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Ernst Cramer: German, American, Jew

When Ernst Cramer died, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery of his hometown of Augsburg Germany, as he had wished. Ordinarily, this would seem unremarkable. But Cramer had lived through an extraordinary period of history. And, unlike most German Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he had chosen to re-emigrate and to live and work in Germany, even though he was a Jew, had been imprisoned and brutalized in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and had lost his parents and younger brother to the Holocaust.

Three children: Helene, Erwin, and Ernst Cramer sitting in grass
Helene, Erwin, and Ernst Cramer

He was born in Augsburg on January 28, 1913, the son of the merchant Martin Cramer and his wife Clara née Berberich. Clara could trace her family back through five centuries of Augsburg history; Ernst’s father was from Speyer (Palatinate) and was a wine merchant before moving to Augsburg and settling in as the owner of a cigar store. Ernst was their oldest child, followed by a daughter Helene and son Erwin.

The Cramers were a typical assimilated Jewish family; although they took part in the life of the Jewish community, they attended synagogue only on the high holidays. They were, Ernst said, “Jewish, the way their neighbors were Protestant or Catholic.”1

And, although Martin was a cigar merchant, he had especially strong ties to the cultural life of the city. After the First World War, he cofounded the Augsburg Literary Society with the poet/playwright Bertolt Brecht. This society sponsored readings and lectures by well-known authors, including Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Jakob Wassermann, Stefan Zweig and publisher Samuel Fischer. Martin also wrote poetry, played the cello, and was not only a regular subscriber to all the concerts and plays given in the city, but took the train to Munich for the big concerts and theater performances, where he was satisfied even if he could get only a standing room ticket in the hall. Ernst’s mother delighted in welcoming guests to the house, and feeding poor young theology students. Later, when the German economy crashed, Ernst’s parents sublet rooms in their home, gave up their own beds, and slept on sofas.

Martin took Ernst to his first concerts and to cultural lectures and readings, and gave him access to his large private library of German and Russian writers. Ernst thought of becoming a high school teacher, but when, as a consequence of the world economic collapse of 1929, his father’s business went bankrupt in 1930, his parents could no longer afford to keep him in school. Ernst had to withdraw from school shortly before graduation and prepare instead for a merchant’s trade.

Martin took Ernst to his first concerts and to cultural lectures and readings, and gave him access to his large private library of German and Russian writers. Ernst thought of becoming a high school teacher, but when, as a consequence of the world economic collapse of 1929, his father’s business went bankrupt in 1930, his parents could no longer afford to keep him in school. Ernst had to withdraw from school shortly before graduation and prepare instead for a merchant’s trade.

His brother Erwin was able to stay in school, and to consistently earn the highest grades in his class. He had hoped to go to the university and study physics, but in 1936 anti-Semitic laws prevented his continuing his study. He now left for Munich to train as a cabinet-maker.

Meanwhile, Ernst helped found the Bund Deutsch-Jüdischer Jugend [League of German-Jewish Youth] in 1933; this was an association for mostly assimilated Jews that was created in response to the German Aryan youth movements.


Then, in 1937, Ernst applied for entrance into a non-Zionist two-year agricultural training program for Jewish youth that had recently been established on a 567-acre plot of land in Gross Breesen, near Breslau, in what is now part of Poland. Dr. Curt Bondy, a social psychologist, was brought in to run the school, whose purpose was to teach young Jews trades that would prove valuable to them if they were to leave the country. Bondy selected the trainees based on their “intellectual and spiritual fire.”2 Ernst’s leadership role in the Bund Deutsch-Jüdischer Jugend doubtless played a strong role in his acceptance into the program.

Bondy was a charismatic and enlightened leader. He had received his doctorate from the University of Hamburg, where he had studied the German youth movement, and had served as a full professor at the university of Göttingen from 1930 to 1933. Then, when Jews were barred from the university, he had studied the youth penal code while doing hands-on reform work with youthful offenders.

Man Standing at wall with his arm up
Curt Bondy, at Gross Breessen

At Gross Breesen, Bondy conducted a rigorous and demanding program for young German Jews, girls as well as boys, between the ages of 15 and 25. But Bondy was an unusual leader, in that he nurtured his students’ spirits as well as their bodies, creating a sense of humanity and camaraderie among them. He encouraged his students to question and critique his work, as well, and he showed his willingness to accept suggestions. There were 100 students at the farm at a time; altogether, about 250 young men and women passed through the program. 

