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Alois Elsner’s courage
Chimney sweep from Landsberg helps concentration camp prisoners

by Franz Xaver Rössle
(Translation of the German version into English by Peter Förg)

- First published in 1998 in the historic papers of the historic society -

 
 
Between Geschwister Scholl Road and Edith Stein Road in the former barracks of Saarburg, today known as Katharinenanger, there can also be found, due to a resolution of the city council, an Alois Elsner Road. Therefore, the name Elsner is tentamount to those of Victor Frankl’s, Irving Heymont’s and Israel Baker’s. What is concealed behind this name? What reports are there about him?

In the historic theme issue number four the civil council of Landsberg of the 20th century reports about Walter Groos, the construction manager of the concentration camp in Kaufering, who is honoured as a Righteous Person in Yad Vashem. There is also mentioned a small rebellious group from Landsberg consisting of “the chimney sweep Alois Elsner, the police officer Rasso Leitensdorfer, the communist Alfred Schacke and two doctors, who smuggled medicine, clothes and nutrition into the concentration camps. Surely, Alois Elsner was the one with the most dangerous mission in this group. Documents still owned and preserved for this purpose by the Elsner family provide an insight into this affair.

Alois Elsner was born on 16th June 1897 in Burglengenfeld in the Upper Palatinate. After finishing his apprenticeship in Regensburg, his military service from 1919 to 1918 and his journeyman’s years of service, he rented a real law authorising him to work as a chimney sweep in the district of Abensberg. Then he acquired this real law in the district of Geweth in Landsberg and took up residence first in Museums Road and later in 19, Augsburg Road. From 1927 onwards, he was an active member of the Bavarian People’s Party until it was dissolved. Already in the year 1933 did he feel discriminated against. When the districts of chimney sweeps were distributed anew after Hitler’s “political takeover” in 1936, he was assigned the areas of Hurlach, Kaufering and those to the north. This was a harassment, because it was much more difficult for him to reach this district (by bike) than to reach the district where he lived. The real law he bought in 1926 had been abolished without any compensation as well as all the other 86 real laws in Bavaria. The district was therefore dependent on the decisions of the authorities and subjected to the arbitrariness of the NS-regime.

Photo Alois Elsner: from his chimney sweep certificate

In November 1938, Elsner was drafted for some time by the German Armed Forces to get trained, although he was widowed. At the beginning of the war in 1939 he was drafted again, but discharged in December 1939. Finally, as he personally wrote, there was no other possibility for him later than to join the NSDAP, in which he only stayed until April 1943. By his provocative behaviour he coerced his party to expulse him. By a preliminary injunction of 14th April 1943 Elsner was excluded from the NS Party for the following reason as follows in the verbatim version: “Your behaviour, apart from your lack of interest resulting from it, is highly undisciplined. Therefore, you will be excluded from the party by summary procedure.” In March 1943 Elsner himself had asked the leader of the location group of the NSDAP to delete his name and had refused to carry out special activities. After the war, Elsner writes on 10th January 1946: “I have always had a clear conscience, because I have never voted for ‘yes’ in the so called popular vote of the Third Reich.”

Alois Elsner at work on top of a barrack

In 1944 concentration camps built of of shacks were established near the railway junction of Kaufering and finally in the area of Hurlach, which were then located in Elsner’s working district. As a chimney sweep he was obliged to visit the shacks and realized with open eyes the misery and cruelty reigning in these camps. He could not look away and established numerous contacts with prisoners of these camps, above all with doctors in the medical barracks. This was documented by thank-you letters received by Elsner and his wife as well as by a common declaration of a number of prisoners issued on 21st July 1947 and delivered to the American authorities.

An interesting thing, above all, is a slip of paper, on which a certain Stefan Fonyo wrote a wish list of articles Alois Elsner was supposed to smuggle into the concentration camp. Alois Elsner folded this slip of paper, put it into his chimney sweep suit and took it outside, which can be proved by the traces of soot on it. Here the original version: “Dear Mr. Elsner. I thank you most tenderly for your kindness granted to me so far. This encourages me to ask you to do me the following favour: I badly need the following things: one pair of warm underpants, a warm shirt, a sweater, two pairs of stockings, two handkerchiefs. I am demanding these things from you hoping to get shortly released and to give back the things that I borrowed from you in a manifold way and with best thanks. I would like to thank you in advance for your kindness, and may God bless you and your dear family forever. Kind regards, yours sincerely Stefan Fonyo – and a pair of warm gloves.”

