“You have to recognize goodness for what it is; it is an obligation according to Jewish tradition. Any act of goodness has to be told.” – Mordechai Feldiel, spokesman for Yad Vashem
Jews had lived in the Galician region of eastern Poland since the Middle Ages. The town of Drohobycz, located in the center of the Galician oil mining area, was of vital importance to the German war effort during World War II. The Jewish population was conscripted into forced labor and most were killed. Of those who managed to survive, many owed their lives to one heroic man, German-born Wehrmacht Major Eberhard Helmrich.
On the surface, Helmrich appeared to be a perfect Nazi. Tall, blond and handsome, the German agricultural expert resembled the Aryan ideal. In actual fact, however, the tolerant, broad-minded Helmrich despised the Nazis and their cruelty towards Jews. At first, he served as the head of the department for food and agriculture and was later appointed as the chief economic officer of the occupied region. In these roles, he did whatever he could to assist the local Jewish population of Galicia and treated them humanely. He sent food to the Jewish hospital where many of the patients were suffering from malnutrition.
Then he came up with an ingenious idea. He organized an agricultural labor camp to provide fresh vegetables for the German soldiers and military staff in the area.
“We will use Jewish workers on the farm who work better than the Poles and the Ukrainians. Even if they are sick, Jews will work hard as if their lives depended on it,” Helmrich pointed out to the SS.
Convinced, the SS gave their approval to the plan.
Helmrich thus saved the lives of about 300 young Jews from the local ghetto by employing them as farm workers and keeping them from deportation to the death camps. In addition, he ensured that his assistants also treated the Jewish workers in a kindly manner.
Although the children of the workers were not permitted to be at the farm, they were sneaked in and hidden in the barracks while their parents worked during the day.
One little five-year-old girl hid in a hayloft during an inspection and was found by a German soldier. When he pushed the petrified child towards a window she fell out, but fortunately her uncle managed to catch her in his arms. Helmrich immediately sent the girl and her parents to a safe refuge on a Polish farm.
When permission to employ Jews as farm workers was retracted, Helmrich’s agricultural camp was forced to close. Even then, he ensured that the Jewish farm workers went to other labor camps to further delay their deportation and give them a chance to escape.
In his own home, Helmrich would often shelter Jews on the run until it became safe to smuggle them out of town. Sometimes he instructed his Polish driver to take Jews in his own official car to bypass SS guards and blockades. Helmrich always treated all the Jews he met with respect, kindness and encouragement.
Although it was prohibited to employ Jews, Helmrich had a young Jewish woman working for him for several weeks, despite the risk that he might be caught.
Then he and his wife Donata, who had remained in Germany, came up with an audacious plan. He provided forged Ukrainian documents for about six young Jewish women, sending them to work in Berlin as maids and nannies.
Since many German women had to work in factories during this time, they needed childcare and these Jewish women, in the guise of Ukrainians, came to provide it.
None of them suspected that their precious children were being cared for by ‘despicable’ Jews.
Though they lived in constant fear of being discovered, all the young Jewish women survived the war.
Donata, like Eberhard, viewed the Nazis as “a failure of human decency.” Equally despising their heartlessness, she took the risk of defying them to save Jewish lives.
After the war ended, her daughter Cornelia asked Donata if she had ever felt afraid.
“You can’t be frightened for twelve years,” her mother replied.
Eberhart, although believing he had only a five percent chance of survival, managed to remain calm and confident throughout the war.
In December 1965, Eberhard Helmrich was one of the first people to be recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Donata Helmrich was honored posthumously years later. Her daughter was presented with her award and planted a tree on her behalf.
In June 2016, a memorial plaque to Eberhard and Donata Helmrich was unveiled at the house in the Ukrainian town of Drohobycz in tribute to their heroism during the Holocaust.
Taras Kuchma, the mayor of Drohobycz, and Jozef Karpin, chairman of the Jewish community, as well as other dignitaries spoke at the memorial service. Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, daughter of the Helmrichs, conveyed this heartfelt message:
“I wish I could be with you today in Drohobycz, but unfortunately it is not possible. I thank all of you gathering in front of the house where my father lived during the dark years of the war… I am not able to really express my gratitude, and what it means to me, that my beloved father and mother are not forgotten, that men and women from another generation are here to commemorate him. May people who walk by now and then look at the memorial plaque and wonder what this man did for others…”