Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2012 Around the Bay Newsletter
When Gunter Ullmann fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai almost 75 years ago, he thought it was the last time he would see his childhood friend Elfriede Hubner.
With help from the Red Cross, Ullmann, a 64-year San Francisco resident and Hubner, who lives in Schwabisch Hall, a little more than one hour’s drive from where the two grew up, recently had a chance to share a lifetime worth of memories and meet each other’s extended families in Germany.
“Today is the day,” said Gunter on Mother’s Day 2012, with his passport peeking out of his shirt pocket as he waited at the airport with his wife Isle and their son Peter to board a flight to Frankfurt. “It is happening. We’ll get to know each other again, and see what the future will bring.”
The Ullmanns carried with them photos and stories to share with Hubner and her family, including photos of Gunter’s brother Walter, who died last year.
The reunion, which has been 10 years in the making, started with a tracing request placed at the American Red Cross’ Eastern Massachusetts Chapter by George Finley on behalf of Elfie, his mother-in-law.
Gunter, whose family is Jewish, fled Mannheim, Germany in 1938 for Shanghai (one of the few places that accepted immigrants without visas at the time) when he was 14. His father took the family’s savings and bought one-way boat passages after “Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass, a series of attacks against Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria on November 9 and 10, 1938.
After surviving internment camps in Shanghai, the family moved to San Francisco in 1948, where Gunter worked as a mechanic, restaurant owner, and for the last 15 years, as a volunteer tour guide at the San Francisco visitor information center in Union Square.
Gunter credits Elfie’s father, a Christian, with saving the Ullmanns’ lives. The electrician and elevator operator for their condo building, he lied when questioned by Gestapo about whether any Jews were still living there. One family account suggests that he directed the Nazi police up the stairs as Opi Ullmann, Gunter’s father, escaped down the elevator.
Elfie and her family lived in the building where the three friends were raised until September 5, 1943, when it was bombed during a British air raid. With her husband drafted to the military, a pregnant Elfie then moved to a small village near Schwäbisch Hall, where her husband’s uncle had a small house she could live in, says George. Once her husband returned unscathed from the war, the couple moved to Schwäbisch Hall in 1952.