I Escaped From Hitler Twice: The Fred Wertheim Story
When a Jew comes to believe in Jesus, it not only affects his life but the lives of those closest to him—his family. This was certainly the case when Steve Wertheim, the son of a Jewish immigrant, came to believe in Jesus.
Steve’s father, Fred, was born in Germany in 1925. The son of a baker, he lived in a small village of 2,000 people. The town had very few Jews, ten families to be exact. Fred, as a young boy, had to look among the non-Jews for playmates because the only other Jewish children were his two older sisters and an older Jewish girl. It didn’t bother him to have gentile friends, but it started bothering them to have a Jewish one.
By the time Fred was eight, the Aryan philosophy of Hitler was well on its way to acceptance by most Germans. Fred’s best friends did not want to play with him anymore. His parents, who were prospering in the bakery business, held to the illusion that Hitler would lose his popularity and that things would get better once again for the Jews. Instead they got worse.
The Wertheim family finally decided to leave Germany for America. However, wanting to leave and getting out of the country were two different things. Because of immigration quotas, they needed to apply to the Consulate for clearance. The family had no papers prepared by a United States citizen for them, and that made emigration difficult. They were given a number—a very high one—48,878, which represented the number of people allowed to come from Germany before them. It would be a while until they could expect to go.
Meanwhile, on July 2, 1938 Fred became bar mitzvah. He was to be the last Jewish boy to undergo the ceremony in his district. Four months later came Kristallnacht. His synagogue, along with hundreds of others was destroyed. Six days later, it was ordered that Jewish children be expelled from the schools. At the same time, Jewish males that were thirteen or older were being conscripted for labor camps. Fred was small for his age and because of his size was overlooked. Before long, entire Jewish families were being deported to the death camps. Yet, for some mysterious reason, his family was spared. Their immigration number came up, and in May of 1941 the Wertheims left what had become Hitler’s Germany. They traveled by way of France, Spain and Portugal and arrived on the shores of what they saw to be heaven on earth—America.
Fred learned the English language quickly and after having been in the States only two years, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The eighteen-year-old went through basic training and was shipped out to England. He was then given additional training and assigned to the First Infantry Division as part of the combat engineers. This was a front-line unit that was trained to remove mines or build emergency bridges so others could advance. Front-line units like Fred’s had dangerous duty and high casualties.
Fred took part in the invasion of Europe on D-Day. He fought his way through France and across the Rhine River, ironically, into his native Germany. Then Fred and some of his fellow Army soldiers were captured there. Says Fred,
“I remember they had us lined up. The Germans were talking among themselves, loud enough for me to hear. Since I understood what they were saying, my body started to shake. Some of my buddies started asking me, ‘What’s happening? How come you’re ready to pass out?’ I told them, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. They don’t know what to do with us and so they’re going to shoot us.”‘
Yet, for some reason they changed their minds and took the group to a prisoner of war camp near Hanover—Stalag 11B. Fred was spared again.
Most of the prisoners at Stalag 11B had been there throughout most of the war and were very weak. Some couldn’t even stand up. No work was assigned to the prisoners, for it would have probably killed most of them who were in a state of physical debilitation. Each morning, Fred and the others answered a roll call and then spent the rest of the day wandering within the boundaries of the high wire fences.
The conditions in the camp were not up to Geneva Convention standards. The clothes of the prisoners were burned regularly because they were lice infested. Many had their hair shorn very short to minimize the infestation. Their breakfast and lunch was combined into one “meal” which consisted of a tin can filled with black coffee. In the late afternoon they were given a stew which contained vegetables and occasionally a few strings of horsemeat. Fred remembers,
“It smelled so rotten that I literally held my nose while I was eating. Once in a while, very late at night, some Germans from outside the camp would throw food over the fence and run away.” It proved that not all Germans were Hitlerites.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Fred’s family had gotten a telegram delivered by a woman dressed in black. It was from the War Department saying that Fred was missing in action. Germany didn’t turn over names of prisoners, so his family had no way of knowing if he was alive.
Eventually the Allied Forces conquered Germany and General Montgomery’s Ninth Division liberated Stalag 11B. Fred first had to recuperate from tapeworm and other maladies received as a result of his imprisonment. Then, around Mother’s Day of 1945, he was sent home.
“The convoy I was in was the first batch of American POW’s to get back to New York City and we got a tremendous welcome—fireboats and everything. The following Saturday I got a big reception in the synagogue from the rabbi and the entire congregation.”
Fred felt very grateful to be back in a safe place. He couldn’t forget, however, the horrors of war or the miracle of his preservation. “God has done so many good things for me. He brought my immediate family out of Germany. He kept me alive in a prisoner of war camp. And there was the time that I was in a German halftrack that turned over on top of me. Two Germans lay dead next to me. The halftrack was so heavy with equipment that I couldn’t move. Then water started to come up as we were pressed down in a field. I thought my life was over. I said the Sh’ma and I spoke to God pleading for His help. At that moment, several of my German captors were able to lift the halftrack and slide me out from under it. I was safe once again.”
“First I escaped from Hitler as a Jewish refugee. Then I was liberated as an American prisoner of war. But I was never free until Messiah saved and rescued me.”
Fred Wertheim believed in God and felt that God had preserved him for a purpose. He didn’t know what it was, but reasoned that he should just go on living, that God would show him some day. Fred married a nice Jewish girl from his synagogue and he and Laura settled down in the Bronx. They raised two sons and things were going fine until he got a phone call from his oldest son Steve. Steve had moved to California after graduating from college. Fred could not believe his ears, but Steve’s words were clear: “Dad, Mom, I’ve come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.”
