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Norbert Wollheim (1913–1998)

Norbert Wollheim, undated'© Fritz Bauer Institute
Norbert Wollheim, undated
© Fritz Bauer Institute

 a  In the opinion, the court also evaluated the defense witnesses from I.G. Farben, who had made a negative impression: “The court also does not wish to conceal that the witnesses for the accused who were examined first […] did not make a good impression on it, generally speaking. It was these witnesses who sought to deny everything, to use ignorance or lack of authority as excuses, or to make irrelevant theoretical remarks, or to retreat—in the face of the misfortune and death of many thousands of people, of their employees—to ugly pretexts, such as ‘that was not my department,’ or even to employ calculations that were incomprehensible, inhumane in any event, and also factually incorrect [...] Besides, whatever the truth may be regarding the ignorance of the defendants: In any event, from the abovementioned statements of the witnesses for the accused, the court infers an appalling indifference on the part of the accused and its people to the plaintiff and the Jewish prisoners, an indifference that is comprehensible only if one assumes, with the plaintiff, that the defendant and its people at that time really did not consider the plaintiff and the Jewish prisoners to be full-fledged human beings, toward whom a duty of care existed.”

(Verdict in the Wollheim suit, June 10, 1953. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Vol. III, pp. 446–488, here pp. 480–481. (Transl. KL))

 b  Otto Küster, Wollheim’s second lawyer, in his summation (March 1, 1955): “But this legal relationship is defined by considerably more circumstances than merely whether the plaintiff was beaten and suffered bodily harm. It is defined by the hell of Auschwitz as such, from whose background the chimneys are not to be conjured away. It is defined by the unmistakable duty to act humanely, which applies to any fellow toiler in this hell who is not one of the condemned but rather is on the other side. In particular, it is defined by everything the defendant’s people inflicted, not on the plaintiff himself, admittedly, but on his fellow prisoners. It is defined by everything the defendant’s people and especially its managing board neglected to do for the plaintiff’s fellow prisoners and also for him, in terms of demonstrating humaneness, fulfilling their duty of concern. Finally, it is defined by what the plaintiff, as well as all his fellow prisoners, had to endure in the daytime in the hell of Auschwitz, in terms of anguish and torment. The defendant has said and written much, all too much, in an effort to shake off responsibility for what was suffered at IG Auschwitz. It has, as is usually the case when someone espouses a cause that is basically indefensible, after long, painstaking deliberations, finally stated appalling allegations. It has said, for example, that the enslavement of the plaintiff is a case ‘of general and equal inclusion for the performance of services in the public interest’ (II 111) and that the defendant would have ‘violated in the grossest way the sense of decency common to all upright persons if it had denied the state the service of prisoners from state-run concentration camps, in view of the work obligation that applied to all citizens, including women up to the age of 45’ (II 113). If only Dr. Dürrfeld would imagine for an instant his feelings if he had learned one morning that he had become the property of the Reich, and as a token of that now would receive a number, to be burned on with a branding iron [...] It would have meant a lot if precisely the accused had realized what the German people as a whole has also resolved to accept in passing law s on reparations: certainly, people got involved in that without much malice on their own part, without more malice than is inherent in human hearts on average and by nature—but this sense of one’s own innocence does not alter the fact that the most appalling injustice was done in the name of the German people, and in the case of this defendant does not alter the fact that an IG plant bore the name of the place that—unless history as we now know it comes to an end—will continue to be known for centuries as the site of hell on earth. The defendant has not plucked up the courage to draw the consequence from that, the consequence whereby human beings atone for injustice. Thus it was my purpose, by intentionally segregating a position, to provide additional evidence that the cause of action being heard today is, to begin with, well substantiated: that in accordance with a basic provision of our ordinary Civil Code, compensation is owed for damages that to this day are anything but ordinary, and specifically it is owed by this defendant to this plaintiff.”

