Holocaust survivor Henry ‘Heinz’ Baerman lived a love story
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter December 6, 2013 10:24PM
Margrit and Henry “Heinz” Baerman
Updated: January 10, 2014 6:19AM
The love between teen-aged sweethearts Margrit and Henry “Heinz” Baerman was so powerful that he viewed their endurance of the Holocaust in a remarkable, life-affirming light.
“He always said if he wouldn’t have been in concentration camp, he wouldn’t [get to] see me,” said Margrit, whom he married 67 years ago after they survived being held by the Nazis in a Jewish ghetto and camps during World War II.
She remembers the first time she saw him, just before the war. It was at a Jewish dance in Cologne, Germany. Dressed in a natty double-breasted suit, he stood for a moment and paused in the doorway as he entered, giving her time to take him in. “He was a very nice-looking young man, and I said, ‘Who’s this’?”
After twirling around the floor together to music from a gramophone, he walked her home. Her mother liked him right away. She could see Heinz wanted to make sure 15-year-old Margrit was home before the curfew that mandated Jews be off the street by 8 p.m.
In fact, her mother had such faith in Mr. Baerman’s survival skills and his devotion to Margrit, that her last words to her daughter, as the Nazis separated them, were: “ ‘Heinz will take care of you.’ ”
During the war, Margrit risked her life to beg for his. After enduring starvation, freezing cold and beatings at a slave labor site, he was spotted standing outside the wire at the camp where she was held.
“He looked like a skeleton,” she said. To this day, she doesn’t know how she summoned the pluck, but she begged the camp commandant to allow him to stay until he was stronger. “I don’t know how I did it. I always tried to be courageous...I said, ‘Herr Commandant, please, there is a young man, he’s very, very ill, could you leave him here just a day or two?’ ”
“It was unbelievable — he gave me permission,” she said.
After liberation, it was Margrit who was in peril. “I had typhus. I was 68 pounds. It was life and death,” she said.
Mr. Baerman’s love propelled her forward. “It set me free,” she said.
When he found out last October that he had pancreatic cancer, she held him and told him he was her sweetheart. “I took care of him as good as I could,” she said, along with their son and daughter, Jeffrey and Ruth Baerman. Her 90-year-old husband lived only three weeks more. As his illness progressed, he used to shiver uncontrollably.
“I held on to him. He didn’t shiver anymore,” his wife said from her Chicago area home. “I laid him down and he looked like he was sleeping. He died with me holding him, my beloved of 67 years.”
Born in Simmern, Germany, Mr. Baerman trained as a welder, a skill that gave him some value with the Nazis.
In 1941, their families were rounded up and deported to the Jewish ghetto in Riga, Latvia, according to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where the Baermans often spoke to schoolchildren about their experiences. They also told their story at the school attended by their grandchildren, Jensine and Elliot Baerman.
Many Latvian Jews had been killed before the new arrivals from Germany. Margrit Baerman can still recall being herded into the homes of the dead. “The lights were still on. The food was still on the table,” she said. “They just had killed those people.”
Mr. Baerman remembered the first time he saw a man murdered in recorded testimony he gave in 1995 to the Institute for Visual History and Education of the USC Shoah Foundation. The Institute was founded by Steven Spielberg to document the Holocaust.
“All of a sudden one of these [Latvian] guards takes one guy out and wants to take his watch,” Mr. Baerman said, “and the guy didn’t give him the watch, and that’s the first time that I saw somebody being shot.”
In their barracks, he said, “They didn’t have any beds or anything, they just had shelves, maybe three feet in between, four or five high, and that’s where we had to crawl in...and we slept.”
“We had no sufficient clothing,” he told the Shoah Foundation. “People froze their feet, hands, noses, ears.”
A stash of garbage may have saved his life.
“There was one barrack where the SS lived, and we saw there was a kitchen and we saw that the Latvian woman that worked there, she dumped stuff into a hole,” he said. “We went there and we found bones. . . .. we chewed on the bones and that’s all that kept us going.”
“We got lice, lice, so many that sometimes they were crawling on you like you had a collar,” he said.
Mr. Baerman was shuttled between the camps Salaspils, Kaiserwald and Stutthof, then sent to Magdeburg, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, before being liberated in 1945. Margrit was held in Kaiswerwald, Stutthof and Burggraben.
At one camp, he and his friends were ordered to take a brutal beating. After tying him to a table, “They start and then you have to count. After about three or four [blows]. . . .You don’t feel anything anymore because everything is numb.”
After liberation, he heard Margrit was alive, near the German village of Neustadt in Holstein. “I wrote a postcard….addressing it to “The Oldest of the Jews in Neustadt in Holstein,” he said, saying: “I would like her to get in touch with me.”
Later, he received an answering postcard from Margrit. They reunited and wed in Germany before immigrating to Chicago. Mr. Baerman worked as a mechanic and service manager for Beverly Chrysler. His wife worked at Marshall Field’s. Last month, Chicago Jewish News commended their Holocaust education efforts, including the Baermans among the newspaper’s Jewish Chicagoans of the Year.
To the end of his days, Mr. Baerman didn’t like the taste of caraway seeds or the smell of potato peels. They reminded him of the watery, peel-and-caraway flavored soup fed to him in the camps.
Services have been held.
“He was my life,’’ his wife said. “And I was his.”