Albert Battel is a little known German military figure from World War Two, but is worth remembering. This is his story, along with a few other Germans who helped him.
Albert Battel was born in what was then part of Germany in 1891. He grew up in Breslau and studied at the Universities of Breslau and Berlin. When World War One began in 1914, Battel joined the German army. For service to his country, Battel received the prestigious Iron Cross medal for bravery. In 1925, Battel became a lawyer, working as an attorney in Breslau.
Early in the 1930’s, Battel became a supporter of Adolph Hitler and the promotion of German nationalist pride. In 1933, Battel joined the Nazi party. He then served part-time as a Lieutenant in the Wehrmacht army reserves.
In 1942, a few years after World War Two began, Battel was called up from the reserves at the age of 51. Sent to Prsemysl, Poland, Battel was assigned to the Jewish ghetto. Battel was apparently horrified by the suffering he saw within the ghetto walls.
In July 1942, the SS were sent to begin the liquidation of the Prsemysl ghetto. A bridge over a river was the only way to access the ghetto. Battel, with the support of his military commander, Max Liedtke, blocked the bridge with Wehrmacht troops armed with machine guns.
As truckloads of SS soldiers continued to advance, Battel announced that the area was under a military emergency. Despite SS protests, Battel held firm, threatening to shoot any SS men attempting to break through the blockade. The SS backed down and left.
Following the tense standoff, Liedtke sent Battel to enter the ghetto to gather Jewish families and take them to a Wehrmacht garrison nearby for their protection. More than 100 families were taken out of the ghetto by Battel.
Meanwhile, General Curt L. Freiherr von Gienanth, Wehrmacht district commander of the region, argued that the Jews of Prsemysl ghetto were needed as labor for the German war effort. He already had four thousand Jews working in armament factories. However, Gienanth’s request was overruled by the head of SS, Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler.
SS troops returned to Prsemysl the next day unopposed. They rounded up and deported more than 14,000 Jews of all ages. The Jews taken to the Wehrmacht garrison for protection were also seized. Most were shipped to the Belzec death camp.
After the incident, the SS launched an investigation regarding their obstruction from entering Prsemysl ghetto. They found that Battel had helped Jews before. Before the war, Battel had faced a party tribunal for having extended a loan to a Jewish colleague. He had also once shaken the hand of the chairman of the Prsemysl Jewish council. In a letter, Himmler vowed to have Battel expelled from the party and arrested after the war.
Battel was discharged from the Wehrmacht and for the duration of the war he remained part of the German home guard in Breslau. Near the end, the Russian army captured him. He lived in West Germany until his death in 1952. Battel wasn’t able to practice law after the war due to his former Nazi party affiliation.
Following Prsemysl, Major Liedtke was sent to the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. He was captured in 1944 and sentenced to life in prison in Russia. Liedtke died in a Soviet labor camp. General von Gienanth was forced to retire from the military.
In 1981, almost 30 years after his death, Yad Vashem recognized Battel as Righteous among the Nations. Liedtke was given the same honor in 1994. The incident at Prsemysl ghetto was the only known time that Wehrmacht regulars stood down SS troops to protect Jews.