Ernst would describe this as the happiest period of his life, as one in which he lived on a protected island of humanity while surrounded by an unbelievably cruel environment. Students in the community learned the importance of teamwork, taking responsibility for their actions, and giving back to the community. And, although the Gross Breesen school was by no means the only Jewish program for training potential emigrants in farming and other trades, it was unusual in that its aims were not Zionist. Its students were being prepared for immediate emigration—in groups—to other countries in Europe, and to South America—not to Palestine. Eventually, one large group was sent to Australia; others would go to England, Kenya, and Brazil.

It was Bondy’s aim to train Gross Breesen’s students for new lives in any country that would welcome their agricultural skills. Jewish farm boys would not fit the antiSemitic stereotypes of Jews as greedy businessmen and bankers. In addition to studying the theory and practice of farming, horticulture, and animal husbandry, the students learned foreign languages and were immersed in the spiritual and cultural traditions of Germany and of Judaism. It was highly unusual for a Jewish training program in Germany to emphasize the teaching of German cultural values, but Bondy was adamant that all his students should be deeply grounded in the culture into which they had been born.

Ernst thrived and excelled in his work at Gross Breesen. He soon became one of Bondy’s chief assistants, serving as resident supervisor and writing and editing pieces for the camp newsletter. His group of students was slated to go to Brazil; when that fell through, Bondy began working on plans to gain them entry into the United States.

But in 1938 Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, intervened. On the afternoon of November 9th, German storm troopers took over the grounds of Gross Breesen, rounded up staff and students, and vandalized and destroyed the furnishings of the main house, even to using sledge hammers to destroy furniture, doors, and windows. The next day, Bondy, his male staff and faculty, and all the male students who were 18 and older were removed from the school and transported to Weimar. Ernst tried hiding out in some bushes, but someone saw him and reported him to the SS, who pulled him out and threw him in with the others.

The following hours were nightmarish. Ernst reported: “The whole horrible episode began at the [Weimar] train station, in a tunnel under the tracks. […] With ear-splitting shouts, uniformed guards threw us out of the compartments and drove us through the underpass, beating us indiscriminately with sticks. After a while, we were forced through the deserted square in front of the station into waiting trucks. After a short drive, they beat and chased us again, mockingly, this time through a much too narrow gate, over piles of rocks purposely put there, and into the camp. After having stood at attention for hours on the sodden, muddy assembly grounds, the guards assigned us to five recently built wooden barracks through which the wind blew. […] Some people lost their minds that first night. I remember the stand on which people were beaten. I saw before me the gallows, from which a prisoner swung.”3

The Gross Breesen contingent had been brought to Buchenwald, a concentration/work camp that had been established by the SS in July 1937. It was located on a hillside just five miles from Weimar, the cultural heart of Germany. They were housed in a special “Jewish” section of the camp, separate from the political prisoners who were assigned to forced labor. Instead, the SS forced the Jewish men to watch the various punishments that they meted out to those who disobeyed the slightest order: whispering to a comrade during roll call, for example, or even turning one’s head to look toward another prisoner.

As a fellow internee, Curt Bondy saw and recorded conditions at Buchenwald in great detail. “The prisoners had to sit for hours around two shipping racks and watch while various captives were flogged with different kinds of whips. During one of the first nights the storm troopers were permitted to vent their rage freely. Water was distributed in the night after a long period without any beverage. I suppose that a laxative was mixed in the water. The poor chaps who then ran out of the barracks were pitilessly tortured, shot at, strangled, and mistreated in other ways. I cannot guess how many captives died in that horrible night, but it was a considerable number.”4

The Nazis had not yet come up with the “Final Solution” of the extermination camps. Instead, the plan was to let Jews experience such terror that they would gladly leave all their goods behind and emigrate to another country. The men in the concentration camps would be released as soon as their families could submit documents demonstrating that the prisoners could, in fact, leave the country within 6 months of their release.

But this was extremely difficult to arrange, since, by then, most countries had severely reduced their immigration quotas.

In Buchenwald, the Jews were housed in windowless barracks of 2,000 men apiece; their narrow cots were built in five tiers, and they were given no blankets and no opportunity to wash. The clothing they were given was inadequate for the winter weather, and they had to march out and form ordered lines for roll call at 5:00 a.m. and again at 6:00 p.m. If there was a miscount, or someone was missing, they had to remain standing in formation until the correct number was reached. During this time the slightest infraction was punished in deliberately arbitrary fashion, often with a sharp blow to one’s back with a rifle butt, or by being punched to the ground and kicked. In one instance Cramer was beaten over the head with a block of wood. The punishment prisoners feared most was having their hands tied behind their back and being hoisted until only their toes strafed the ground.

