Seventy-five years ago, Gunter Ullmann and his family left the only home they knew in Germany to flee the Nazis before World War II and the Holocaust. Now, six weeks before his 90th birthday, the San Francisco resident joyfully recalled a recent reunion with an old friend on only his second visit back to his homeland.
With the help of the Red Cross, Ullmann made the 5,800-mile journey to see Elfriede Hubner, now Elfriede Haas, a neighbor and friend he had not seen since leaving the country in 1938.
Ullmann said the journey was well worth it, even if it was emotional.
“There were a lot of memories,” he said. “[Elfriede] didn’t have it easy after we left. It wasn’t their fault, it was the [German] government’s.”
At Christmas in 1938, Ullmann and his family — his parents and younger brother, Walter — packed up and left all they knew behind. They first went to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded a ship to Shanghai, China, because it was the only location accepting immigrants without visas.
In the months leading up to the departure, however, Ullmann’s life had noticeably changed because of the new German political climate.
He said when the Nazis took over Germany his father was forced to give up his successful business and they moved out of their home to an apartment. That’s where Ullmann met Hubner, a neighbor. Ullmann said Hubner, who is three months older, would play and ride bikes and go to her uncle’s movie house to watch shows for free. But when Hubner, a Christian, was forced to join Adolf Hitler’s youth army, she had to keep her distance from Ullmann, who is Jewish.
“Her father pulled me aside and told me it would be best not to have any contact,” Ullmann said. “That was in the beginning of 1938.”
But Hubner’s father still cared about his neighbors. On Nov. 9, 1938 — the “Night of Broken Glass,” when there were coordinated attacks against Jews throughout the country — Hubner’s father told the Nazi soldiers there were no Jewish families living in his building. Meanwhile, Ullmann’s father escaped down an elevator. While out for the day, he withdrew all the money he could from the bank and booked the family’s journey to China.
In China, Ullmann learned to be a car mechanic — “whether he liked it or not” — and even met the love of his life, Ilse, who had fled Austria in 1939. The couple will celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary next month.
Ullmann said he never thought he’d see his hometown or hear from his old friend again. That all changed in 2008 when his brother Walter received a phone call from the Red Cross’ Holocaust Tracing Center notifying him that Hubner was looking for the Ullmanns.
“I was very surprised,” he said.
The Red Cross began offering tracing services in 1990 after records were released from Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, said Sue Bornemann, a Holocaust tracing associate. Since then, the Red Cross has done 46,000 traces.
Bornemann said Ullmann’s story was a special one.
“It’s always nice to see really good friends reunited,” Bornemann said. “The war impacted both families. It’s a joyful thing.”