Testimony of a Righteous Gentile

Stand for Israel  |  April 9, 2022

Hermann Graebe at Yad Vashem in 1965, honored for his Holocaust actions and testimony
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

Born to a Christian family in Germany in 1900, Hermann Graebe grew up in poverty – his father worked as a weaver and his mother cleaned houses. Hermann also grew up one of the few Protestants in a mostly Catholic area, so he knew about being different. This soon proved invaluable as he became an adult, trained to be an engineer, and showed himself a Hero of the Holocaust, both in action and in testimony.

Speaking Out Against the Nazis

In 1931, Graebe joined the nascent Nazi party, but soon learned of its evil, long before this evil became known to the world. In 1934, just one year after Hitler took control of Germany, Graebe objected to the Nazis’ campaign against Jewish businesses. His speaking up led to Hermann’s arrest by the Gestapo and several months in prison.

After his release, Graebe worked on construction in western Germany before being sent to Ukraine after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. And in Ukraine, Graebe would soon witness some of the Nazis’ atrocities.

On October 5, 1942, near Dubno, he saw an SS firing squad machine gun 5,000 Jewish men, women, and children – all of them naked and lined up in front of pits. Witnessing this pushed Graebe to act.

Acting Out for the Jewish People

In July 1942, he learned that the Nazis planned to liquidate (murder) the Jews in the Rovno Ghetto. 112 of these Jews worked construction for Graebe, so he rushed to the ghetto with their papers – also threatening the Nazis with his gun – and secured their release right as the Nazis prepared to murder them.

Jews in the Zdolbunov ghetto began to be deported to extermination camps that same year. Using his own car, Graebe transported more than two dozen Jews hundreds of miles away to a fake construction site – one he had invented and funded with his own funds in order to shelter Jews. But even greater than the expense, the threat to Graebe and his Jewish passengers would have proven deadly if they had been stopped at Nazi checkpoints.

The Nazis suspected Hermann Graebe’s covert rescuing of Jews they meant to murder, but never proved it. As the Allies drew near in 1944, Graebe crossed American lines and began to work against the Nazis in a different way, providing the U.S. military with information on German defenses.

Testimony Helps Bring Justice

And, as the war ended, Hermann Graebe testified as the Allies prepared for the Nuremberg trials which held the remaining Nazis accountable for the crimes against humanity and against the Jewish people, including the heart-wrenching testimony at the end of this story.

Graebe’s actions and words angered many in German after the war, leading to threats on his life. He moved his family to San Francisco, where he lived until his death in 1986. But in 1965, Yad Vashem honored Hermann Graebe as one of the earliest Righteous Among the Nations, both for his actions that saved Jewish lives, as well as his testimony that helped bring to justice those who played a part in the Holocaust:

My foreman and I went directly to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks – men, women and children of all ages – had to undress upon the order of an SS man who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and undergarments. I saw heaps of shoes of about 800 to 1000 pairs, great piles of under-linen and clothing. Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells, and waited for a sign from another SS man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand.

During the fifteen minutes I stood near, I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about eight persons, a man and a woman both of about fifty, with their children of about twenty to twenty-four, and two grown-up daughters about twenty-eight or twenty-nine. An old woman with snow white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the SS man at the pit started shouting something to his comrade. The latter counted off about twenty persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. Among them was the family I have just mentioned.

I well remember a girl, slim with black hair, who, as she passed me, pointed to herself and said, “twenty-three years old.” I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was nearly two-thirds full. I estimated that it already contained about a thousand people.

I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS man, who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy-gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there to the place to which the SS man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or wounded people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots.

I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay beneath them. Blood was running from their necks. The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.