BERLIN — A Jewish World War I veteran was allegedly spared – for a while, at least – from Nazi persecution thanks to a letter that claimed Adolf Hitler wanted him protected, a German Jewish newspaper reported.
The Nazi leader ordered the genocide of all Europe's Jews but apparently wanted Ernst Hess, a judge, to be left alone because they had served in the same WWI unit and Hess had briefly been his commanding officer, said historian Susanne Mauss, who discovered the letter. It was signed by a senior member of the SS paramilitary organization and dated Aug. 19, 1940.
"It was a wonderful chance find," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday. "There had always been rumors but this was the first written reference to a protection by Hitler."
The letter was found in official archives containing files that the Nazi secret police, or Gestapo, kept on Jewish lawyers and judges. Mauss said its authenticity is corroborated by other documents, including one owned by Hess' surviving daughter Ursula.
In an article published this week in the Berlin quarterly Jewish Voice From Germany, Mauss wrote that Hess eventually lost his special protection, and was made to work as a forced laborer from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945.
After the war he turned down an offer to return to the judiciary and instead worked for the federal railways. He died in 1983.
Other members of Hess' family didn't survive the Holocaust. His sister Berta was murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp, one of six million Jews killed under Hitler's rule.
Officials at the State Archive of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the letter was found, couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Thomas Weber, a historian at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who has published on the Nazi era, said it was plausible that the letter was genuine. Weber said military records showed Hess and Hitler had indeed served in the same unit together and were both wounded during the Battle of the Somme.
But he cautioned that the letter's order "not to harass H. in any way" may not have come directly from Hitler, but rather from someone who felt it would have been the Nazi leader's wish.
Hitler's aide Fritz Wiedemann, who also served in the Bavarian Infantry Regiment during WWI, was known to have had a sympathetic ear for Jewish veterans.
"I think it's likely that this was all done by Fritz Wiedemann because he did the same in other cases involving Jewish soldiers," Weber told the AP.
"But I can't exclude that Hitler intervened (on behalf of Hess). We do know that Hitler felt very close to the veterans of his regiment," he said.
That feeling wasn't mutual, according to Ursula Hess. The 86-year-old told Jewish Voice From Germany that Hitler had no friends in the regiment and was a loner.
The paper's publisher, Rafael Seligmann, said that whether Hitler had helped protect Hess or not didn't change the Nazi leader's genocidal record.
"History won't need to be rewritten because of this," he said.