Berthold Beitz, a leading German industrialist who was credited with saving hundreds of Jews during World War II by employing them at the oil fields he managed in Nazi-occupied Poland, a rescue operation later compared to the more popularly known deeds of Oskar Schindler, died July 30. He was 99.
ThyssenKrupp, the German industrial conglomerate, announced his death but provided no other details. Beitz had led Krupp, the storied German steel empire, for decades after the war.
At the peak of his career, Beitz was among the most influential businessmen in Europe. During the Cold War, he made news by meeting with business leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including automotive executives in Detroit and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who received him for what Time magazine described as a “21-hour chat.”
Little publicized at that time were his efforts on behalf of his Jewish workers in Poland during World War II. When Beitz returned to the country as an unofficial West German ambassador in 1960, a New York Times reporter noted simply — and in retrospect, poignantly — that he had “left behind a favorable reputation for good treatment of his Polish employes.”
Beitz did not set out to join the Gentile rescuers who became known as the “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation conferred on him by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, in 1973. He came from a family of Nazi sympathizers, according to accounts of his life, and at the outbreak of the war was working for Royal Dutch Shell in Hamburg as an oil executive.
In 1941, Beitz accompanied his grandfather to a dinner at the home of Alfried Krupp, the steel titan whose weaponry concern had armed German kaisers with cannons and Adolf Hitler with tanks. There he met Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi SS special police and a principal designer of the “final solution” to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Beitz heard Heydrich discussing the strategically important oil fields in what was then Poland and expressed interest in the work. Then in his late 20s, Beitz soon received a military commission to serve as business manager of the Carpathian Oil company in Boryslaw, a town now located in Ukraine. Many of the company’s workers were Jews.
Beitz once told the Times that he began his rescue work not out of political conviction but rather with “purely humane, moral motives.” In 1942, according to Yad Vashem, he saw babies tossed from windows during the liquidation of a Jewish orphanage, an experience that left him deeply scarred.
Beitz used his connections with Nazi officials — as well as what he described as “self-assurance” and “incredible luck” — to carry out a daring and risky rescue effort. Permitted to review transports of Jews before they left for the Nazi death camps, Beitz pulled from the trains his employees and others. In August 1942, according to Yad Vashem, Beitz removed 250 Jews from a transport to the Belzec camp by calling them “professional workers.”
“I should have employed qualified personnel,” he said, according to U.S. News and World Report. “Instead, I chose tailors, hairdressers and Talmudic scholars and gave them all cards as [vital] ‘petroleum technicians.’ “
Meanwhile, Beitz secretly relayed to his Jewish acquaintances information about impending roundups and deportations. He and his wife, Else, risked their own security to hide Jews in their home.
In March 1944, Beitz was drafted by the German army, leaving the Jews in his workforce unprotected. Many were deported to Auschwitz, according to an account in the Swiss Review of World Affairs. But others escaped. Some found work at a munitions factory run by Schindler, the industrialist made famous in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.”
Beitz resumed his business career after the war. In 1953, he was hired by Krupp, who was convicted at the Nuremberg trials of using slave labor during the war and had recently been released from prison. Krupp swore off arms production and embarked on an effort to diversify the company. With Beitz as general manager, it became one of the most powerful businesses in the world.
After Krupp’s death in 1967, Beitz became executor of his will and head of the foundation that effectively controlled the company. He reportedly kept 1,000 ties in his office wardrobe.
ThyssenKrupp was formed in a merger in 1999. Beitz had retired in 1990 but remained associated with the company until his death.
“I am a businessman,” Beitz once remarked, “so what do I care about politics?”
Berthold Beitz was born Sept. 26, 1913, in Zemmin, in what was then the German Empire. The son of a bank teller, he initially worked in banking before joining Royal Dutch Shell.
Krupp’s decision to hire Beitz was part of an overarching strategy to remake the business. “I decided we should start looking for a man who did not know steel,” Krupp once said.
In the late 1950s, Beitz participated in negotiations with a Jewish organization that led to an agreement — one of the early settlements of its kind — in which the Krupp firm promised to pay 5,000 marks (then worth $1,190) to any worker who could show that he or she had been used for slave labor during the war.
His wife, Else, with whom he had three daughters, was recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2006. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.
The exact number of Jews saved by Beitz is not easily determined. Some estimates place the number as high as 800. But he remained haunted by one person whose life he could not save.
Once, he went to the railway station before a transport and recognized among the deportees one of his secretaries and her elderly mother. Beitz pulled both women from the cattle car. The SS guard, unconvinced of the older woman’s value to the company, ordered her back onto the train.
Unable to bear such a separation, the secretary turned to Mr. Beitz. “Herr Direktor, may I [also] return to the car?” she asked. She never came back.