Passport of Ernst Cramer Stamped with Nazi symbols
Ernst Cramer’s 1938 passport

Bondy had trained his men well. Unlike many of the prisoners, who were focused only on improving their own situations, the Gross Breeseners kept up a team spirit and aided one another whenever possible. Ernst now observed Curt Bondy with even more admiration than he had before: “He was our role model, and even in the concentration camp he showed us that decency and dignity are independent of what is going on around us. There, in Buchenwald, in the fall of 1938, he was our support and a tower of confident optimism not only to those of us from Gross Breesen, but to hundreds of others.”5

Ernst remained in Buchenwald for four weeks. But he and the other students from Gross Breesen were lucky, since the people who lived in a large area around their farm were now deprived of its generous supplies of fresh food, and they were suffering as a consequence. For this reason, the Gross Breesen staff and students were released and allowed to return to their work there. Paradoxically, however, they were also put under intense pressure to leave the country. Like the other men from Gross Breesen, Ernst was given a temporary passport, issued on December 22, 1938, and valid only until April 30, 1939. The validity of these passports was then extended until December 21, 1939.

Ernst spent New Year’s Eve in Augsburg with his family. His father, too, had been arrested on Kristallnacht, and had just been freed from Dachau. The family home had also been desecrated; his father’s cello had been smashed, and his mother’s porcelain destroyed, but they still rejoiced because they were all together.

In the meantime, efforts continued to get as many students as possible safely out of the country. Curt Bondy had been working for months with partners in the United States to gain entry there for one group of students. In America his main partner was William B. Thalhimer, the owner of an elite Richmond department store. Thalhimer had purchased an old tobacco plantation near Burkeville, in Nottoway County, Virginia, and come up with the plan that 25 Gross Breesen students would settle there and transform the plantation into a self-sustaining working farm. It would be many more months before Thalhimer was able, with Bondy, to work through the many hurdles placed in his way by the State Department. One hurdle was the American fear that German farmers might take away work from Americans. Another was the fear that they would fail at farming and become a burden on the State. And yet another was that they would be getting preferential treatment in the quota system. Part of the problem was resolved by promising to make the young Germans share-holders in the Thalhimer property. Another was solved by Thalhimer promising to cover any farm debts until it could become self-sufficient.

The final hurdle was the requirement that the students pass an agronomy test. The 25 students then received American visas and in August, 1939, were able to leave Germany.

Ernst was 25 when he was released from Buchenwald, 26 when he left for the States. His sister Helene had managed to get an affidavit from a distant relative, and had left for the States before Ernst did. It looked for a while as if this relative might also provide support for Ernst’s parents and for his brother Erwin, but he died, and the family’s future was uncertain. As Ernst crossed the border from Germany into Holland, he did so with very mixed feelings: “My joy over the impending end to my humiliations was overcome again and again by worry for those I was leaving behind and grief over my loss of homeland,” he said. In Germany he was leaving behind “many who had suddenly not wanted to be friends any longer,” “scholars and academicians who had readily bowed to Hitler’s racial politics and even supported them,” “Gestapo officials and anti-semitic farmhands”; in fact, “the whole environment had become hostile.” But, at the same time, he recalled “unforgettable trips into the mountains and charming hikes in the river valleys in Bavaria,” “discussions about God and the world with former companions,” “great theater evenings and memorable concerts,” “and then, my books!” Ernst left Germany with a single book in his luggage, a paperback edition of Plato’s “Symposium”; for cash he had only the ten marks allowed by German emigration officials.6

Ernst landed in New York on August 18th; on the very next day he took a Greyhound bus to his new home in Virginia. It was on this bus trip that he had an experience that shook his notions of a congenial America. He had been sitting in the rear of the bus until he reached Washington, D.C. Then he was told that he had to come and sit up front, because they were about to enter the South, and there the rear of the bus was reserved for “n-----s.” Ernst wrote: “Just a few days ago I had fled racial persecution. Now—in freedom’s promised land—I again found racism, although a less dangerous form of one, and I belonged automatically to the privileged group. I could never get used to that.”7 What Ernst did not realize at the time, is that the early Nazis had studied the Jim Crow laws of the South before adapting and applying them to the Jews in Germany.

