Heinz Drossel was a German army officer during World War II who refused to join the Nazi party. Despite the fact that he spent five years in the military supposedly pursuing Nazi objectives, Drossel found opportunities to follow his conscience and act upon his humanitarian values.
Drossel was born in Berlin in 1916, and during the 1930s was able to pursue his studies. His attempt to emigrate in 1938 failed, and so he remained in Berlin to complete his law degree. In November 1939, the day after he took the state examination to practice law, he was drafted.
Drossel was the son of ardent anti-Nazis and although he was forced to serve in the German army he continued to refuse to join the Nazi party. Drossel fought first in the campaign against France in 1940, then from 1941 to 1945 against Russia. He was appointed as an officer and promoted in 1942. Drossel was not, on the surface, a man likely to put himself at risk to assist Jews and enemy soldiers. Yet he did so time and again.
For example, in the summer of 1941 Drossel’s unit captured a Russian officer. Drossel’s commander told him to take the prisoner back to the battalion where Drossel knew the prisoner would be shot. Instead he took the prisoner in the opposite direction. Drossel, who speaks Russian, urged the officer into the woods and told him, “I am no killer. I am a human being.” He sent the prisoner off in the direction of Russian troops.
While on leave in 1942, Drossel was walking through Berlin when he noticed a woman by the railing of a bridge who, seeing his uniform, grew increasingly agitated at his approach. She tried to leap from the bridge but Drossel caught her. He discovered that she was Jewish. He calmed the woman, took her to his apartment, and gave her money so that she could find a safe place to stay.
She was not the only Jew with the good fortune encounter this unusual German army officer. Ernst Fontheim, a senior research scientist emeritus in the department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan, was spared with the help of Drossel and his parents. In 1945 Fontheim, his future wife, Margot, and her parents, Jack and Lucie Hass had been living quietly with forged identification papers in the town of Senzig near Berlin. Then Fontheim and the others learned that a neighbor and Nazi sympathizer was about to report them to the authorities. They asked the Drossel family, who lived on their street, for help. Heinz Drossel was home on leave at the time. He personally took Fontheim and Jack Hass to a room in his apartment in Berlin. Margot and her mother found shelter in another Berlin apartment. Shortly after the war ended, Fontheim learned that the Gestapo had come looking for the four of them on the day after they had left Senzig.
“The immediate help offered to us generously and unselfishly by all three members of the Drossel family enabled the four of us to survive those last five weeks of the war,” Ernest Fontheim says. “Obviously they risked severe punishment and, in the case of the son, Heinz, a court-martial, which almost certainly would have resulted in the death penalty. They offered their help freely because of their friendship to us and because they were fiercely opposed to the Nazis and especially to the brutal persecution and murder of the Jews.”
In the spring of 1945 Drossel was sent back to the Russian front. Ordered by an SS fighting unit to attack Russian troops in May — just weeks before the war's end — Drossel refused. When the SS threatened to execute him, Drossel ordered his own men to open fire on the SS. Though he was immediately court-martialed and slated for execution, the rapidly advancing Russian army took the village. Liberated from the death sentence of the SS, he was taken prisoner by the Russians who released him from their prison camp later that year.
A few months after this Drossel was reunited with Marianne — the woman on the bridge — and they returned to Berlin, marrying in 1946. Drossel then became a judge, a profession he practiced until his retirement in 1981.
At the Israeli embassy in Berlin in May 2000, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's memorial to victims of the Holocaust, named him one of the Righteous among the Nations. In September 2001 the German government awarded him its highest civilian medal.
“After I got the honor of Yad Vashem, I have spoken before more than 5,000 German young people in schools and high schools,” he said. “It’s necessary to give young people the courage to be human.”