The first time the bookbinder Willi Neurath was put in custody was in November 1935 in Cologne, where the Gestapo arrested the twenty-four-year-old on charges of “high treason.” He had been active in the Communist party since his youth, but been expelled from the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and later joined one of its split-offs. Willi spent his prison term in the jails in Siegburg and Vechta as well as the Esterwegen concentration camp. According to documents in the Arolsen Archives, he was released from that facility on December 24, 1940.
A Strong Marriage
In the prison in Vechta, he had made friends with another inmate from Cologne who asked Willi to visit his wife and bring her a message when he got back home. Willi complied, and during the encounter also met his friend’s stepdaughter, Eva Pakullis. The two fell in love and married the following year. “It was a strong marriage,” Bruno Neurath-Wilson, the couple’s son, recalls. “My mother stood by her husband implicitly and worked with him in the resistance.”
Willi’s second arrest took place on April 23, 1943. Once again, his detention meant an odyssey through various penal institutions. Following several months in investigative custody in Cologne, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp and from there to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “Once my mother managed to visit him in Buchenwald without making prior arrangements,” Bruno Neurath-Wilson recounts. “She simply addressed a young Lithuanian guard in his—and her—native tongue and told him she wanted to go inside the camp to see her husband. He let her in. A few minutes later, she was standing in the command headquarters demanding to see her husband. And they actually allowed them to meet for half an hour.”
One of the Few Survivors
On October 16, 1944, Willi was sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp. From there, the Nazis transferred him and other inmates to the Cap Arcona, and he was on board when the Royal Air Force bombed it. Since he couldn’t swim, he remained on the capsized, burning vessel. On the evening after the air raid, the British brought him and the few other survivors to land in Neustadt.
What Willi Neurath didn’t know was that his wife Eva was also in Neustadt. She was working as a naval assistant and her detachment had been transferred there to escape the Red Army. Nor did she have the slightest idea that her husband was aboard the Cap Arcona. She had last received mail from him from Buchenwald. In Neustadt, lots of rumors circulated as to who was on board. On the morning after the attack, Eva set out for the beach. “Later she told us over and over about how, in retrospect, she had often asked herself what had drawn her to go down to the beach,” her son remembers. At the entrance to the town, she encountered a grimy, injured man who came straight toward her and started talking to her. It took her a while to realize it was her husband…
Marked by Persecution
The Neuraths remained in Neustadt for a few years; it was there that their two children were born. Willi worked in the municipal administration. He was active in the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and, with a number of friends, saw to the recovery of the Cap Arcona victims’ corpses and the creation of a commemorative cemetery. For two years he headed the “Political Reparations” department in the interior ministry of the state of Schleswig-Holstein and concerned himself with the fates of many victims of Nazism. That work, but also the consequences of his long, hard years of imprisonment put a burden on him, physically and mentally, a burden from which he never really recovered. “After we moved to Cologne, he was no longer politically active. His strength was depleted—both physically and ‘ideologically,’” his son reckons.
Willi Neurath died in Cologne on April 13, 1961. Bruno Neurath-Wilson has many fond memories of him. He learned a lot about his father’s persecution from his mother—Willi had never talked to his children about it. “In our living room, there was a series of four engravings on the wall,” Bruno tells us. “Motifs of cruelty, suffering, solidarity and help in the concentration camp. For us children, these images were constantly present as we were growing up—maybe they told us something about him without words.”