The Virginia plantation, Hyde Farmlands, had already been greatly improved by the time Ernst arrived there. Several former Gross Breesen students had been living there for several

Man Milking Cows
Ernst Cramer, milking cows at Hyde Farmlands

months, clearing land, planting vegetables, and introducing chicken and dairy farming. By the time the current Gross Breesen students arrived, the farm had indoor plumbing and electricity. Improvements continued to be made there daily; in particular, chicken farming took off after the students planned and built ten chicken houses. Less and less tobacco was harvested; this was a relief to Ernst who, on his first day at the farm, was sent to de-louse tobacco plants under the supervision of a “bigoted, bitterly poor white family."8 By 1940 Ernst could report proudly: “Our chickens are outstanding. They have the reputation of being one of the best flocks in the State. We have Barred Rocks. […] We see the eggs to a hatchery. […] To make good use of our brooder houses, we have raised a batch of broilers, too.”9

One particularly memorable day for the Gross Breesen students was Thanksgiving Day, 1939. This was their first Thanksgiving in America, and they had all been invited to the home of Thomas and Mary Hamlin, who lived on a neighboring farm. There they enjoyed the warm hospitality of the Hamlins, ate a huge dinner, and, afterwards, gathered around the piano in the Hamlins’ large dining room and sang German songs, many of them songs dating back to youth group days. It was reported that “Ernst Cramer stood out as the jokester and general master of ceremonies, telling stories and leading the singing.” 10

Unfortunately, however, Hyde Farmlands had difficulty making ends meet. William Thalhimer put considerable funding into keeping the venture going, but, when he fell seriously ill in the winter of 1940, it became clear that things could not continue as they had.

Also there had been some friction in the Hyde Farmlands community between the Gross Breesen students and the other German Jewish refugees brought to live and work with them. That friction was alleviated when there was a reorganization of community and governance and Ernst was made farm manager.

The question of finance was not resolved so easily, since they were now too many people in the community ever to make it truly self-sustaining. William Thalhimer was forced to concede that the farm could not continue as it had, and that it must be sold off. The students were told in February that the farm was closing, but they were also assured that everything would be done to secure its members instant employment at other farms, refugee settlements and social institutions. The last residents left Hyde Farmlands in April 1941.

Curt Bondy visited the farm one last time in mid-April and toured the grounds with Ernst. “How much has changed,” he exclaimed, “how it looked when I saw Hyde Farmlands for the first time three years ago and how much will again return to the wild and fall into disrepair!”11


After supervising the closing of Hyde Farmlands, Ernst took up work at a dairy farm in Cartersville, Virginia. He did not stay there long: in September, he enrolled at Mississippi State College, in Starkville Mississippi as an agronomy student. He was given a room at the Meadow Woods Plantation home of the school’s librarian, Miss Nannie Rice. She was, for him, the embodiment of “the Southern Lady”12; she had been a leader in the women suffragist movement, and was, besides being a leader in the Mississippi library association, a writer and a poet. As a student there, Ernst earned his spending money by milking cows.

Ernst was now living in the Deep South, and it didn’t take him long to realize that he needed to control his speech. When he was invited to give an address at the college about the racial purity laws in Germany,  Ernst stated that, despite obvious differences, there were parallels between those laws and the ones governing Blacks in the States. His English professor heard this and called Ernst into his office. He was giving him an assignment, he said, to “make good the affront of last week.” He was, he said, “to write an essay about Prussia: about the East Prussian Junkers  [landed nobility], militarism, chauvinism, hostility to progress, slavish obedience, about everything that led finally to National Socialism. ‘But National Socialism is not a Prussian aberration, but a German one,’ I responded, ‘and one can’t say only bad things about Prussia’.” The professor told him that if he turned in a paper saying that, he would fail him. Ernst went home and wrote a paper in which he highlighted the negative qualities of the Prussian Junker, but in which he also pointed out that the centers of National Socialism—Munich and Nürnberg—were not in Prussia. “In short,” he said, “I repeated that National Socialism was not a Prussian evil, but rather a German one, and in Berlin, Breslau, and Königsberg there were, along with reprehensible people, unfortunately many too few splendid human beings.” Some days later, the professor called him into his office, returned his paper with an “A” grade, and told him “You have robbed me of my prejudice. I thank you for that.” Ernst commented, on recalling this episode, “I, on the other hand, had received a lesson in fairness.”13 And the professor became a friend.

All the men from Gross Breesen had been required to register for the draft. They could have put off joining the Army, since men in agriculture were given preferential delays, but Ernst insisted that he be allowed to join right away. It was “the most difficult, the most bitter decision of my life,” he said, but “could I leave to others the battle to restore freedom, justice and human dignity to my homeland? No, this was my struggle, I decided.”14

Corporal Ernst Cramer, 1943
Corporal Ernst Cramer, 1943

Ernst was not the only Gross Breesener to sign up for the Army, and they would cross paths with each other in training, and in the battle zones of Europe. Four of the 25 Hyde Farmlands men from Gross Breesen—Werner Angress, Otto August, Paul Hirsch, and Joe Loewensberg—became Ritchie Boys. Ernst Cramer did, as well. 

