The life of Berthold Beitz is the stuff of German legend. As head of the steel giant Krupp, he played a crucial role in rebuilding postwar West Germany into an industrial powerhouse. During the Cold War he acted as an unofficial envoy between East and West, once meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for a chat that went on for 21 hours. Yet Beitz will also be remembered for his heroic efforts to save hundreds of Jews and Poles from the Nazis while stationed in Poland during World War II.
Beitz didn’t set out to join the ranks of gentile rescuers known as the “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title bestowed on him in 1973 by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said The Washington Post. “He came from a family of Nazi sympathizers, according to accounts of his life, and at the outbreak of the war was working for Royal Dutch Shell in Hamburg as an oil executive.” His experience led to his appointment as business manager of the Carpathian Oil company in the Polish town Boryslaw, in what is now Ukraine. “Many of the company’s workers were Jews.” Beitz began his rescue work out of “purely humane, moral motives,” he said, recalling that he felt compelled to act after seeing a Jewish mother “with her child in her arms being shot.”
Using his connections with Nazi officials—as well as what he described as “self-assurance” and “incredible luck”—Beitz ended up saving as many as 800 Jews. He pulled company employees and others from trains heading to the death camps, claiming they were essential to the oil field’s operation. “I chose tailors, hairdressers, and Talmudic scholars and gave them all cards as ‘petroleum technicians,’” he said. Meanwhile, Beitz and his wife risked their own lives by hiding dozens of Jews in the cellar of their family home and warning others of impending deportation, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.).
Beitz resumed his business career after the war as president of Iduna, then West Germany’s 16th largest insurance company. Using modern business methods, such as bonuses and staff competitions, he rapidly expanded the company into the nation’s third-largest insurer. “His success caught the eye of Alfried Krupp, then 45 and the sole owner of the Krupp steel company,” said The New York Times. Krupp had recently left prison after serving part of a 12-year sentence for war crimes, including using slave labor, and needed someone with a clean reputation to rebrand the business and restore a sense of purpose in its demoralized workforce. Beitz was appointed chairman in 1953, and used his unusual management approach to reorganize Krupp and regain its vast markets. “His reputation for integrity, earned during the war,” won him the confidence of Eastern European leaders, enabling him to help West Germany renew business and diplomatic ties severed by the war.
Beitz, who retired in 1990, liked to brag that he was “the last of the steel barons,” yet he never boasted about his wartime experiences, said his grandson Robert Ziff. Instead he gathered letters that he’d received from survivors and bound them in a book, which he gave to his family. He “let that do the talking,” said Ziff.