Benny Gidron: "The Nobility of Otto Weidt"

[Published in Ha'aretz, April 11, 2010 (translated from Hebrew) ]

Siegfried Lewin, my grand-mother's youngest brother, his wife Gertrud and their children Martin (9) and Scheine (4) were deported on Transport number 39 from Berlin to Auschwitz on June 28, 1943 and were murdered there.

Siegfried Lewin was blind. For his livelihood he worked as a brush- and broom-maker - an occupation often performed by blind persons in those days. He worked, with a few other blind persons in a small workshop in Berlin owned by Otto Weidt.

When the war broke out, Weidt signed a contract with the Wehrmacht (the German army) to supply them with brooms and brushes. The contract enabled him to expand his workshop and employ some 35 blind and deaf Jews. Being an anti-Nazi and a pacifist he actually turned the workshop into a means to protect his handicapped workers and provide them and their families with a source of income during the difficult times of the war. He was able to do this because he supplied the Wehrmacht only part of the merchandise he produced. The rest he sold on the black market, and used the money to bribe state and police officials so that they will leave him and his workers alone. During 1941 and 1942 the Gestapo attempted several times to send his workers to the death camps in the East but Weidt was able to abort those attempts, giving the excuse that his workers are important for the war effort, showing the contract with the Wehrmacht as a proof.

In 1943, after most Berlin Jews were already murdered, the SS started to look systematically for the remainder and Weidt's attempt to save his workers were no longer successful. He had to shut his workshop and most workers were deported. Still he was able to save several through other means and actually two are still alive. One of those is Inge Deutschkron, who was Weidt's secretary; she was later "Ma'ariv's" (a leading Israeli newspaper) reporter in Bonn and currently serves as the Chair of the Otto Weidt Blindenwerkstatt Museum in Berlin that commemorates the man and his deeds.  The museum was opened in 2006 at the site of the workshop. Otto Weidt died in 1947. His wife received the medal for the Righteous among the Nations on his behalf from Yad VaShem in 1972.

I found out about this amazing story and my personal connection to it only recently. In a meeting with Elie Elalouf, the director of the Rashi Foundation after my return from Germany, I told him the story. His reaction was that there is a need to commemorate Otoo Weidt not only in Berlin but in Israel as well, and he suggested doing it in a Rehabilitation Center for persons with handicaps, including blind persons, in Dimona – an institution run by Yachdav, a nonprofit organization established by the Rashi Foundation.

Today, April 12, the Day we remember the Shoah victims, a most moving ceremony took place at the Center in Dimona. Present were the city's Mayor and other dignitaries as well as over 100 handicapped persons and staff of the Center. At the ceremony, the story of Otto Weidt was told and a large picture of him and his workers was hung in a central place of the Center.

For me this event closes a circle:  A relative murdered by the Nazis and a noble person that saved his workers, targeted by the Nazis both for their Jewishness and their physical handicap are commemorated in a most appropriate place – an institution that is engaged in rehabilitation of handicapped persons similar to those working in Weidt's workshop.

But this event has another message: It is important to remember and commemorate the victims of the Shoah not only in specialized museums such as Yad VaShem, the Museum at Lochamei HaGetaot, Beit Terezin, etc. Such a major event in our history was multi-dimensional and touched on many aspects of life. It should, in my opinion, be commemorated and integrated in other places and frameworks which people encounter in their everyday lives, such as the Rehabilitation Center in Dimona. Maybe the ceremony today can serve as an example for a new memorial approach.