A Holocaust Survivor’s Strange Debt to a Nazi-allied Shoe Company

Only now are German companies apologizing for profiting from slave labor during WWII.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Holocaust survivor Emil Farkas, second from left, after immigrating to Israel.
Holocaust survivor Emil Farkas, second from left, after immigrating to Israel.Credit: Private collection
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

About a year ago, Frankfurt resident Dorothee Freudenberg, scion of a famous German family of shoe manufacturers, arrived at the Haifa apartment of Emil Farkas, a former Israeli artistic gymnastics champion. She asked him to forgive her for the suffering her grandfather had caused him, and left behind an envelope containing 5,000 euros.

“It’s not compensation, but maybe it will help,” she says.

Farkas (pronounced Farkash), an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, appreciated the gesture. For Freudenberg, a psychiatrist, she was simply following her conscience. The two have become friends, and over the summer Farkas visited Freudenberg in Frankfurt.

Earlier this month, Farkas looked into boxes in his bedroom filled with pictures and documents. Some of them tell a bizarre story reopened 70 years later by Freudenberg’s visit to Haifa.

Farkas was born in Zilina, Slovakia, in 1929. His father was a shoemaker and the owner of a shoe store. His mother was a nurse. Already at 6 he was an outstanding athlete.

When he was 8 he took part in a “kind of Maccabiah,” as he puts it, held in his town. When he grew up he was a member of the famous Sokol sports association, where he specialized in artistic gymnastics.

In 1944, when he was 15, the Germans sent him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; Slovakia had deported the country’s Jews in 1942. Every morning he made sure to get up before roll call “to exercise a little in the snow,” he says. The unusual sight of a Jewish prisoner trying to stay fit in a concentration camp was not lost on the Nazis.

“They saw that I was an athlete and that I was doing the right movements and exercising nicely,” Farkas says.

Sports saved his life. The Nazis sent him to a special unit of about 200 physically fit prisoners, who got to do an unusual type of forced labor: They were guinea pigs for shoes being developed for the Waffen SS.

Every morning they received a pair of shoes in which they had to walk dozens of kilometers daily. To discover which styles and materials were most durable, different kinds of surfaces were laid at the camp — whether gravel, sand, stone or asphalt — on which the human guinea pigs trod.

“We were a special group — it included almost no Jews; most were political prisoners,” recalls Farkas. “I was the youngest.”

Medical experiments

Former artistic gymnastics champion Emil Farkas in his Haifa apartment, February 2015. Credit: Rami Chelouche

While walking they were forced to sing patriotic German songs. Compensation was a slice of bread in addition to the usual meager fare. Many did not survive this forced labor, which lasted about two months.

Later Farkas’ troubles really began. At Bergen Belsen he was badly beaten by Commandant Josef Kramer, known as the Beast of Belsen. After losing consciousness he was hurled onto a mountain of corpses that were about to be thrown into the crematorium. Farkas was removed at the last moment.

Medical experiments were also conducted at the camp; the Nazis injected toxic substances into Farkas and he was severely beaten. His physical fitness saved him here, too.

Three of his siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, including his two older brothers, who had been skiers back in Czechoslovakia. His sister was murdered with her husband and their baby. His parents and brother David survived — David Farkas would go on to be the coach of the Maccabi Haifa soccer team.

Farkas immigrated to Israel in 1949, served in the air force and continued his sports career. He won medals at the Maccabiah Games in the 1950s, was the Israeli artistic gymnastics champion, and trained generations of athletes at Haifa’s Basmat high school next to the Technion technology institute. His students won a raft of competitions and championships; among them were actor Gadi Yagil and Maj. Gen. Kalman Magen.

Today Farkas has a son and daughter, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is particularly proud of the outstanding-teacher certificate he received from the Education Ministry and the worthy-citizen award he received from Haifa. Things were pretty run-of-the-mill until Freudenberg showed up.

Two years earlier Freudenberg had read the 2010 German-language book “Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus” by Anne Sudrow, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam near Berlin. The 900-page work reveals how shoe companies used forced labor at concentration camps to test their products.

Sudrow uncovered documentation showing that the Freudenbergs’ company helped build special tracks to test the shoes, conducted the studies and improved production using a database that was still employed after the war.

“This study shows the extent to which every aspect of life in the Nazi regime was closely related to the Nazis’ crimes — the extent to which civilian entities were partners to these crimes and their desire to deny that to this very day,” says Jerusalem historian and blogger Anat Peri.

'We didn't know about it'

One company mentioned in the book is the Freudenbergs’, which was founded in 1850 as a leather processer. In the early 1930s it began making shoes.

The firm expanded after the Holocaust and today the Freudenberg Group operates in a number of industries. It has 40,000 employees in 60 countries and annual turnover topping 6 billion euros.

“It’s a terrible history,” Freudenberg says, speaking to Haaretz by telephone from Germany. “I and my relatives were shocked. We didn’t know about it.”

Immediately after finishing the book she asked the people at Sachsenhausen to find the last survivors of the experiments. She received only five names – three Poles, a Dutchman and Farkas, the only Jew.

Many German companies profited from slave labor in the German camps. In recent decades some have been researching their pasts and are setting up foundations to compensate the survivors and their families.

The Freudenbergs are doing the same. They asked a Bonn-based historian to carry out a study of the firm’s Nazi past, which is due to be finished at the end of the year.

“We thought we mustn’t lose time and wait until the end of the study because the survivors are getting old,” Freudenberg says, adding that she and other women from the family immediately met the survivors and donated the few thousand euros.

“We did it as private individuals, not as a company,” she says. “We thought it was important for us to meet these people.”

That’s how Freudenberg wound up in a Haifa apartment building. “I told him I had only recently heard about his suffering, and that I knew that our company profited from these horrors,” she says. “I gave him a little money, but that’s not compensation.”

So how is it that the family only recently learned about the company’s special form of slave labor?

Prof. Gunter Morsch, who has been in charge of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum for 21 years, told Haaretz that the camp’s shoe-testing tracks had been restored in 1961 when the memorial site was opened; the subject is well documented and mentioned at tours of the site.

“If someone wants to know something,” Morsch says, “he can know it.”

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