This is the story of how a beloved German children’s book illustrator, while serving in the army of Nazi Germany, saved the lives of hundreds of Jews from Adolf Hitler’s death machine.
It’s a story from before Werner Klemke was deeply beloved for his drawings of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, which made their way to every East German child’s bookshelf, and his hundreds of often lightheartedly erotic magazine covers, which were eagerly snapped up upon publication. It’s a story from before the creation of the communist state in which he managed to build an artistic career despite being occasionally at odds with the repressive government.
It’s also a story that the artist, who died 20 years ago, never told. The story surfaced only when Dutch documentary filmmaker Annet Betsalel asked whether she could poke around in the long-shuttered archives of the Jewish community of Bussum, the Netherlands.
“They told me the archives only really had financial data in them,” Betsalel said in an interview. “But I thought, well, financial records can be interesting.”
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What she found was the story of a network set up by a Jewish businessman, Sam van Perlstein, who knew in 1942 that Jews were living on borrowed time under Nazi occupation and that if they were going to survive they were going to need some help.
The saga, which Betsalel is turning into a documentary titled “Rendezvous at Erasmus,” is every bit as spellbinding as the fairy tales Klemke illustrated.
It began once upon a time, in a city called Amsterdam, in a magical bookstore called Erasmus, famed for carrying books filled with thoughts and words the Nazis feared.
One day, a love of books brought a young German soldier named Johannes Gerhardt into the store. He was so enchanted by the books that when he left the store, he forgot his rifle. A young man named Mels de Jong chased him down and reminded him of the weapon. Soon they became friends. De Jong was married to Sam van Perlstein’s daughter.
To survive the Nazis, van Perlstein needed documents proving he was half Aryan, and he asked Gerhardt for help. Gerhardt was a photographer and knew he could help with part of the project, but he’d need another friend to produce the documents themselves. He turned to another another German soldier, Klemke, who also loved books and hated Nazis, and was an artist.
The documents they created were perfect, and fooled everyone who needed to be fooled. They allowed van Perlstein to reclaim his import business and money that had been frozen. That money went to fund resistance to the Nazis, and a hideaway network.
Klemke, who later in life was known for perfectionism in printing down to the choices of paper, fonts and inks for the books in which his work was published, made up a cover story to hide his work from his Nazi superiors. He told them that he could make nice booklets of cocktail recipes for them if he could only get a small graphics office set up.
Once this was provided, he made the cocktail books – but he also produced fake birth certificates, food ration coupons, baptismal records and even ID cards. He did this work despite knowing that had his superiors, or any unfriendly person, discovered what he was doing, he almost certainly would have been executed.
But he wasn’t caught. And over the next few years, he produced documents that helped some people escape from the country, and allowed others to survive while they remained in hiding.
As Betsalel noted, the notion of Jews hidden in the Netherlands is hardly news. But unlike the tragedy of Anne Frank’s hideaway in Amsterdam, where the family’s hiding place was revealed, no one was ever betrayed in the villages where Klemke worked. Nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of Dutch Jews survived, but where Klemke’s documents were in use, more than 50 percent lived.
“I do wonder what if Anne Frank had lived here,” Betsalel said of Bussum. “Would she have survived?”
Gerhardt did not. He moved out with his Wehrmacht unit and was killed in fighting as Allied forces advanced across Europe in 1944.
In all, the network saved an estimated 500 Jews. Others, including members of the underground and British pilots, also were saved. The hiding places built into walls and attics and cellars in the village were not discovered, and today are used as storage rooms, she noted. The search for a network of underground tunnels continues.
And yet Klemke, whose artwork made him a consummate storyteller, never talked about that stage of his life, not in dozens of interviews or speeches.
Harald Kretzschmar, a cartoonist and protege who knew Klemke, said that aspect of the story might not make sense in an age when people quickly log on to social media to boast about minor accomplishments.
“But both his actions during the war, and his reluctance to seek glory for them later, make perfect sense from the man I knew,” he said. “He was a man without vanity. I think he would agree that we have lost something as a society when bragging becomes acceptable.”
It had long been known that Klemke had been a Wehrmacht soldier during World War II, stationed in the Netherlands to uphold the Nazi occupation of that nation. In the socialist East, being anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, would have granted him elevated status.
On his deathbed, Klemke told his children they could find “important documents on the third shelf” in his office. The documents were letters from Jews he had helped save, testifying to his efforts in case he ever faced prosecution for having been a Nazi soldier. He’d never shown them to anyone.
Betsalel noted that when an acquaintance once asked Klemke about the rescue effort, he responded: “What was so special about it? I only did what any man should have done.” She said Klemke and van Perlstein had reminded each other that they had saved so few, and so many were not saved.
Whatever the motivation, the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung recently noted the irony in this aspect of the story.
“Many a German kept silent about their S.S. membership,” it wrote, referring to the infamous Nazi troops. “Klemke kept quiet about being in the resistance.”
The newspaper added that he might have shied away from sharing his story as it would have meant being “raised on a pedestal as a good example to all.”
Instead of the fame, Klemke believed in the power of his work. Before he died in 1994, he talked to German radio about his motivation for illustrating children’s books.
“I imagined the children at home in those times when the parents could not be there, picking up the book in the years before they could read,” he said. “But they would know the stories with a little prompting from the drawings.”
One such drawing shows several stages of Red Riding Hood’s visit to Grandma’s house: Taking a basket of goodies, picking flowers, being spied upon by a wolf, and, after being tricked, eaten, and then later freed, a happy ending.
At other times he illustrated cartoon nudes for the monthly cover of Das Magazin, the largest-circulation magazine in East Germany. He produced those covers for 35 years. He also illustrated “The Iliad” and “The Decameron.”
His artwork was fanciful, and fun, and funny. It was also, critics and fans said, thoughtful and needed. Kretzschmar notes that it is wrong to paint socialist East Germany as a wholly gray world. It was smart and well-read and at times quite colorful. Artists mattered.
“It’s not usual that one is popular for illustrating ‘The Decameron,’ ” Kretzschmar said. “But his was not a usual talent. Even under a dictatorship, the human nature demands more than darkness. He created that light, and humor.”