This Day in Jewish History

1936: A Jewish Medical Student Murders a Swiss Nazi Leader

The Nazis would gain cruel revenge against David Frankfurter's father, but he himself would die peacefully in Ramat Gan.

David Frankfurter in British Mandate of Palestine, 1945
Wikimedia Commons

On February 4, 1936, David Frankfurter, a 26-year-old Jewish medical student living in Switzerland assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, founder of the Nazi party branch in that country. Although many in Switzerland were hardly saddened at the passing of the odious Gustloff, the Swiss, anxious to preserve their neutrality, tried and convicted Frankfurter for the murder.

David Frankfurter was born on July 9, 1909 in Daruvar, then part of Austro-Hungarian Yugoslavia, today in Croatia. His father, Mavro (also known as Moshe) was the village’s rabbi, and latter became chief rabbi of the city of Vinkovci.  His mother was the former Rebekka Figel.

David grew up suffering from periostitis, a painful disease of skeletal connective tissue, and underwent seven operations between ages 6 and 23. Yet he not only finished high school, in 1929, but was accepted for medical studies at the University of Leipzig, Germany, before transferring to the University of Frankfurt, in 1931.

He's on the phone

Already by that date, Frankfurter was preoccupied with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and he neglected his studies in order to organize Jewish students against the party. After Hitler assumed power, in 1933, he left for Switzerland, settling in Bern.

There, Frankfurter found that Wilhelm Gustloff had established an active branch of the party, which attracted both Germans living in Switzerland and German-speaking Swiss. It was Gustloff who had arranged for the publication of the classic anti-Semitic tract “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

On February 4, 1936, David Frankfurter, a 26-year-old Jewish medical student living in Switzerland assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, founder of the Nazi party branch in that country, shown here in
German Federal Archives

David Frankfurter made the decision to eliminate Gustloff, and methodically set about planning out the act. He bought himself a gun and traveled to Davos, where the Nazi lived, and where he easily obtained his street address.

On February 4, 1936, Frankfurter approached the house, and was greeted by Gustloff’s wife Hedwig. When he told her he was there to see her husband, she ushered him into his study, where he politely waited for Gustloff to finish a phone conversation (during which he heard the German refer to “Jewish pigs”), before identifying himself and shooting Gustloff five times, in the head, neck and chest.

Frankfurter then left the house, walked to a neighboring home and asked to use the phone. He called the police, told them what he had done, and turned himself in.

Hitler calls for patience

News of the assassination made international headlines, and was greeted with outrage in Germany, where there was a call to avenge Gustloff’s death on local Jews. Because the winter Olympics were scheduled to open two days later, however, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with the Summer Games coming up in Berlin in August, Hitler gave instructions that retaliation would have to wait. He didn’t want to risk an international boycott of these showcase events.

Frankfurter’s trial took place a few months later, in Chur, capital of the Graubunden province, where Davos is also situated. He was convicted, and sentenced to 18 years in prison, to be followed by expulsion from Switzerland.

His father’s hair is said to have turned white overnight. When he visited his son in jail before the trial, he supposedly asked him, rhetorically, “Who actually needed this?”

Five years later, when the Germans occupied Vinkovci, their soldiers sought Moshe Frankfurter and subjected him to unusually cruel treatment, before sending him to the Jasenovac concentration camp. There, he was murdered by members of the Croatian national movement Ustase.

The Wilhelm Gustloff, docked in Danzig
Hans Sönnke, Wikimedia Commons

In Germany, in the meantime, Gustloff was recognized as a Blutzeuge, a martyr to the Nazi cause, and given a state funeral. Among the things named for him were an SS squadron and a huge passenger ship. (On January 30, 1945, the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in the Baltic Sea by a Russian submarine, with nearly all of its 9,000 passengers, most of the civilian refugees fleeing the Russian advance on East Prussia, perishing, making it the worst disaster in maritime history, though a little-known one.)

At the war’s end, David Frankfurter requested and received clemency, having served half of his sentence. Expelled from Switzerland, he made his way to Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv. There he married a social worker whom he had met in a transit camp, and found work for a Jewish Agency office that helped disabled war veterans. He published two memoirs, one of them in English, called “The First Fighter Against Nazism,” and died at age 72, on July 19, 1982, in Ramat Gan.