A Diplomatic Passport and a Gestapo Kidnapping

passport photo Margot Heberlein, nee Calleja
Margot Heberlein, née Calleja, 1933

In June 1944, a dark and intriguing chapter in history unfolded when the German government orchestrated the kidnapping of diplomat Erich Heberlein and his wife Margot. Their refusal to return to their post at the Berlin Embassy set the stage for a clandestine operation that would take the couple on a harrowing journey through various concentration camps for several months. Let’s look into the details of this gripping tale from the beginning. Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

Early Life and Career of Erich Heberlein Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

Born in Cranz, East Prussia on 26 Sep 1889. Erich Heberlein’s journey began at the Gymnasium in Danzig, where he pursued his education. After completing high school, he embarked on a path to study law in Breslau, Munich, and Berlin between 1908 and 1912, ultimately earning his doctorate in 1913. His career in the Prussian judicial service commenced in 1912, but it was temporarily interrupted when he served as a soldier in World War I. In 1915, he married Käthe Wegner, with whom he had one child.

Diplomatic Ventures and Family Life Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

Heberlein’s diplomatic career picked up pace when he served as a reserve lieutenant seconded to the Consulate General in Zurich towards the conclusion of World War I. By August 1919, he had officially entered the diplomatic service. His assignments took him to various corners of the world, including Madrid, where he met and married Margot Calleja in 1922. This union bore them a son, Oskar Heberlein.

In the ensuing years, Heberlein’s diplomatic postings led him to the Rhenish territories, Athens, and Buenos Aires. Notably, in 1935, he joined the NSDAP, marking his association with the Nazi Party. His responsibilities continued to grow, and in February 1943, he was summoned to Berlin to head the department for Spain and Portugal.

The Kidnapping That Altered Their Lives

Tragedy struck in August 1943 when Heberlein fell ill. Granted convalescent leave on his estate “La Legua” near Toledo, Spain, he chose not to return to Germany. This decision set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the abduction of Erich and Margot in June 1944.

The kidnapping operation, carried out by the German Gestapo, was meticulously planned. Disguised as Spanish civilians, agents approached Heberlein’s farm. Initially, he mistook them for familiar figures, but as events unfolded, he realized the peril he and his wife were in. The couple was forcibly taken and transported to various locations. Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

Behind Closed Doors: Abduction and Deception

Erich Heberlein’s personal diary offers a glimpse into the calculated and secretive nature of their abduction. The German Embassy in Madrid even sent a secret report to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs detailing the mission. Their captors went to great lengths to maintain the illusion of normalcy, even going so far as to separate the Spanish police from the situation.

The couple found themselves hidden within the imposing German embassy building in Madrid for a brief period. Despite his protests, Heberlein was compelled to maintain the facade of his illness. The diplomat had previously faced a transfer to Berlin alongside Ambassador Von Stohrer due to their lack of alignment with the regime.

As they refused to return to Germany, Heberlein and his wife endured imprisonment in various locations, including Bayonne, Bordeaux, Poitiers, Paris, and eventually, concentration camps.

Surviving Captivity: A Tale of Uncertainty and Intrigue

Life in captivity was far from ordinary. Their captors had a clear agenda: “The fact that Heberlein lives peacefully cannot be simply accepted in the future. We have to find a way for him to abandon…” Their ultimate goal was to keep Heberlein imprisoned in Berlin.

Their days were marked by uncertainty, frequent interrogations, and a constant struggle for survival. The kidnapping, orchestrated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Von Ribbentrop, left even some Gestapo agents confused about the course of action.

A Perilous Journey

In December 1944, Heberlein was transferred to Sachsenhausen, a camp for political adversaries. Here, he was reunited with Margot for ten days before being moved to Buchenwald. Their stay in the notorious camp lasted for five weeks, during which they shared the company of other illustrious prisoners.

Their journey continued with stops in Regensburg and Schönberg. The ordeal was marked by slow travel, mechanical breakdowns, and constant hunger.

Heberlein's diary
Pages of Heberlein’s diary

A Hopeful Turn of Events

Despite their grim circumstances, a glimmer of hope emerged. On May 4, 1944, the Heberleins regained their freedom, thanks to the intervention of the Wehrmacht. Their release marked the beginning of a new life, but the ensuing months remained challenging as they sought to disassociate themselves from the Nazis. Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping


In April 1945, the couple was part of a group of prominent concentration camp prisoners transported from Dachau to occupied Italy, where they were ultimately liberated by the U.S. Army.


“I was determined not to return to Germany because of my horror and my hatred of the Nazi regime that has unleashed this war that will necessarily lead to complete ruin of Germany …”, sentenced Erich Heberlein in his diary.

