In the Third Reich, other than Hitler himself, was there a more infamous name than Goering — Germany’s second in command, the bombastic Reichsmarshall, commander of the Luftwaffe, and arch anti-Semite?
And yet, on the eve of Yom HaShoah, Yad Vashem is considering whether Hermann Goering’s younger brother Albert is among the Chasidei Umot Ha’Olam, the “Righteous Among The Nations,” Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save Jews. Hermann knew what Albert was doing, but Hermann loved his brother more than Hermann hated Jews, and he hated Jews very much.
Stories are told that Albert saved on the streets of Vienna and from out of Dachau and Terezin. He stopped Nazis who were beating Jews, but of course he would, said cynics, Albert himself was a Jew. Rumors had it that Albert was really fathered by his mother’s Jewish lover, their family doctor, Dr. Hermann von Epenstein. Hermann was thoroughly devoted to Albert despite the rumor — or because of it, to deny a difficult truth.
A spokesperson for Yad Vashem told us by e-mail that a file on Albert Goering has been opened at Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, a preliminary step before that department’s presentation to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous. The commission, made up of Holocaust researchers, historians and survivors, is chaired by a retired Supreme Court justice. “There has to be firsthand evidence by survivors or unequivocal archival documentation,” said the spokesperson, “describing the circumstances of the rescue and showing the nominated person took great risks to save Jews.”
But did Albert really take the risks of, say, Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, others honored as “righteous,” if Albert knew Hermann would always save him? Hermann called off the Gestapo at least four times.
The Goering boys were raised in an aristocratic home — meals were announced with a hunting horn, staff dressed in Teutonic regalia — but the boys could not have been more opposite. Hermann grew up loud, gaudy, cruel, a man of prodigious appetites, a morphine addict and charter member of the Nazi party, a thief who helped himself to the spoils of war perhaps more than anyone else in Hitler’s inner circle. Albert was thin and romantic; women (he was married four times) and alcohol were his private indulgences. He was melancholy and non-political, refusing to join the Nazi party, working in the business sector throughout the Hitler years.
As much as the Goering name protected him during the war, the Goering name destroyed him after the war. The Americans imprisoned him and put him on trial for war crimes. (He had been an executive with a factory that manufactured weapons.) Exonerated, he died poor in 1966. In the postwar years no one wanted to do business with a man whose very introduction stopped conversations: “Goering? As in …”
He could have changed his name, like so many did after the war, but he never did. Hermann had always been loyal to him, and if their name was now his cross to bear, he stayed loyal to the family name.
After the war, in the Nuremberg prison, reported Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, the interpreter for the American investigators didn’t quite believe Albert, for wasn’t his name Goering? Was there a more slithering liar than Hermann Goering? “Albert told a fascinating story,” reported the interpreter, “but one I had trouble believing.”
The stories keep accumulating. Der Spiegel tells, “In downtown Vienna under the Nazis, two members of the SA had decided to humiliate an old woman. A crowd gathered and jeered as the storm troopers hung a sign bearing the words ‘I’m a dirty Jew’ around the woman’s neck. Suddenly, a tall man with a high forehead and thick mustache pushed his way angrily through the mob and freed the woman. ‘There was a scuffle with two storm troopers, I hit them and was arrested immediately,’ the man later said in a matter-of-fact statement. Despite this open act of rebellion, the man was released immediately. He only had to say his name: Albert Goering, brother of Hermann Goering… Hitler’s closest confidant.”
The BBC did a feature on Albert in 1998, and in 2009, an Australian, William Hastings Burke, wrote “Thirty-Four,” a biography of Albert, who made a list in prison of 34 people he claimed to have saved, though the number was in the hundreds, according to others. He saved Oskar Pilzer, a Jewish president of an Austrian film production company, who was arrested in 1938. Albert Goering, using his family name, got him released.
Burke writes that a woman, Alexandra Otzop, said, “My husband and his son from his first marriage were persecuted in the fall of 1939. Mr. Goering managed to get them deported, instead of being sent to a concentration camp.”
It was said that Albert got down on his hands and knees to scrub a street in Vienna when Jewish women were forced to do so. The Nazis at the scene grabbed him, only to learn his name: Goering. As in…
According to Der Spiegel, “Hermann knew about Albert’s activities, yet did nothing to stop him. Albert later testified that his brother had told him it was his ‘own business’ if he wanted to protect Jews, so long as he didn’t get Hermann in ‘endless trouble.’ Albert, meanwhile, had a nearly schizophrenic relationship with Hermann, trying to keep the private person and the politician separate. ‘As brothers, we were close,’ he said.”
Over the years, other stories came to light: It was said he gave money to refugees and to the anti-Nazi resistance. The Spiegel tells how he saved prisoners from the Terezin concentration camp in 1944. “He said, ‘I’m Albert Goering from Skoda [a munitions factor in Czechoslovakia, where the camp was]. I need workers,’” according to one report. “He filled the truck with workers, and the concentration camp director agreed to it, because he was Albert Goering. Then he drove into the woods and released them.”
Der Spiegel adds, “A number of notes turn up in German files that prove these stories were not simply made up. The Gestapo’s Prague bureau, for example, complained that Goering’s office at the Skoda factory was ‘a veritable nerve center for ‘poor’ Czechs.’ The general of the Prague police… considered Albert Goering ‘at the very least, a defeatist of the worst sort’ and asked permission to arrest him in 1944 on ‘profound grounds for suspicion.’” Nothing came of it.
The Goering brothers, writes Burke, met for the last time in a military prison. Said Hermann, “I am very sorry, Albert, that it is you who has to suffer so much for me. You will be free soon. Take care of my wife and [daughter]. Farewell.”
Will Yad Vashem take care of Albert Goering? At this point, says Yad Vashem, “We don’t have sufficient evidence in order to present the file of Albert Goering to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous.”
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