By Elizabeth Shemaria and Tamara Braunstein
Wednesday, July 23, 2012 (originally posted Monday, June 18, 2012) — When Gunter Ullmann fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai, China almost 75 years ago, he thought it was the last time he would see his childhood friend Elfriede Hübner.
With help from the American Red Cross, Ullmann, a San Francisco resident for 64 years, was reunited with Hübner (now known as Elfie Haas) in Schwabisch Hall, Germany, which is only a little more than an hour’s drive from where the two grew up.
“Today is the day,” said Ullmann, his passport peeking out of his shirt pocket as he waited excitedly at the San Francisco International Airport to board a flight to Frankfurt, with his wife Ilse and their son Peter, on Mother’s Day. “It is happening. We’ll get to know each other again, and see what the future will bring.”
The Ullmanns carried with them photos and stories to share with Haas and her family, including photos of Ullmann’s brother Walter, who passed away last year.
The reunion was 10 years in the making. It started with a tracing request placed at the American Red Cross’ Eastern Massachusetts chapter by George Finley on behalf of Haas, his mother-in-law.
Ullmann, whose family is Jewish, fled Mannheim, Germany in 1938 for Shanghai (one of the few places that accepted immigrants without visas at the time) when he was 16. His father took the family’s savings and bought one-way boat passages after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a series of attacks against Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria on November 9 and 10 in 1938.
After surviving internment camps in Shanghai, the family moved to San Francisco in 1948. Ullmann worked as a mechanic, restaurant owner and for the last 15 years as a volunteer German interpreter at the San Francisco tourist information center in Union Square.
Ullmann credits Haas’ father, Heinrich Hübner, with saving the Ullmanns’ lives. According to family accounts, Sally Ullmann (known in the United States as John S.), Gunter’s father, received an early morning warning about the spreading pogrom and prepared to flee. A Christian and a friend to Sally, Hübner strongly opposed the Nazis. As the manager of the families’ apartment building, he locked the elevator before the mob arrived, forcing them to climb the stairs while Sally used his own key to ride the elevator down and escape the building until the rampage was finished.
According to Finley, Hübner also lied when questioned by the Gestapo about whether any Jews were in the building. Sally had left his family in their apartment next door to the Hübners, who themselves had taken in another Jewish resident to hide until the mob left.
Haas and her family lived in the building where she and the Ullmann brothers were raised until September 5, 1943, when it was bombed during a British air raid. With her military husband stationed in Russia, a pregnant Haas then moved to a small village near Schwäbisch Hall, where her husband’s uncle had a small house she could live in. Once her husband returned unscathed from the war, the couple moved to Schwäbisch Hall in 1949.
The families were first reconnected by phone and email in 2008, when a volunteer with the American Red Cross’ San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, Craig Knudsen, helped put Haas in touch with Walter Ullmann.
They often spoke of meeting, but distance and life circumstances made it difficult. When Walter died last year, Ullmann and Haas decided it was time.
Although nearly 75 years had passed, the two friends “caught up right where they left off,” Peter Ullmann wrote of witnessing the first day of the joyful reunion.
With their families by their sides, the two childhood friends revisited their hometown, strolling, dining and reminiscing about the past while making new memories to last years to come.
“It gives you a good feeling to have a positive thing like this happen to you in old age,” said Ullmann. “It’s really tremendous what the Red Cross has done.”
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies more than 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.