Gerd Ehrlich, 76, escaped from Nazi Germany

July 11, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For Gerd W. Ehrlich, the painful memories and ghosts of growing up in Nazi Germany never went away.

Dr. Ehrlich, who taught political science for 18 years at Towson State University until retiring in 1983, died Tuesday of leukemia at his Towson residence. He was 76.

In "The Story of My Life," an unpublished memoir, he wrote that he and his parents -- his father a decorated World War I officer and his mother born into a respected German banking family -- were nonpracticing Jews.

That didn't keep him from being taken out of a German high school in 1938 because he was a Jew.

"Being persecuted and deprived of all human rights and dignity by the Nazis, I hated the German state," he wrote. "Having been declared 'non German' by the Nazis, I fought Nazi Germany without qualms. Yet even today, I often fight the fact that the Nazis tried to deprive me of my birthright to feel German, by declaring that I am a 'Berliner.' "

Caught by the Gestapo for violating curfew, he was sent to an "educational labor camp," at Wuhlheide, near Berlin.

There with other inmates, he was forced to work 12-hour days building a railroad yard. Beatings were frequent and living conditions made worse by overcrowded barracks and inedible slop for food.

"Only persons who themselves had been subjected to the sadistic methods -- which became even much worse as the war went on -- can believe what life in a Nazi concentration was like," he observed.

His father was released from one of the camps in 1940 and died shortly thereafter. Two years later, his mother married an old family friend and colleague of her late husband. Shortly after the marriage, the new husband was deported and disappeared.

After Dr. Ehrlich's mother and 14-year-old sister Marion were shipped to Auschwitz in 1942, where they perished, he began living an illegal life in Berlin, surviving on his wits and the support of the underground.

Armed with false papers, he frequently changed rooms and was mindful of informers, a life on the run that was often only a few steps ahead of the Gestapo.

"I walked fast and always carried a briefcase. I would go to theaters, movies and cafes. I was part of the Underground Jews," he told British Broadcasting Corp. filmmakers who produced "Love Story," a film about two women active in the underground movement.

Said the former Sibylle Gerstenberg, Dr. Ehrlich's wife of 46 years: "He was the only immediate member of his family to survive. He was very proud of being German and also the good Germans who risked their lives to give him shelter and documents."

With a friend, Dr. Ehrlich traveled to the Swiss border, where the underground gave them final instructions before beginning an escape under the cover of darkness.

Carrying his mother's copy of German poet Heine's "Lieder" and a single place setting of the family silver -- "the only mementos of my parental home that I have" -- Dr. Ehrlich crawled across a corn field on his stomach, careful not to arouse the gunfire of nearby Nazi guards.

Of his first day as a free man, he wrote: "We all felt -- and were -- liberated human beings like an awakening from a horrible nightmare."

After emigrating to New York in 1946, Dr. Ehrlich earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Idaho and a master's degree from Washington State University.

In 1949, he moved to Baltimore where he taught German at Morgan State College and later at Essex Community College.

He joined the faculty at Towson State College in 1965 and earned his Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1972.

Dr. Ehrlich frequently returned for visits to Germany, and from 1983 to 1993, was guest professor at the Universities of Cologne and Marburg.

He was interviewed in 1997 for the Shoah Visual History Foundation, sponsored by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, which records the experiences of Holocaust survivors and is part of the National Holocaust Museum's permanent collection.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Ehrlich is survived by three daughters, Marion Ehrlich of Baltimore, Susan Ehrlich of Greenville, N.C., and Corinne Ehrlich of Chestertown; and five grandchildren.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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