German Who Helped Jews to Flee Nazis Dies

Times Staff Writer

Herman Graebe, who helped thousands of Jews escape from Nazi captors during World War II and believed to be the only German to testify against his countrymen at the Nuremberg war crime trials, died Thursday in San Francisco.

He was 85 and was considered a “Righteous Gentile” by the nation of Israel, which honored him by placing a plaque with his name on it at that country’s memorial to the Holocaust .

For more than two years and at a cost of $200,000 of his own money, Graebe operated a rail network that smuggled Jews from the German-occupied Ukraine to havens in Western Europe.

Forged Documents


He used forged documents and what he said was a great deal of “determination” to keep both himself and his charges alive, flaunting his position as an internationally known construction engineer on a “secret mission” to elude pursuers.

From 1942, when he first saw a grave piled high with Jewish bodies, to VE Day, Graebe utilized his engineering skills and his dramatic talents to persuade Nazi officers that the trains he confiscated and the Jews he placed aboard them were needed in other places if the Germans were to win the war.

In a 1978 interview with The Times he said his own chutzpah amazed even him. He survived on nerve and courage, convincing German officers who doubted his words and sometimes crudely forged papers that they would be in serious trouble with Berlin should they interfere with his “war work.”

“You must understand the mentality of the German people then. Each one was afraid of the other,” he recalled.


His greatest single coup came Jan. 10, 1944, when he organized a train journey from Sdolbunov in the Ukraine to Cologne. The 348 Jews on that 42-car train eventually were freed by an invading Allied force after Graebe arranged for them to be hidden after arrival.

Took $10 to U.S.

Graebe exhausted his fortune and his health in his wartime efforts and emigrated to the United States with $10 in his pocket and--because he could not speak English--few job opportunities. He eventually found work building silos and settled in San Francisco.

In 1969 he was one of four Christians honored by the United Jewish Appeal for their life-saving heroics.


His life became the subject of a book by Presbyterian Rev. Douglas Huneke called “The Moses of Rovno” after one of the Ukrainian cities where Graebe worked.

Rev. Huneke said Friday that he and Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino will conduct an interfaith memorial for Graebe at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in San Francisco on Wednesday.