Survivor of Two Concentration Camps, U.S. Ambassador to Three Countries
Robert Gerhard Neumann (1916–1999), seen at right with wife Marlen, served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Born in Vienna, Austria, he belonged to political activist groups as a student. While studying in Geneva, he was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned for almost a year, spending part of that time in Dachau and Buchenwald. After he was released, he left for the United States. When the US entered World War II, Neumann, as a non-citizen, volunteered to be drafted. He initially served as an interpreter in prisoner of war camps in the US before being sent to England. He was commissioned and also transferred to the Office of Special Services, the precursor of the CIA, although he remained in the army. He went to France a few weeks after D-day.
The following is an excerpt from a memoir Neumann wrote in Kabul in April 1968. His writings cover only the period of his life from birth until his arrival in the U.S. and wedding to Marlen Eldredge. In this portion, he recalls his arrest and how he survived two Nazi concentration camps.
“Underground work and occasional imprisonment under the Austro-Fascist regime had given me a false sense of knowing what dictatorship was about and of how it could be countered”
The Austrian resistance to Nazism quickly collapsed in the face of Hitler’s brutal threats to [Chancellor of the Federal State of Austria Kurt Alois Josef Johann] Schuschnigg at Berchtesgaden. The German army, with the triumphant Hitler at its head, entered Vienna on March 12, 1938. It was my mother’s birthday and we were not likely to forget it.
Vienna was in a state of delirium. It was astonishing how many Nazis crawled out of the woodwork. Even if one assumes that some were Johnnies-come-lately and opportunists, their number and enthusiasm were astonishing and depressing. There is a charming legend that Austria was raped by the Nazis but the fact is that a very large number of Austrians desired and enjoyed that rape. Many undoubtedly changed their minds later but at that moment and for months thereafter the German troops, some of whom had become a little wary of Hitler, marveled at the unbridled enthusiasm of the Austrians. Certainly the Austrian Nazis had little to learn from their German masters when it came to cruelty and persecution.
In view of my political past, it would probably have been wiser to get out immediately after the Anschluss. But there were many reasons why I did not do so. In the first place, underground work and occasional imprisonment under the Austro-Fascist regime had given me a false sense of knowing what dictatorship was about and of how it could be countered. This was of course utterly false for the Nazi regime was infinitely deadlier and more efficient than either the Austrian or Italian fascist regimes had even been.
Secondly, I still had some final law examinations to take and I wanted my law degree for which I had, after all, worked four years. There were also my parents who did not want to leave, abhorrent as the Nazis were to them, but my father lived in retirement, his political activities lay far behind him, and he thought he had nothing to fear. We were all to find out differently.
Shortly after I had begun to collect myself from the shock of these cataclysmic events, I began cautiously to take up contacts with some of my political friends, including those whom I had strongly opposed before 1938, to see how we might organize in opposition to the Nazis.
But I had hardly gotten started when I was arrested by the Gestapo.
I do not know to this day how and why it happened. Mine was an individual arrest, not one of those mass arrests which came later. But the Gestapo agents did not look for anyone else among the many other families living at 107 Kaiserstrasse, but went straight for my apartment, asked for me, for no other member of my family, and took me away.
I do not believe that it had anything to do with the activities on which I was just embarking because nobody else of our group was arrested at that time and we had only just barely begun to organize. Even if we had been infiltrated, always a possibility for underground movements, the Gestapo would probably have watched us for a while, allowed us to assemble more people, before striking.
Hence I am inclined to believe that I was denounced by somebody, quite possibly by some of the Nazis living in our house, or perhaps by a former classmate and fairly prominent Nazi who lived nearby. I shall never know, and it hardly matters now.
Although the Gestapo agents were quite polite and proper, that attitude ended abruptly when I entered the portals of the Hotel Metropole, Gestapo headquarters in Vienna. There I had my first acquaintance with beating, torture, and death. Several of the people in my group were killed almost indiscriminately or beaten to death in the days of “interrogation”.
It was a period of unmitigated horror. I was interrogated, forcibly so, for hours on end, and although the Gestapo man demanded a confession, I am inclined to believe that he used that merely as an excuse for inflicting physical pain rather than because he was interested in a written and signed document. In that respect, though not in many others, there is a difference between the Nazi and the Communist methods of interrogation. At any rate, I had nothing to confess, and I did not confess, and I doubt that it would have made any difference if I had.
After they thought that they had beaten me enough at the Metropole, I was taken to a school which had been turned into a prison. All the regular prisons were overcrowded. There we were kept for some time, poorly fed but beaten only occasionally, until June 2, 1938, the day my transport left for Dachau Concentration Camp.
The transport was another event of nightmarish horror. It took something line 20 hours, as the train stopped and was kept waiting at sidings many times. During the whole trip all prisoners had to sit rigidly at attention without food or drink or an opportunity to relieve themselves. Incessantly they were taunted, beaten, tortured, stabbed, and sometimes shot. I still carry the sear of a bayonet stab on the back of my left hand to remind me of that trip.
