Born in Germany in 1886 to an old aristocratic Prussian family, Armin T. Wegner worked as a farmer, dockworker, private tutor, editor and public speaker – all after receiving his doctorate in law. He described himself as, “filled with a deep desire for unraveling the mystery of things.” At the early age of sixteen, he published his first book of poetry I Have Never Been Older than a Sixteen-year-old. Other poems established his reputation as one of the most talented poets of his time. However, Wegner’s true passion was a deep commitment to justice and humanity. Serving as a volunteer nurse in Poland during the First World War, he was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery by assisting the wounded under fire.
In April 1915, after Germany allied with Turkey, Wegner was sent to the Middle East as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. He observed first-hand the horrendous atrocities being carried out by the Turkish army against the Armenian people. Despite the orders of the Turkish and German authorities restricting information and visual evidence, Wegner collected documents and took hundreds of photographs in the Armenian deportation camps. With the assistance of embassies of other countries, he sent some of this material to Germany and the United States.
However, he was soon arrested and forced to serve in the cholera wards where he became very ill.
Wegner remained deeply affected by the Armenian genocide and became an active member of the pacifist movement and a staunch defender of human rights. In 1920, he married Lola Landau, a talented Jewish author and poet who had two children from her first marriage. Together they had a daughter, Sybil.
During the 1920’s, Wegner reached the peak of success as a writer. He became a celebrity with his book Five Fingers Over You, which predicted the rise of Stalin. His travel book, At the Crossroads of the World, sold over 200,000 copies.
Then in 1933, Wegner chose to risk everything – his home, successful career and his own freedom – by speaking out in protest of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. In fact, he was the only writer in Nazi Germany to defend Jews openly by protesting the state-organized boycott. Wegner’s open letter (“Sendschreiben”) to Hitler was written in early April 1933. Since no German newspaper would dare to publish it, Wegner sent the letter to the headquarters of the Nazi party in Munich requesting it be forwarded to Hitler. The six-page letter, originally titled “For Germany” detailed the historical greatness of the Jewish people, their important contributions to all humanity and to Germany specifically. It warned that a continuation of the anti-Semitic campaign would bring disgrace to the German people.
The head of the chancellery, Martin Bormann, acknowledged the receipt of the letter and said it “would be laid before the Führer shortly.” In answer, Wegner was arrested a few days later by Gestapo thugs in Berlin, thrown into a dungeon and tortured until he lost consciousness. He suffered through seven Nazi concentration camps and prisons before he escaped to Italy where he remained for the rest of his life.
Sadly, Wegner felt that people had forgotten him. He once remarked, “Germany took everything from me, even my wife.”
Wegner’s wife Lola Landau, a successful author, poet and dramatist, also suffered under the anti-Semitic Nazis. Her publications were banned which caused financial problems for their family. Lola sent her three children to various schools across Europe while trying to find a safe haven for all of them. It was during this period of time that she began to connect to her Jewish heritage and, inevitably realized that the only country where she could safely settle was Palestine. In January 1936, she emigrated there without Armin, followed by two of her children. Her other son settled in Australia.
While searching for a new homeland, Landau did not have much time to write; her spare time was spent working on behalf of Zionist organizations. After her arrival in Palestine, she continued to work towards the establishment of the new Jewish state. She resumed writing again in the 1950s, however, with little success – the language of her poetry was German.
One of her poignant poems, originally written in German, was translated into English:
“We carry the traces of foreign lands
Etched on our faces with painful cuts
Driven out of the tenderly loved meadows
We bear countries left behind on our backs.”
In 1968, Armin Wegner was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel. Though he did not directly save any Jewish lives, he was asked to plant a tree in honor of the courage he showed by speaking out against the Nazis. He passed away in Rome in 1978 at the age of 92.
His gravestone epitaph bears these appropriate lines in Latin:
“Amavi iustitiam odi iniquitatem Propterea morior in exsilio” — I loved justice and hated injustice. Therefore I die in exile.