Fred took the news very hard: “After all I had been through, here I saw my own flesh and blood had turned against me.” Fred worked as a mail carrier, and for weeks after the phone call, he would just suddenly start crying on his route. People asked him what was wrong, but he couldn’t tell them. He was ashamed to let them know that his son had become a Christian.
Steve tried to explain to his father that his decision to believe in Jesus was not intended to hurt Fred. It was a decision based on conviction—the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Steve told his father about a Mr. Goldstein who had originally told him about Jesus. Mr. Goldstein was a Jew for Jesus who Steve had met and through whose Bible study meeting Steve became more and more convinced of his spiritual needs and of Jesus’ sufficiency.
Fred, while depressed over Steve’s decision, became angry with Mr. Goldstein. When Steve told him that Goldstein was coming to New York and wanted to visit with him, Fred agreed. He said to his son, “I want to meet the man who did this to you and I want to kill him. I’m going to throw him off of our terrace!”
Goldstein and his wife visited the Wertheims and instead of a violent or angry interchange, the two couples discussed things over coffee and a danish pastry ring.
Says Mrs. Wertheim, “We asked them many questions. After a while, Mr. Goldstein pointed out prophecies in the Jewish Bible. I was a little shocked to see that my husband was very curious to know more.”
Fred Wertheim’s curiosity continued past that evening. He started attending Bible study meetings in New York:
“I became a very conscientious student. Each week we were asked to prepare for the next lesson by reading a particular passage from the Scriptures. One week the assignment was to read the first letter of John (in the New Testament), but I read the Gospel of John by mistake. I couldn’t put it down. Then, on the morning of September 29, 1975, I woke up at four o’clock. I saw what was the outline of a figure standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I couldn’t see a face, but I knew it was Jesus. I was convinced that he was real and that I wanted him in my life. I knew he was my Messiah. For me to become a believer, it took a supernatural event like this one. I know it’s not that way for everybody who believes in Jesus, but that’s how it happened to me. I didn’t tell my wife until later in the day.”
Laura Wertheim was upset about the news. First her son and now her husband too! To compound things, their youngest son Robbie, announced that he too was a believer. He didn’t want to say anything until his father came to believe because he was afraid that it would be too traumatic an experience for Fred. In Robbie’s words, “I didn’t think he could take another one.”
But could Laura Wertheim take another family member believing in Jesus? Says Mrs. Wertheim,
“I was very stubborn. While I felt surrounded by believers, I kept reminding myself that so many people were killed in the Holocaust. So many Jews were killed. I couldn’t betray my upbringing.”
Then the Wertheim family went to see a movie called “The Hiding Place.” Laura watched this true story about a Christian woman and her family in Holland during the war. Says Laura,
“It showed the suffering this woman went through, yet she kept her faith in God. It made me see that God was working during the Holocaust—through people like this dear woman. Because she believed in Jesus, she helped Jews—she had real reason to hope. I just sat there and wept and sobbed through the entire picture.”
The next week, she too accepted Jesus as her Messiah. Four years later, Fred and Laura Wertheim renewed their marriage vows. Portions of the ceremony follow:
“Love and commitment have come to have a diminished meaning in today’s world. Yet, we can see the true meaning of love and commitment as we behold Fred and Laura Wertheim, a couple united in God, showing forth His faithfulness. In a world where promises are seldom kept and faithfulness is scorned, they stand here to declare and reaffirm their love for one another.
“In Jewish tradition, it is considered a blessing and privilege to be an invited guest at a wedding. To be able to rejoice with a bridegroom and his bride as they begin a new life together is something that brings joy to the heart. How much more, then, can we rejoice with Fred and Laura as we witness the profession of their continued love. Thirty years ago on the 22nd day of October of 1949, Fred and Laura were joined under the chupah.
“Today, they reaffirm their vows in our presence. They rededicate their lives to one another with a new dimension and depth—that they are joined to God Almighty. He is the center of their union with one another. Their children have always been able to recognize the mutual devotion and deep respect that Fred and Laura have had for each other throughout their marriage. Yet, when the Wertheims met Jesus their Messiah, their relationship truly blossomed. The faith that they came to four years ago has made a good relationship far sweeter. Their relationship with Jesus increased their capacity to love each other in the everyday practicalities of their life together. Their relationship with Jesus increased their capacity to love others.
“Because God has been so faithful to them, they desire to publicly declare and demonstrate that faithfulness and have come today to dedicate their lives afresh in serving Him.
“Fred and Laura, God has given both of you much, and the Scriptures say, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’ However, when God gives us a responsibility, He also promises to supply what we need to fulfill that which he requires. We have the great promises of God to rely upon as we live our lives in Messiah. ‘Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Messiah Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6).
“…As they stand before you, the Wertheims wish to reaffirm their commitment to one another in Jesus and their desire to reflect God’s image together.
Fred: ‘As the days seemed short to Jacob in serving for Rachel, so have the years seemed that we have shared. Laura, my wife, I promise you, as a child of God, that I will continue to love and respect you, honor and uphold you, and give of all that I have to you. As we continue to walk together in the love of Messiah Jesus, I pray that we will become a true reflection of the love and faithfulness Jesus has for the Holy Congregation.’
Laura: ‘Fred, throughout our marriage you have been both my beloved and my friend, the one whom I can fully trust with all that I am. As a child of God, I promise you, my husband, that I will continue to love and respect you, honor and uphold you, and give of all that I have to you. I will faithfully stand with you and help inspire you, that God’s will might be the focus of our lives.'”
“May God’s love surround you, Fred and Laura, as the mountains surround Jerusalem; and may that love emanate forth to all who you touch with your lives. May your next thirty years together increase your joy and gladness as Messiah reigns in your lives.”