On November 6, 1941, the German actor Joachim Gottschalk and his German-Jewish wife, Meta Wolff, killed themselves and their 8-year-old son, Michael, rather than have the family split up, with Meta and the half-Jewish Michael being sent to a concentration camp.
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Both Gottschalk (born 1902) and Wolff (born 1904) were successful actors, she in the theater, he on the stage in Frankfurt and Leipzig, then as of 1938, in a number of popular movies. The couple married in 1930, and in 1933, Meta gave birth to a son, Michael.
Being married to a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany, Gottschalk made an effort to keep a low profile, and even turned down film roles for that reason. But in four films opposite film star Brigitte Horney (the daughter of psychoanalytical pioneer Karen Horney), he achieved a very high profile as a sympathetic leading man, compared by some to Leslie Howard and to Frederic March.
Perhaps Gottschalk and Horney’s most celebrated film was their final one together, as well as the picture that indirectly led to his downfall: “The Swedish Nightingale” (1941), about the relationship between Hans Christian Andersen and the opera singer Jenny Lind.
Gottschalk had been urged by family and friends through the 1930s to leave Germany with his family, while it was still possible. But he was reluctant to do, and his film studio, UFA, would not allow him to break his contract. Not only that, UFA even pressured him to divorce his wife.
In April 1941, Meta Wolff accompanied her husband to a gala premiere of “The Swedish Nightingale” in Berlin. Also in attendance was Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who, according to the story, was charmed to meet Mrs. Gottschalk, even kissing her hand. Later, when it was revealed to him that she was Jewish, he was furious.
Several days later, Gottschalk was summoned to the Propaganda Ministry and informed that he would have to divorce Wolff. When he refused, he was told that he would be called up into the Wehrmacht, and his wife and son deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.
Gottschalk requested to accompany Meta and Michael to Theresienstadt, but was turned down. Minutes before the Gestapo arrived at their home – or so goes the legend – to arrest mother and son, Joachim and Meta sedated Michael and turned on the gas, killing all three.
The regime blocked any mention of the movie star’s death in the press, although word of his passing did become known by word of mouth.
Two years after the end of the war, the dramatic tale of the Gottschalks was the subject of an East German feature film called “Marriage in the Shadows” (Ehe im Schatten). The 1947 movie was directed by Kurt Maetzig, whose own mother, a Jew, had committed suicide rather than face deportation during the Holocaust. “Marriage in the Shadows,” although it changed some of the details in the store of Gottschalk and Wolff (in the movie, for example, they were childless), was a big hit in Communist Germany, selling nearly 13 million tickets. Paul Klinger, the actor who portrayed the Gottschalk-like character, is also the man who was called upon to take Gottschalk’s place, after his death, in the 1942 film “The Golden City,” directed by Veit Harlan, creator of the infamous anti-Semitic drama “Jew Suess.”