Once unloaded in Dachau, we had again to stand at attention for a long time without any visible purpose other than to give the SS men another opportunity to taunt, to beat, and to kill. To this day I can almost exactly identify at least seven or eight spots in the defile (line) where people were shot down in cold blood. It was purely a matter of accident whether it hit you or somebody else.
I stayed in Dachau concentration camp for several months and was then shipped to another and even worse camp, unimaginable though that might seem, Buchenwald. There is no point for me to go into details of our treatment. There exists now a voluminous literature on concentration camps as the Nazi regime is one of the best-documented in history. Unfortunately all the stories, even the most cruel and incredible, are true simply because the human mind in all its imaginativeness can hardly think of any form of cruelty or torture which the Nazis had not thought of first.
“There was the discovery that even in the face of the most fiendish tortures, nobody could be humiliated except with his consent”
In some respects, conditions became worse later on. Our food was horrible and inadequate but it was not as yet the starvation diet which it became later and although many people were killed, between 30 and 60 every day, we had not yet experienced the machine-like precision of mass extermination which was a later development.
Also, contrary to a widespread impression, the great majority of the camp inmates were Germans and Christians rather than foreigners and Jews. Only after November, 1938, when the Jewish mass arrests began, did the proportions begin to change.
Readers of these lines who are really curious what life in a German concentration camp was like can refer to one of the numerous articles or books on the subject. I have contributed to some myself. Perhaps the best book-length study, impressive in its scholarly detachment, is by a former inmate, Eugen Kogon, entitled THE SS STATE.
Life in Dachau and Buchenwald was incredible in its depravity, its sickening inhumanity, the daily dosage of torture and death. The chances of ever emerging alive seemed remote as very few people were released. And I daresay there was not one inmate who had not considered seriously at one time or another the thought of suicide.
It was after all so very simple; all one had to do was to walk down into the forbidden zone and if one made that without being machine-gunned, one merely had to touch the high-tension electric fence which surrounded the camp. Life was so horrible, why should one fear death? And many availed themselves of that opportunity.
There were as many individual reasons for not doing so as there were individuals. Hope of release was probably not one of them as it seemed remote. But for many of us voluntary death meant final acceptance of the Nazi triumph and that, we were grimly determined, was not to be.
I will say no more about the unspeakable horrors of that period. But I would be less than just if I were not to admit that amidst all this death and pain and despair there were not also some positive sides which profoundly formed my life and I am certain the lives of those who survived.
First of all, there was the discovery that even in the face of the most fiendish tortures, nobody could be humiliated except with his consent. One could of course be killed, but that was another and, under the circumstances, far less frightening possibility. Also it appeared that those who cringed and sought favors of the Nazi guards only incurred their wrath, while those who met them with dignity and courage, with their heads held high, often gained some measure of grudging respect.
Fiendish and inhuman as the Nazi torturers were, they considered themselves some sort of idealists and somewhere in the recesses of their dull and inhuman minds there was a remnant of respect for a brave opponent. I do not feel qualified to psycho-analyze those monsters.
It suffices that generally speaking those of us who showed a spirit an attitude of dignity and manliness by and large fared slightly better than the rest. Of course some caught a bullet nevertheless, but that was nothing to be afraid of, for death was certainly preferable to life.
There were other positive features. In a way, everybody was naked. There were people who had once occupied high positions of state, industry, and academe, and there were those of humble origin. Now they all wore striped uniforms with numbers, and worked in the same stone quarry or other projects.
Some of the high and mighty were less high and mighty now, but some did reveal themselves as extraordinary personalities, and among the humble you had the courageous and the cowardly as well as those who simply gave up and then quickly died. The people who acted in admirable fashion were not necessarily people one would have admired elsewhere…
“To succumb to racism, even anti-German racism, was to render the Nazis finally triumphant”
Time and again it was proven that you could hope to survive only if you held a tight reign on yourself and grimly fought on, for the very act of survival was an act of defiance. If you gave up courage, death quickly followed. It was remarkable to see how a hitherto strong person, the moment he lost heart, would sag, soon thereafter would pick up a disease or fall under the blows or bullets of the SS. Of course, courage cannot stop a bullet either, but that was a chance you always took.
I may sum up lessons which I learned by saying this: First of all, I learned to appraise people for what they were and not for their position or rank. This stood me in good stead later on when I was privileged to meet heads of state and government and even when I was merely an assistant professor I met them, with respect to be sure, but without being in the slightest unnerved by their station – and that even includes General de Gaulle.
Second, I learned the lesson of the superiority of the indomitable spirit and I was not likely ever to forget it. Finally, I learned never to give up in spite of moments of despondency and despair, but to fight on to the end.