He was assigned to the 116th Infantry Division at Fort Meade, then to the Intelligence Section of the First Battalion Headquarters Company, where he was tasked with studying the German military organization and German conduct of the war. But, in June 1942, Ernst was suddenly pulled from Fort Meade and sent to a farm labor camp in Minnesota. This was all part of a misunderstanding. Two German submarines had carried eight saboteurs to the East Coast, and two of them had met up with a man named “Cramer.” Fortunately, the matter was cleared up in July, when the real Cramer—Anthony (Anton) Cramer—was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the enemy. Anthony Cramer was tried and sentenced to 45 years in prison; Ernst was freed from the labor camp and returned to regular army service. And he was promoted to corporal.

Oddly enough, another military snafu seems to have occurred when, before he was assigned to specialized intelligence service, Ernst was sent to Stanford University to study German(!). Since his teacher was Hungarian, Ernst ended up teaching the class himself. Finally, in January 1944, he was called to Camp Sharpe, where he had been hand picked for a special training program in psychological warfare.

This program was held at Camp Ritchie’s highly secret sub-camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There, at the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield from 1863, four Mobile Radio Training Companies, or MRBCs were training in all aspects of psychological warfare.

At Camp Sharpe Ernst came under the tutelage of Lieutenant Hans Habe, a veteran of the African and Italian campaigns. In his first interview with his new instructor, Ernst was startled by Habe’s first question to him.  “Your papers say that you are a volunteer,” he said, adding, “Why?

“This was the first time a superior had asked me this question. ‘A German-born Jew stands before you,’ I finally answered. ‘Isn’t that reason enough?’ ‘I understand perfectly,’ Hans Habe responded, suddenly switching from English into German.” A long conversation ensued, in which Habe told of his own voluntary service—and prison camp experiences—in France. Then Habe asked again: “I never was a German citizen. But what’s it like to fight against one’s old fatherland?” “We conversed for a long time,” Ernst said, “and this conversation was the basis of a friendship that endured. He accepted my program of wanting to fight against Germany for Germany’s sake.”15

Habe’s training course was extremely rigorous, and included lessons in monitoring radio broadcasts, writing news reports, interrogating German and French prisoners, making direct spoken appeals to the enemy (“hog calling”), and preparing pamphlets for distribution across enemy lines. The men were required to memorize all the publications that were produced by the Axis countries, including the names of the editors and the exact political orientation of each; to memorize the names and political views of all the German politicians, military leaders, and cultural figures; to learn all the events that had led to the present crisis and those held by the Nazis since the outbreak of the war.

There was, however, some limited time for recreation. When one of the radio technicians who had helped install a 200-foot antenna tower on the Camp Ritchie grounds, taunted the students in Habe’s training program by saying that none of them would dare to climb it, Ernst took up the challenge and climbed all the way to the top in return for a case of beer.

In May 1944 Ernst shipped out with the 3rd Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company for Britain, where the men underwent further specialized training in prisoner interrogation in partnership with British troops. Here, as in the States, they were instructed, again and again, on the need to treat prisoners humanely, even prisoners from the dreaded SS. The men also received their unit assignments. Ernst was to work with the American Third Army, under General George S. Patton.

On June 9th, three days after D-Day, Ernst landed on Omaha Beach. His first 24 hours on French soil were somewhat surreal: “I am not one of the heroes. […] We came ashore, and there was a horrible double noise. First the firing from the Allied side, from the ships, and then from the German side, a terrible and endless roar. And then there was something [almost] louder. This was milk country, and the cows had not been milked for three days. […] So, for the first 24 hours of my liberation service, I freed the cows from the agony that they have when they have not been milked on time.” It was an exhilarating experience: “As soon as the pressure in their udders let up they ceased bellowing and thanked me with a gentle: ‘Moo!’ ” […] The milk flowed into the steel helmets of my comrades; in the field kitchen it was then worked into unexpected treats. Instead of bringing human beings freedom, as I’d expected, my campaign began by freeing cows from their pain. I have never regretted that.”16