Erich Heberlein, who sought refuge from the Nazi regime, passed away in Toledo on March 8, 1980, at the age of 90. He resided in a charming garden house located in Toledo’s Historic Center, affectionately called “El Rincón.” During his time there, he was dedicated to playing the organ and contemplating the historical connections between Germany and Toledo.

With his passing, Heberlein carried with him the untold stories of a highly active diplomatic life and his harrowing encounters with the Nazi regime. In 1943, agents of the Nazi regime had abducted him in Toledo. Thanks to the intervention of Franco’s authorities, he was spared the horrors of a concentration camp. After the conclusion of World War II, he retired to the current capital of Castilla-La Mancha, where he became known as “the German.”

At the outset of the 20th century, the German Embassy in Spain inaugurated its establishment at number four on Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. In the year 1920, the diplomat Erich Heberlein was appointed as its secretary. During this era, within the aristocratic ambiance of the reign of King Alfonso XIII, foreign legations engaged in vibrant social interactions. Heberlein swiftly gained prominence in Madrid’s upper echelons, forging connections with the young Margot Calleja Enright.

Biography Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

Margot, born in 1891 in Valladolid, was the daughter of the esteemed clinical physician Camilo Calleja García. She was actively involved in charitable performances and musical gatherings, showcasing her beautiful singing voice. A romantic relationship blossomed between Margot and Erich, leading to a significant development in December 1921 when Baron Langwertg van Simmern, the German ambassador, requested Margot’s hand in marriage for his subordinate.

Their wedding ceremony took place on February 2, 1922, at the church of San Jerónimo el Real. The witness list included notable figures such as José Sánchez Guerra, the President of the Congress of Deputies. Following the ceremony, the wedding reception was hosted at the Ritz Hotel, and the newlyweds embarked on a honeymoon journey through Andalusia.

In the subsequent year, Margot and Erich welcomed their first child, named Oscar. Erich also had a daughter, Gisela, born in 1916 from a prior marriage. After several joyful years in Madrid, the diplomat received new assignments in Athens and Buenos Aires, where he remained until the eruption of the Spanish Civil War.

In November 1936, the German government, under Hitler, formally recognized the Francoist rebels and relocated their legation from Madrid to Burgos. Subsequently, they journeyed to Salamanca, where Ambassador Eberhard von Stohrer presented his credentials to General Franco.

Erich Heberlein played a role in Stohrer’s team

Serving as a business advisor during this period, marked by significant diplomatic activity driven by Germany’s deep involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

Key events during this time included the establishment of the Blue Division, the meeting between Franco and Hitler on October 23, 1940, and Spain’s official commitment to proclaimed neutrality. Just five days prior to Franco’s meeting with Hitler in Hendaye, Heberlein received the prestigious Commandery of the Imperial Order of the Yugo and the Arrows from Franco.

Ambassador Stohner

Von Stohner, an experienced diplomat who had joined the German foreign service in 1909 during Kaiser Wilhelm’s era, held a different perspective on “official” Spanish neutrality compared to Berlin’s opinions. He did not fully align with Nazi positions, particularly regarding their stance on the Jewish population.

In March 1943, both Stohner and Heberlein were reassigned to Berlin. Before their departure, the government honored them with the Order of Isabel the Catholic. Heberlein’s new post was within the Department of Political Affairs responsible for Morocco, Spain, and Portugal. Their arrival in the German capital exposed them to the darkest aspects of Nazism and the looming defeat in the war.

Heberlein persistently sought a leave of absence, citing personal matters that needed resolution, and he persisted until he secured it in August. He and his wife retired to Toledo, where she owned the Dehesa de La Legua. After some time, he informed his superiors about his serious illness, making it impossible for him to return to Berlin, despite all their requests.

Arrest Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

On the night of June 17, 1944, the couple faced an unexpected series of persistent knocks at their home’s door. When Margot opened the door, she was confronted by a police officer who demanded her presence at the Civil Government office. There, they insisted that they must provide information about their son, Oscar, who was serving with the German forces on the Eastern Front.

Awakening her husband, they both proceeded to the official premises, where they encountered two officials from the German embassy who escorted them to Madrid for questioning. Erich was subsequently transferred to the Alcalá de Henares airfield, where he boarded a plane bound for Biarritz, and from there, he was handed over to the Gestapo. Meanwhile, Margot was driven by car to the Irun border.