Document of Stefan Fonyo

It seems almost hard to believe how it is possible to smuggle so many things, but there are more letters proving this fact. On 8th July 1947, Margit Katz, then resident in 5, Eisvolgelweg in Weilheim, wrote among other things: “Perhaps you don’t remember me any more: I was working in Kaufering, in the kitchen of the third concentration camp as the ‘maidservant with the red headscarf’. You’ve often brought me stockings, some soap, combs and even something to eat”. On 19th June 1945, Robert Held, a medical doctor, wrote to Alois Elsner: “Since I’ve been living in Puch, I’ve already talked about you very often, about what wonderful things you did for us and how often you even risked your life. It is really a mockery of fate that it was just you that had to leave your home.” In this context Dr. Held is alluding to the fact that, despite Alois Elsner’s courageous commitment to the concentration camp prisoners, he himself was forced to leave his home by the American occupying power. For some period of time he lived in a barn next to the agricultural farm Sanktjohanser. His son reports later that he has secretly moved again into the cellar of his house. Even in this situation Alois Elsner behaved as someone who did not want to content himself with these conditions, as he was really treated unfair.

The previously mentioned declaration of 21st July 1945 made by a number of prisoners and given to the American authorities was drafted in English and German. It is signed by doctors of the prisoners, among others also by Dr. Robert Held of camp Kaufering 3, as well as by Dr. Josef Heller of camp 3. The latter wrote down his prisoner’s number 71653 and his address at that time in Rumania. This declaration indicates that Stefan Fonyo’s “wish-list” is not an exaggeration but confirms the systematic smuggling of medicine, food, clothes, particularly stockings, underwear etc.. This declaration provides the additional information of Alois Elsner warning the prisoners of harassments planned by men of the SS that he had been informed about before. According to the subscribers, he summoned the prisoners to escape and had committed himself to offer and secure accommodation for a number of them. Alois Elsner informed the prisoners about the military situation by listening to the “enemy’s transmitter” of London Radio, which was dangerous but psychologically extremely important in this apparently hopeless situation. The subscribers call A. Elsner a “real friend and benefactor” and write as follows: “By offering his services to us he often literally risked his life.”

Signatures of the signatories

On 8th July 1945, Dr. Berkes Istvan registered at the concentration camp number of Dachau 122191 wrote to A. Elsner: “As a free man I am able to write to you for the first time and to thank you for you being such a noble and brave man in these terrible times we had suffered from. God has saved our lives, but you have helped me a lot in this affair by smuggling the parcels into the camp while risking your life and by saving a number of fellow prisoners from starving.”

Alois Elsner’s wife received a letter with the same date of 8th July 1945 form a certain Mrs Helene Eger. She writes there that her brother has been at her place together with another two fellow prisoners for nine weeks, and that they have overcome the latest stresses and strains, which was hard for them, but that “they have nevertheless survived and have escaped the hell of Kaufering-Dachau alive. This was mainly possible due to you and your dear husband, who helped these poor people by risking your lives.” On 20th January 1947, this same Mrs Eger writes from Erding: “I will never forget that by helping my brother and other miserable persons in the concentration camp you saved them from starving and freezing.”

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Even two documents about Elsner’s relationship to Alfred Schacke, a communist, have been preserved. In a letter of 10th February 1946 to A. Elsner he expresses his sorrows that, even in the face of the ruins and the horrible misery, many people still see their salvation in militarism and war. In this same letter he confirms that A. Elsner and Rasso Leitenstorfer founded an anti-fascist movement together with him in Landsberg. “The meetings took often place in A. Elsner’s apartment. Beside the propaganda against the Nazi regime and the war, their main task was the illegal provision of the prisoners with clothes, medicine and food. Our comrade Schacke had been informed by the prisoners that Mr Elsner had always excellently taken care of them.” This small number of documents that have been preserved as private property in the Elsner family provide an impressionable image of Elsner’s role in this group of active savers. Unfortunately, there is not much talk about the other participants.

Alois Elsner died in 1971. He did neither profit from his brave deeds, neither were they acknowledged, nor was he honoured for them, which he really did not want. In the face of the misery the most important thing for him was to help. He risked his life for the prisoners more than once. We can consider A. Elsner as a role model for courage and humanity and certainly to be among the “Righteous”. Honouring him posthumously by naming a road after him exactly at the location of the DP-Camp, where the survivors of the concentration camps could stay after the war, is something that the town of Landsberg can be proud of.

Let us not forget, however, his wife Mrs Maria Elsner. It seems to me that due to her commitment one of the thank-you letters (that written by Helene Egner on 8th July 1945) is directed to her personally. Without his wife, to whom all these activities could certainly not be concealed, and without her assistance Elsner could not have helped the prisoners, and so the survivors Dr. Held, Dr. Goldberger and some other subscribers write on 27th July 1945: “Mrs Elsner constantly assisted him in his noble mission by procuring the medicine in various pharmacies. Her courage is tentamount to that of her husband’s.”

Photo of the Elsner family

The letters of the survivors written to A. Elsner do not only represent documents of thankfulness. They also remind us of the destiny of the victims in the concentration camps and of that of their relatives; they remind us of the joy about their release, the mourning about the suffering and death, even of the impotent rage of the survivors and of the difficulties of a new start.


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