German Nazi Abwehr Officer Who Saved Jews

This German Nazi Abwehr Officer Who Saved Jews is a highly interesting travel document of German passport history, related to the Third Reich, German Military Intelligence, the Holocaust and the rescue of Jewish lifes!

This is the departmental passport (a kind of diplomatic passport) of Walter Schulze-Bernett. I already reported about his son’s passport issued during the German occupation in the Netherlands and about his wife’s diplomatic passport issued 1942 in Berlin. But WHO was Walter Schulze-Bernett?

He was the Head Of The Dutch Section Of The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) lastly in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel stationed in the Netherlands 1938-1941, then from 1941-1943 head of the Middle East in Ankara. He joined the Abwehr in 1935 and was a confident man of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris – the chief of the Nazi Abwehr spy network.

Schulze-Bernett saved 176 Dutch and German Jews in the operation “AQUILAR” in May 1941. Six transports were organized via Spain to Lisbon. Each of the refugees had to pay 500 Gulden (similar to 750 German RM or a four-months salary, a value of $3000 today). Schulze-Bernett was directly involved in the first three transports as he was already military attache in Turkey by June 1941. The Jews had left the Netherlands by trains to Spain and Portugal and emigrated from there to the USA, Cuba and Latin America. Schulze-Bernett had not only ensured a smooth transport, but it is thanks to him that it took place at all.

He was the son of a theater director and an Englishwoman. Born in 1896 in Hamburg, the medium-sized boy grew up with the dominant “Schulze-nose”, high school diploma, studied German, modern philology and administrative law before he was drafted as a soldier in the First World War. Highly decorated, he was awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class, and initially joined the police before he was appointed authorized representative for several foreign banks in the Netherlands. Perhaps at this time the German Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris came to the attention of the banker, which acted self confident and cosmopolitan on the floor of the Dutch business circles.

After joining the Wehrmacht in 1935 Schulze-Bernett was responsible for intelligence gathering from the Netherlands first in Abwehrstelle Cologne, before he became the German Legation attache in The Hague and reports to the Head of Mission. At that time the 39-year-old Major, who became in 1940 head of the “secret information service” , was to build a military intelligence with a focus on Belgium and France for an eventual war.

At the same time his office made all sorts of efforts to establish even an overseas intelligence service. “Our connections to overseas, particularly to the USA and South America were rather thin and almost shattered,” wrote Schulze-Bernett in a letter.

However, in early March 1941 a staff of “Abwehrstelle Berlin” and from a travel and transport company in The Hague had an ingenious idea. They proposed to infiltrate the Jewish transports to Central and South America with trained defence (Abwehr) agents, to build there a intelligence service. Schulze-Bernett happily agreed. After that he could not only fulfill his duty, but “during the now ongoing actions in the Netherlands against Jews by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD)  , to have the possibility of their emigration, which should then officially take place.”

In 1940 there were about 140,000 so-called “Full Jews” in the Netherlands, whose emigration was allowed only in individual cases. The travel and transport company Brach and Rothstein headed by Harry W. Hamacher, Catholic and non-party member, was then a one-stop shop for these desperate people who were subjected to persecution and discrimination by the Nazis. “Mr Hamacher probably also spoke with human motivation to help Jews to escape their probable fate,” writes Schulze-Bernett objectively. However Hamacher earned a lot of money with the emigration of Jews, so there were certainly also economic motives.

Schulze-Bernett called the idea simply “very sympathetic”, i.e. believing great phrases apparently did not fit him. But the Wehrmacht officer prompted that some families he knew from banker times were included into these transportation. “Schulze-Bernett was probably a cosmopolitan man to whom the Master Race was suspicious. In addition, he came from a middle-class background, and the brutality of the Nazis was contrary”, says the Berlin historian Winfried Meyer, who devoted in his book “Unternehmen Sieben” an entire chapter on the operation “Aguilar”.

Consulates of neutral countries were willing to grant the Jews entry visa. “The Abwehrstelle Netherlands had to keep completely in the background, so as not to appear as the initiator of this action in appearance and thus to reveal the intentions of the action” writes Schulze-Bernett in his estate. Therefore, the travel and transport company under Hamacher executed the entire organization of the “Operation Aquilar”, as Schulze-Bernett called it.

Once the plan was ready, Admiral Canaris was apprised of the operation of the “Infiltration of agents in North, Central & South America” (Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Haiti/Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and USA) and he gave it his approval. Canaris himself abhorred the persecution of Jews and was glad that otherwise minded officers were brave enough to take action against it.

“Much to our surprise we found in the head of the security department in The Hague, Mr Pilling, a man whom we could win for our thoughts, and, despite the responsibility of the person meant his decision for him and without regard to the possible consequences, gave his consent and his support in promised implementing , “says Schulze-Bernett. So the SS man Albin Pilling provided the necessary certificates, and each transport at the French / Spanish border station in Hendaye was awaited by a defense officer, so there were no incidents at the border.

Walter Schulze-Bernett personally traveled to the first transport on 11 May 1941 and the second on May 15 to Hendaye, to make sure of a smooth process. However, he appeared into civil clothing to avoid any suspicion that there were a military action. “The traveler made a comfortable impression and were very satisfied with the course of the journey and the care,” wrote Hamburger. However, the emigrants were allowed to take only two suitcases, the contents of which had to be approved by the police. Jewels were confiscated by the Gestapo.

 

Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-001

Issued to him as “Laborer” at the German embassy in The Hague for camouflage reasons!

 

Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-002

Issued in Berlin . Sep 1938. His passport has twelve pages of money exchange stamps!

Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-003

Visa German embassy in The Hague and diplomatic Dutch visa issued in Berlin!

Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-004

German visa issued in The Hague plus border and money exchange stamps!

Ministerialpass Schulze-Bernett 1938-005

Two extensions of his Ministerialpass till Sep 1941!

After the war, he was interned by the Allies because of his high rank in the Armed Forces for approximately one year. Other consequences of the war, it seems, however, didn’t affect the Hamburg citizen. With his wife Sophie, he lived in a beautiful house in Hamburg’s Hochkamp and was operating in import and export.until his retirement. He continues to hold avid correspondence with his former Canaris-comrades. About the “Operation Aquilar” he reports only on request by historians. Objectively, soberly, without emotions, he describes in his letters the rescue of people, as if it were an everyday occurrence. Walter Schulze-Bernett died in 1985 but will he become posthumously honored? Unlike Oskar Schindler, Schulze-Bernett never took a personal risk in his involved actions.

According to a feedback from Yad Vashem (Israel), Righteous among the Nations department, he was nominated for the title of the Righteous among the Nations in June 2015!The nomination is ongoing.


Book Source: Historical Dictionary of German Intelligence
Book Source: The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War
Book Source: Unternehmen Sieben – Eine Rettungsaktion für vom Holocaust Bedrohte aus dem Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht

Hamburg State Archive: Staatsarchiv Hamburg, 731-8_A 769 Schulze-Bernett, Walter
Hamburger Abendblatt, May 9-2000, “Das Unternehmen Aquilar”

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