Concentration Camp Internment

The abrupt disappearance of the Heberlein couple did not go unnoticed in Toledo and Madrid. The embassy attempted to quell the circulating rumors by stating that they had traveled to Germany to visit their son, who had suffered severe injuries in Russia. To conceal the true situation, authorities coerced Margot and Erich, using threats, into writing a letter to assure their Spanish acquaintances. However, at this point, they were already confined in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Their internment continued in Sachsenhausen and Dachau.

These camps held a mix of notable civilian and military figures from Germany and other nations, including Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschinigg and former French Prime Minister Léon Blum. In the face of advancing Allied troops, they were evacuated to Tyrol by the SS. The Heberleins were eventually liberated by American forces in the early days of May 1945 in the town of Niederdorf.

Execution prevented Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

The abduction of the Heberlein couple caused considerable unease among the Spanish authorities, especially at a time when they were attempting to establish connections with the victorious powers due to the downfall of the Nazi regime. To distance themselves from the Heberleins’ kidnapping, authorities released various public statements. In fact, in April 1946, the newspaper ABC reported that General Gómez-Jordana, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had prevented the execution of the couple through his efforts.

Post War

Following World War II, the Heberleins made their way back to Spain and established a permanent residence in Toledo. By 1950, they had officially registered at number five Corredorcillo Street in San Bartolomé. They resided on a spacious property, which is still well-preserved to this day. Over the entrance gate, one can admire a stunning ceramic mosaic bearing the name “El Rincón,” a creation by the artist Ángel Pedraza.

Playing the organ

Living quietly in Toledo, they nurtured their love for music, made local friends, and tended to their home. In 1951, Spanish authorities allowed Heberlein to bring an organ and items from his property in Upper Bavaria.

He had a deep passion for music, leading him to play the organ in various churches in Toledo, including the Church of San Juan Bautista, run by the Jesuit Fathers. Margot, on the other hand, showcased her musical talents with a lyrical recital in November 1949 at the Auditorium of the Provincial Institute, an event organized by the Style Society.

Member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Historical Sciences

In December 1970, Erich was elected as a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Historical Sciences of Toledo. He also joined the Chapter of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. Back in 1964, in Madrid, Ambassador Helmut Hallardt awarded him the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. This distinction had been reinstated by German authorities a few years prior.

Son Oscar

Erich and Margot’s son, Oscar, managed to survive the war and eventually returned to Spain. He found employment as a technician in a factory in Valencia. Tragically, in July 1953, at the age of thirty, he suffered a fatal accident in the port of Sagunto.

Death of Margot

Several years later, on December 19, 1967, Margot passed away as a result of a stroke. After a period of mourning, Erich eventually remarried. His second wife was Margarita (Peggy) de Ceballos Calleja, who happened to be a niece of his late wife, Margot. She accompanied him during the final years of his life.

Erich’s Death

Suffering from severe senile cachexia, the protagonist died in Toledo on March 8, 1980, at age 90. His widow later told Dr. Rafael Sancho de San Román, the director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Historical Sciences of Toledo, about Erich’s desire to investigate Toledo’s historical connections with Germany over the centuries. Unfortunately, the challenges of old age had prevented him from embarking on this endeavor.

Peggy’s Death

The final chapter in the Heberlein family’s story was penned in 2007. Peggy de Ceballos passed away in Madrid on October 7 and found her resting place in the Toledo Municipal Cemetery. Among the tall cypress trees, much like the one that Erich and Margot cared for in their “El Rincón” home, rest the secrets of this remarkable and unique tale.

Remark Diplomatic Passport Gestapo Kidnapping

After all this years, documents, including his diary surfaced on auctions and I am glad to have secured this diplomatic passport. Interestingly, I was contacted by an collector, who aquired his diary. During his research he found my article and we had several exchanges about this interesting case.

The Passport (example pages)

In June 1933, when the Nationalists had already assumed power (since January), they issued the passport. However, the cover lacks the swastika and adheres to the Weimar passport type, rendering the documents even rarer from a collector’s perspective. However, the Heberlein’s survived.

Further reading…

The transport of concentration camp inmates to Tyrol refers to a transfer of 139 high-profile prisoners of the Nazi regime in the final weeks of the Second World War in Europe from Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria to South Tyrol. The names of prisoners are impressive. Read the details.

The transport is notable for involving a confrontation between the escorting SS and SD detachments and a force of the German Army in Niederdorf. In the end, the SS/SD encountered superior firepower and relented. Consequently, the army unit escorted the “VIPs” to Hotel Pragser Wildsee, 12 km away, offering shelter from German forces and Italian partisans. The U.S. 5th Army relieved them on May 4, 1945.

Another interesting story involving a German diplomat is, here…


FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...