I also learned that most of my fellow-prisoners were Germans and it was therefore inconceivable to be anti-German. Anti-Nazi, yes; anti-German no; for we were all Germans at that time or, as Austrians, very nearly so. To hate all Germany would have meant to hate ourselves, and there was no place for that. Moreover, in the fact of the horrible proofs of the depravity of racism, we could not possible allow ourselves to succumb to racism ourselves.
For to hate or to reject people simply because they belong to a certain race is racism, whether directed against Jews, Negroes, or Germans. To succumb to racism, even anti-German racism, was to render the Nazis finally triumphant.
Another strange and chilling experience was our daily contact with Communists. As human beings they were frequently magnificent, being often among the earliest prisoners and having therefore several years in camp behind them by the time I met them. They were of course among the strongest because the others had not survived. They were good leaders and good and loyal comrades.
Where they were block leaders or leaders of work commands, (of course always under an SS leader) they, for the most part, did what they could to protect those under them though what they could do was little enough. I became such a leader myself and I know what it took.
Yet, in the midst of this depravity and destruction, they never failed to tell us, quite calmly, that if they ever came to the top in a Communist society, they would not fail to imprison and liquidate the rest of us. They said that they would do so with personal regret and respect for the qualities which we had shown but that they would do it nevertheless. I have never forgotten both sides of this exposure to the Communist mind….
“It was only once I sat in the train and saw the other passengers and heard their unconcerned small talk, that it began to dawn on me that I had really returned to life”
I was released in February, 1939, after nearly a year of imprisonment, eight months of which were spent in Dachau and Buchenwald. I have only fragmentary information on how it happened. At the camp gates there stood several numbered tables, and every morning some of the prisoners were called by name to come forward to one of those tables. Nobody knew what it meant. It always meant something.
But it could be the demand for a signature to a document, or to be beaten by sticks, or to be hung up by one’s wrists tied behind one’s back (this happened to me once for an hour and is excruciatingly painful), or one could be put into solitary or one might be shot, or, occasionally, one could be released. Thus several prisoners, perhaps twelve including myself, stood there not knowing what was afoot, expecting the worst, and hoping for the best, as the work commands marched through the gate past us.
We were all by then experienced prisoners and knew that it was dangerous to one’s equilibrium to let either hope or fear to rule one. My name was called, together with three or four others out of that group, and we were marched to one of the SS barracks. There was still no indication as to what would happen but I was beginning to be slightly hopeful because the guards were not abusive.
An experienced prisoner learns to observe the smallest signs. It was only in that barracks that we were told that we were about to be released. I don’t believe any of us showed the slightest emotion in his face. We were too well trained for that, and there was always the possibility of a cruel hoax. We were not going to give them that satisfaction, should that be the case.
Still, release proceedings now went ahead. Our civilian clothes were returned to us and we received a small amount of money, just sufficient to pay for a third class railroad ticket back home. Then, after various periods of waiting and processing, we were taken to a physical examination which was perfunctory and was probably designed only to see whether we showed any physical signs of major maltreatment.
At any rate, all of us passed and we were taken to the railroad station in Weimar, given our certificate of release, warned to keep our mouths shut forever, and turned loose. (Robert Neumann is on the right, with son Ronald.)
It is difficult to describe my emotions. Perhaps it is almost accurate to say that I did not have any. We were numb, distrustful. We did not know whether we would not be picked up again. It was only once I sat in the train and saw the other passengers and heard their unconcerned small talk, that it began to dawn on me that I had really returned to life.
Still, I felt like a thing apart, and that was enhanced by the furtive glances which the passengers gave me, presumably because of my shaved head. Those who lived in Weimar knew what it meant. I changed trains in Leipzig and went on to Vienna. I had just enough money to send a telegram from Leipzig to tell my parents of my release and return. I was glad to forego food for that pleasure.
When I first saw my parents at the Western Railroad Station, my emotions finally did catch up with me, and we all dissolved in tears. I was shocked to see my father; his head also was shaved, although his hair was already returning. I had not known that he too was imprisoned although for only a relatively short period of two months, and largely because he protested my imprisonment in that spirit of righteousness which I had always admired but of which the Nazis had no understanding.
We now lived in a different apartment because the Nazis in our former house had driven my mother out. She had to take that in addition to the torture of knowing her husband and only son were in concentration camps, confronted by daily death. But my mother was a woman of great moral strength and sterling qualities. In fact, I discovered that as nearly as we could figure out, I owed my release to her.
She had moved heaven and earth; she had gone to Berlin and even to Weimar, she who have never traveled and did not like to travel. She had even stopped a German general in the street and asked his help, and he, incredibly, not only promised to but actually tried to, though without results, and was finally told to mind his own business or he also would end up in a concentration camp.
I wish I had known who he was because he had certainly taken considerable risks for a total stranger. There was also a mysterious Dutch lawyer who, for a good deal of money and probably not just for money, tried to help prisoners. He must have had some powerful Gestapo connections and finally it worked in my case.