Soon enough Ernst was interrogating German POWs, and, as was inevitable, he interrogated an SS officer. “Everything went normally,” he reported. “He refused to say anything useful. But I noticed from the little that he did say that his accent came from the Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinate) region of Germany, and when I began talking to him about his Heimat [homeland], he opened up. At the end he asked me quite openly: ‘Why are you treating me so fairly?’ I told him: ‘Because I was brought up differently from the way you were.’ ” Cramer had nothing but admiration for the interrogation techniques he had learned at Camp Sharpe, remarking, ”Respect for prisoners was a noble part of American army rule in those days.”17

During that year of active fighting, Ernst’s duties were not restricted to interrogation; he also wrote some of the propaganda pamphlets that were fired directly into enemy lines and, at one point, he even took a turn at “hog calling.” It was a situation in which a pocket of the German Wehrmacht was surrounded by Americans. Instead of merely using his microphone to proclaim the senselessness of further fighting, Ernst reached into a postbag of undelivered German letters, retrieved several love letters that he found there, and simply read them aloud over the microphone. Not only did the Germans surrender, some were crying as they did so.18 It was probably this action that earned him his Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre.

As long as he was on French soil, Ernst felt the same way about the war as the American-born soldiers did: he had a job to do, and he did it. He made his way across France and was with the troops who freed Luxembourg. But his attitude changed when he entered Germany. He crossed over at Bitburg, a “dead city” that had been 85% destroyed by Allied bombings on Christmas Eve, 1944. As he continued through Bavaria, he was passing through towns and cities that he had known and that were now being reduced to ruins.  He even returned to Buchenwald two days after it was liberated by the Americans, saw the piles of corpses and, perhaps even worse, emaciated survivors who no longer looked even human. “What I found there was much more horrible than anything I had experienced seven years earlier,” he reported.19 The war was rapidly drawing to a close, and Ernst had been asked whether or not he wished to join the American military occupational government when his stint as a soldier was over. It was the sight of Buchenwald that convinced him to do so.

Ernst also experienced the aftermath of the battle for Nuremberg in mid-April 1945, as fire still raged in the old city center and destroyed the home of 16th-century artist Albrecht Dürer. The dichotomy of Nuremberg—epitomized, on the one hand, by the huge Congress Hall and rallying grounds designed especially for  Nazi party rallies, and, on the other, by “old” Nüremberg, home to the artist Dürer, the composer Johann Pachelbel, and the troubadour Hans Sachs—was the same as that he’d experienced in Buchenwald, where political prisoners were held next to the town of Weimar, which had been home to Germany’s two greatest poets, Goethe and Schiller.

Having now witnessed the destruction of his homeland, Ernst had a vision of the future: “I had the dream that from this ruined land a land would arise like the one it had once been: a country that one could actually love.”20

Ironically, Ernst was in his hometown of Augsburg on the day that Germany surrendered to the Allied forces. There, too, much of the old city lay in ruin. But Ernst was particularly eager to learn whatever he could about the fate of his parents and his younger brother. 

He found the old family cook who had bucked the country’s anti-Semitic laws and remained loyal to the Cramer family throughout the Nazi years. She had managed to smuggle food to them throughout this period, and bring them news of their friends in the city. Ernst learned that, in 1942, his parents and brother had been seized, prodded onto a bus with other Jews, and driven away. The cook could not tell them what had happened to them after they had left the city. But she could tell him that the last thing Erwin had called to her, as he had been forced into the truck, was “Pray for us.” And she found a 5-line poem that Martin Cramer had composed and left behind on a table: “The song is finished. / True, the melodies still ring softly in the house. / But it is over. / The song is finished.”21

a man and woman standing next to each other.
Ernst Cramer reunited with the family cook, 1945

Over 50 years later, when the city of Augsburg dedicated a memorial to Augsburg’s Jewish Holocaust Victims, Ernst would give the keynote speech, and remind the citizens who gathered there: “Naturally there were […] those—here in Augsburg as well as everyplace in Germany—who were opposed, who did not collaborate, who tried to help, who even offered resistance. But they were just far too few. The majority turned their backs. Enough were active participants and took part in the injustice […]. The policemen that picked up my parents and my brother from their home in the Maximilianstrasse on Maundy Thursday 1942 were Augsburgers. The bus driver who drove them to some railroad track or other was an Augsburger. The men who then shoved them into compartments of railroad cars in Munich, and who later prodded them into boxcars were Germans.”22

Fortunately, Ernst found some exemplary people in Augsburg. In addition to Clothilde, the old family cook, he was especially impressed by two old women who had continued to tend the Jewish cemetery throughout the war.

