispered. The man disappeared to the left, the boy still on his back.
Then Fritz began to run. It was as though all of his life he had been tied to the earth with ropes and they had suddenly been cut from his feet. The socks on his shoes muted his footfalls, but they echoed through the darkness nonetheless. He heard shouting behind him then, and knew the man and boy had been caught. The sounds drove him even faster. Five hundred yards from the building he ducked into a bombed-out house, found the cellar, and leaned against a wall, trying to still his breath. He could hear the dogs. Their barking grew stronger and stronger. They were no more than a hundred yards away now. He could no longer make a break for it—the dogs would run him down.
Then, miraculously, the barking sounds receded.
Fritz remained in the cellar for an hour. While he waited he used the scissors he had stolen from the barber to clip off his mustache. At last he went up to the street. The streetlights were out and there was no moon. He walked so close to the buildings that he brushed the walls with his shoulder. He walked for half an hour, moving south, until he was well out of the neighborhood. Only then did he go into a phone booth.
He reached into his pocket for the ten-pfennig “souvenir” he had been given by the barber, placed it in the telephone and raised his finger to dial Makarow’s number.
He could not remember the number. He had dialed it hundreds of times, but as much as his life depended on it, he could not remember it now.
Only Makarow could get word to Marlitt; he, Fritz, would not dare jeopardize her and Lane by going directly to them. He would have to go to Makarow’s, he decided now. He would still be taking a risk, because Metz might have given the Gestapo Makarow’s name. But he had no other choice.
He walked through the empty streets until he reached Makarow’s block. Fifty yards from his building he stopped. Were his eyes playing tricks or was that the glow of a cigarette in the dark? Fritz edged backward until he reached the corner. Then he walked around the block and approached the building from the other side. Once more he could see the tip of a cigarette, and now he saw a man. He turned quickly and walked away. Were those footsteps behind him? He walked faster. The footsteps sounded closer. He looked around. Two men were following him. He ran then, and they ran after him, but he had that feeling again that he had been cut loose from the earth, and he was sure they wouldn’t catch him unless they used a gun. He ran to the Hauptstrasse. A tram was coming down the tracks. It was not yet in service, on its way from the barn to where it would begin its run. Only a motorman was aboard; there was no conductor. Fritz ran into the street and jumped onto the open platform. Only then did he look back. His two pursuers had stopped running. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he recognized them. They were from the Grosse Hamburger Strasse building, privileged Jews, Mischlinge, perhaps, or Jews married to Gentile women. If so, they hadn’t been that interested in catching him. Had they been catchers, he would have been a dead man.
Just then Makarow’s phone number flashed into his head. A few blocks farther on, Fritz dropped from the tram and telephoned. “It’s Fritz,” he said. “I escaped.”
“The Gestapo may be watching your house. Go see if anyone’s outside.”
“A moment later Makarow returned and told him no one was there.
“Get in touch with Marlitt. Tell her I’m in Halensee. She’ll understand.” Even Makarow hadn’t known that Fritz had a hiding place there.
The streets were filling now as the working day began. Fritz lost himself in the crowd and walked to Halensee. There he found the caretaker, who let him into the store after he explained that he had just returned from his engineering job in Poland and had forgotten his key. He drank several glasses of water. Then he undressed, put on his pajamas and lay down on the bed. An hour later a knock on the door awakened him. It was Marlitt. She fell into his arms.
Leonard Gross is a journalist and author. Much of his reportage was done for Look magazine, where he served for twelve years as senior editor, Latin American correspondent, European editor, and West Coast editor. Gross has authored, coauthored, or ghostwritten a total of twenty-two books, including both novels and nonfiction.