(Otto Küster, summation in the Wollheim suit, March 1, 1955. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Exhibits, Vol. II, 26 pp., here pp. 24–25. (Transl. KL))

“It’s not enough what you do for yourself. You have to try also to do something for people who are less lucky than you are or need your help and support.”


Norbert Wollheim was born in Berlin on April 26, 1913, as the son of Moritz Wollheim and his wife, Elsa (née Cohn). He and his sister, Ruth, born three years earlier, grew up in an assimilated Jewish family. After his Bar Mitzvah, he joined the Jewish youth movement and became involved in its social work. After graduating from high school in 1931, Norbert Wollheim studied law in Berlin, planning to become an attorney. After the National Socialists’ accession to power, however, he had to give up his studies. Starting in 1935, he worked for an iron and manganese ore company. In summer 1938, Norbert Wollheim married Rosa Mandelbrod. After November 10, 1938, 10,000 Jewish children were granted an opportunity to leave the country: By late August 1939, thanks to the trains of the Kindertransporte, 6,000 to 7,000 Jewish children from Germany were rescued and taken to Great Britain (and to Sweden), and several thousand more were able to leave Austria. To organize these children’s rescue missions, Norbert Wollheim worked almost round the clock in the Reich Deputation of Jews in Germany (Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland). The task was exhausting, both physically and mentally: The organizers of the children’s transports had to not only look after the departing children, but also convey comfort to their relatives.


When the start of the war in September 1939 made emigration almost impossible, Wollheim trained for work as a welder until, in the wake of the “Factory Action” in March 1943, he and his family were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. At the ramp, Rosa and their 3-year-old son, Uriel, were sent to the gas chamber, and Norbert Wollheim was put in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp to do forced labor. As of June 1943, he was assigned to a skilled metalworkers’ detachment as a welder, and this position allowed him to help his fellow prisoners. On the death march that began in January 1945, Norbert Wollheim endured three months of winter cold and hunger before escaping with two friends in April and finally being freed in Schwerin by American soldiers.


Norbert Wollheim settled in Lübeck and began immediately after the war’s end, as deputy chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone, to champion the cause of the displaced persons (DPs). Moreover, he played a key role in the rebuilding of Jewish community life in Germany, though he himself had decided not to remain in Germany. He married again in 1947, and he and his wife Friedel (née Löwenberg) had two children. Norbert Wollheim testified as a witness in several postwar trials, including the 1947 I.G. Farben trial in Nuremberg and the Harlan trial in 1949. In addition, he used newspaper articles and public speeches to advocate commemoration of the victims, and tried to help make a change in public awareness in Germany. In 1950 he began his own fight for compensation: With his attorney, Henry Ormond, he filed suit against I.G. Farben in the Frankfurt Regional Court (LandgerichtFrankfurt/Main) in 1951. On June 10, 1953, the court ruled in favor of Norbert Wollheim on all counts and required I.G. Farben to pay him compensation in the amount of 10,000 DM.  a  In the ensuing appeal proceedings, an out-of-court settlement was reached in February 1957: I.G. Farben paid 30 million DM to the survivors of I.G. Auschwitz.  b  Norbert Wollheim had already immigrated in 1951 to the United States, where he worked as an accountant. He died in New York in 1998.

(SP; transl. KL)


Norbert Wollheim, Interview with Nikolaus Creutzfeldt [Eng.], New York 1986–88 (Heinlyn Productions; produced by Leslie C. Wolf). Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, transcript.

Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.

Norbert Wollheim, Second Interview [Eng.], May 17, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.

Div. documents from: HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. I.G. Farben), Vol. II.



Harris, Mark Jonathan / Oppenheimer, Deborah, eds.: Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Jochims-Bozic, Sigrun: Lübeck ist nur eine kurze Station auf dem jüdischen Wandersweg. Jüdisches Leben in Schleswig-Holstein 1945–1950. Berlin: Metropol, 2004.

Norbert Wollheim, quoted in Mark Jonathan Harris / Deborah Oppenheimer, eds.: Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), p. 66.