The aims of America’s Information Control Division of the Military Government for Bavaria coincided nicely with Ernst’s own aims: to work to reinstate German-led media under German control. Ernst was first assigned to Augsburg, then Würzburg, where he interviewed people for possible reinstatement in their old media positions—in theater, music, film, radio, press, and publications. If they passed muster, he forwarded their applications to the headquarters of the Military Government in Munich for final approval or disapproval of their applications for reinstatement. In June 1946 he took over this latter task in Munich, by supervising all licensing and checking on the applicants’ political clearances.

In a letter to the old Gross Breeseners, he explained his present position and his agreement with American policy. “I have been thinking a lot about the functions that we may play in the reconstruction of Europe,” he wrote. “Somehow it must be limited; reconstruction must come from within, from the people of the different countries and not from outsiders, no matter how qualified they may be. Our job can only be an advisory one.” This was because “we do not belong to them [the Germans] anymore; this war more than anything else has made us a part of this other world, to which the Germans may come some day, but only by their own will and efforts.”23  Ernst worked tirelessly as part of that transition; he also downplayed his American citizenship and positioned himself as exemplary of the “new German.” In January 1948 he left the Army as a Captain to become managing editor of Die Neue Zeitung [The New Newspaper]. Ernst’s Camp Sharpe instructor, Hans Habe, had brought this newspaper to fruition in October 1945 “an American newspaper for the German population.” Habe and his successor Hans Wallenberg (former member of the 1st MRBC) struggled to produce a model newspaper that made it the most widely read newspaper in Germany, by merging some features of American newspapers, such as an editorial/op ed page, with the essays and short literary works (feuilletons) common to German papers. It had been a struggle to convince American authorities to allow German writers into its pages, and had succeeded only by Habe’s agreeing to include a high percentage of American writers as well.

Man looking at camera
Ernst Cramer, 1948

By 1948, however, the situation had worsened. The US press service had been taken over by the State Department, which was now demanding a strong Cold War stance in its pages and total American control. Ernst was strongly anti-Communist himself, but he also believed in a German press under licensed German control. At Die Neue Zeitung he had the unhappy task of trying to mediate between the American State Department censors and the German editors. Fortunately, with the return of Hans Wallenberg, the situation gradually softened, and in May 1949, the Allied occupation of Germany ceased. Ernst remained at Die Neue Zeitung until September 1953, when its operations in Frankfurt closed down, and, beginning in 1951 wrote frequent columns for it.

He also established a home life. On October 14, 1948, he married Marianne Untermayer in Munich and lived there with her until 1951. Marianne was also from Augsburg. Ernst had already known her in her childhood. She had managed to emigrate to the States in the spring of 1938; her parents and brother had also been able to leave for the States and were now living in Pueblo Colorado. When it became clear that the days of Die Neue Zeitung were numbered, Ernst and Marianne came to the States in the summer of 1951 to explore the possibility of moving there some time in the future. It was in part a nostalgic trip: Ernst made a return visit to Mississippi State University and spent the weekend there with his old landlady Nannie Rice. Later, while he was staying with Marianne’s family, he told people in Pueblo that he was thinking of moving there and becoming a farmer.

Outside, the Cold War was raging. Germany was now essentially two nations: East Germany, under the domination of the Soviet Union, and West Germany, now a free country with Konrad Adenauer serving as its freely elected German chancellor. Independent German newspapers now rivaled Die Neue Zeitung in quality and in subscription numbers. The Marshall Plan had been effective in making it possible for West Germany to make a surprisingly rapid recovery from the ruins of the war.

America, too, was changing. In the 1951 elections a Republican candidate, Dwight David Eisenhower, won the presidency and ended twenty years of dominance by the Democratic party. America had achieved a high standard of living, and many were living the American dream. But there were signs of trouble. America was engaged in the Korean War. Anti-Communist tensions were high, with Senator Joseph McCarthy of the House Un-American Activities Committee accusing entertainment figures, academicians, and politicians of having ties to Communism. Some of Ernst’s Camp Sharpe classmates, including Hans Habe and Stefan Heym, had returned to live in Europe.

Given the political situation, and Ernst’s strong desire  to maintain and strengthen ties between the United States and Germany, it was only natural that he began writing articles for the Colorado newspapers and, when he returned to Germany that fall, increasing his journalistic output in Die Neue Zeitung. His focus now was on the social and political situation in the United States. He was also giving more and more public talks.

