Simple Electrician Saves 300 Jews

The Fellowship  |  January 9, 2019

Vilnius Ghetto, where Anton Schmid saved Jews
Vilnius Ghetto, where Anton Schmid saved Jews

Anton Schmid

Life: January 9, 1900 – April 13, 1942

According to one of the perhaps 300 people he would go on to rescue during the Holocaust, Austrian electrician Anton Schmid was “a simple sergeant” as well as “a socially awkward man in thought and speech.” Schmid didn’t read, and devoted his adult life to his electrical work, his small radio shop, and his wife and daughter. That is, until this Christian man found a higher calling when World War II began…

Schmid served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, and was conscripted into the German army during the second. He was in charge of returning stranded German soldiers to their units when, in August of 1941, his life changed.

Schmid was approached by two Jews who were on the run from the Nazis, and he decided to help them — one of the few Axis military officials who would do so — simply because of his respect for human life.

His actions to help Jews actually began earlier, after the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria, when Schmid arrested a man who broke the window of a Jew and also helped some of his Jewish friends escape to Czechoslovakia. But his real work started that August in 1941 when he was transferred to Vilnius. While working in an office where he interrogated soldiers who had been separated from their units, Schmid showed compassion, not charging the men — many suffering from what today we would call PTSD — with desertion or cowardice, which would have resulted in their executions.

But from his office window, Anton Schmid saw others going to their own executions. These were the Jews of Vilnius, being rounded up and murdered in the infamous Ponary pits outside of the town. In the first week of September, nearly 4,000 Jews were murdered in this way. And that is when Schmid began to help them.

The first Jew Schmid helped was a man named Max Salinger. Schmid gave the Polish Jew the identity of a Nazi soldier who had been killed in the war and gave him a job as a typist. The next Jew to find help from Schmid was a young Lithuanian woman. Luisa Emaitisaite survived the initial killings, but was caught hiding after curfew, a charge which meant certain death. Schmid hid her in his apartment, then hired her in his office, as well, which allowed Luisa to survive until the war ended.

Schmid’s next responsibility was as head of a Nazi section of carpentry and upholstery. That October, he began employing Jews for this work. He employwed 150 Jews at a time, although he only had permits for 15. When 90 Jews were set to be murdered, Schmid drove them to the safety of a nearby town, hidden in a Nazi truck.

For the next few months, Schmid continued to hide Jews, help the Vilnius Ghetto underground movement, and transport Jews to safer places — he took some 300 Jews away from Vilnius.

But Schmid’s actions were noticed. In January of 1942, he was arrested, then executed by the Nazis on April 13, 1942. In Schmid’s last letter to his family, he wrote, “I have just acted as a human and I did not want to hurt anyone.” He also told a Jewish resistance fighter that “We all must die. But if I can choose whether to die as a murderer or a helper, I choose death as a helper.”

Only after his death was Anton Schmid recognized for his courage and kindness. A fellow German rescuer of Jews remembered Anton as “one of the gold grains hidden under the heap of rubble” that was the Nazi regime. Abba Kovner, another member of the ghetto resistance who would go on to fame as both an Israeli poet and a witness at the trial of Adolf Eichmann said that Kovner is the first to warn him of the Nazi who engineered much of the Holocaust, saying, “there is one dog called Eichmann and he arranges everything.”

The people of Israel, too, remembered Schmid, naming him an early Righteous Gentile in 1964, and inviting his widow to Jerusalem to plant a tree to honor this man who Simon Wiesenthal said was “like a saint.”

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