Rescue at the Circus

The Fellowship  |  January 2, 2019

Adolf Althoff came from a long line of German circus folk. The Althoff family’s circus had been famous since the 1600s. Adolf himself was born in 1913 in the circus wagon, in the middle of a performance.

After Adolf married Maria, also from a circus family, the two started their own venture, The Adolf Althoff Circus, which boasted 90 performers and their families and toured all over Europe, even as WWII raged.

As the circus stopped in Darmstadt, Germany, during the summer of 1941, Adolf was paid a visit by a young girl. Irene Danner was herself a descendant of a circus dynasty. And she was also a Jew.

Irene and her sister had suffered from the Nazis’ treatment, beginning with Kristallnacht. They were mistreated by classmates, expelled from school because of their Jewish faith, and barred from activities such as violin and ballet.

Irene came to Adolf Althoff with no hope, with nothing left. But despite the grave danger it put him in, Althoff hired Irene to perform with his circus — giving her a false, Gentile name of course. Irene fell in love with another member of the troupe, a Belgian clown named Peter Storm-Bento. But again because of her faith, Irene was unable to wed her true love.

If things had seemed bad in 1941, the next year brought even worse news for Germany’s Jews. In March, the first deportation of Darmstadt’s Jews began, with thousands being sent to death camps that month and more to follow. Irene’s grandmother was deported in September of 1943, and the family’s home was taken by the Nazis. Irene’s mother and sister, however, were able to escape to Adolf Althoff’s circus.

And it was there that Althoff again managed to save lives, saying, “There was no question in our minds that we would let them stay. I couldn’t simply permit them to fall into the hands of the murderers. This would have made me a murderer.”

For the rest of the war, Irene’s family — including her father, who had defied the German army’s commanders and joined his family in hiding — found shelter under Althoff’s big top.

Throughout their time in hiding, the Danner family had to avoid Gestapo inspections whenever the circus arrived in a new town. The rest of the circus’ acts helped hide the family, except for one instance when a disgruntled former employee turned them in to the Nazis. Adolf was able to save them, however, by giving the Gestapo several drinks, thus buying the Danners time to escape.

Adolf Althoff was recognized for his actions in 1995 when Yad Vashem named him Righteous Among the Nations. At the ceremony where he was honored, Althoff summed up the reason for his selflessness: “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.”

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