Ernst Cramer saying something to Axel Springer
Ernst Cramer and Axel Springer, ca 1970

In October 1953 Ernst gave a self-described “swan song” speech from Germany, appropriately in the new America House in Augsburg. His topic: “German and the United States: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” reminding his compatriots of America’s generosity with the Marshall Plan and the hope that the West Europeans, with America, would work together to present a further war. And, in the spring of 1954, he and his family were indeed living in the United States, where he took a sales with United Press news agency, while looking for work as a journalist.

Late in 1956 United Press sent Ernst back to Europe, so the whole family left the United States and moved back to Frankfurt, Germany. From there Ernst covered Germany and Eastern Europe, looking for markets for the agency’s news stories. He worked for United Press until 1958. 

It was while working for United Press that Ernst became acquainted with Axel Springer, founder of Germany’s largest publishing firm. After Curt Bondy, Axel Springer became the most important influence in his life.

According to Ernst, their partnership began with an argument: “At the suggestion of a mutual friend, I met the 45-year-old in December 1957 in his office in Hamburg. He had just returned from his first trip to America. Obviously he had met the wrong people there. He was horrified by the circumstances apparently at force there, spoke about the necessity of stemming ‘dangerous’ American influences and sought the possibility of a ‘third’ way, independent of both the Soviet Union and the USA. I contradicted him, politely of course, but still quite firmly. We both got rather loud. When we separated I thought we would never see each other again.” Instead Springer summoned Ernst back to his office the very next day.

Springer offered Ernst the position of business editor in the chief editorial office of his newspaper Die Welt; this paper had been created for the British occupational zone in 1946 and purchased by Springer in 1953. It was the flagship of the Springer publishing group. When Ernst said that he wouldn’t change his mind about the necessity of close American/German cooperation, Springer replied “I know that. I have enough ‘Yes-men’ in my firm. But I am looking for people who stick to their own opinion.”24

Ernst accepted the position and rose rapidly in the hierarchy of Springer’s media empire to become Springer’s right-hand man, accompanying him on his business travels, including trips to the US and to Israel. He served as Springer’s confidant and advisor, and published opinion pieces regularly, not only in the prestigious Die Welt, but in Springer’s more popular—and sensational —tabloid Das Bild. Some of his articles were published in the United States. Despite the scandal often associated with the Springer empire, and the papers’ gradual drift to the right, Ernst maintained his own stance as “moderate conservative,” and as a staunch supporter and mediator between Germany, the United States, and Israel. He admired Springer’s strong pro-Jewish stance and his firm faith in German reunification, despite the opinion of most Germans that reunification was a hopeless utopian dream. In his articles Cramer supported Springer’s views by arguing forcefully for a strong union of Western European nations with the US, and against the violence and chaos that rocked western Germany during the late 60s and early 70s. But where Axel Springer was a provocateur; Ernst was a Holocaust survivor who constantly reminded his fellow Germans of Germany’s criminal past and of the necessity to prevent fascism and anti-Semitism from rising again in postwar Germany.

He was especially dismayed to witness the violence perpetrated by members of the Communist-oriented Red Army Faction [RAF], or Baader Meinhof group, in West Germany. In 1968 they had firebombed a Frankfurt department store in protest of  public indifference to the Viet Nam War. In May 1972, they bombed the Springer office building in Hamburg, injuring 23 employees. And in 1977 they kidnapped the German business executive—and former SS officer—Hanns Martin Schleyer as leverage in their demands that 11 RAF members be released from prison. When news came that four of these leaders had been found dead in their cells, Schleyer was murdered.

Cramer applauded the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists, but he was, at the same time, appalled to see a new generation of Germans resorting to the same violent tactics that had marked the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. But, he wrote, “this is less a matter of coping with the past than of clarifying our future. We must investigate, calmly and dispassionately, what mistakes were made, no matter by whom, that allowed young people to become criminals in the first place. And from that we must learn what can be done better.”25

One of Ernst’s greatest strengths lay in his ability to mediate between seemingly intractable adversaries through reason rather than emotion. In one notable situation, an order of Carmelite nuns established a convent on the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp, in a rundown warehouse that had been used for storage of the Cyclon-B gas used for the murder of the camp’s prisoners. The Jews raised a furor over this sacrilege, while Catholics—including Warsaw’s archbishop, Cardinal Józef Glemp—accused the Jews of “placing themselves above others” in objecting to the nuns’ efforts to memorialize the Holocaust. Ernst wrote: “Fully unexpectedly, the different views of Catholics and Jews about how to memorialize the dead [has come] into conflict. Places of sorrow, of unhappiness, of death, challenge Christians to prayer. For centuries memorial stones, shrines and houses of worship have been established in such places. But for Jews, with the exception of mourning and burial rituals, no religious activities are supposed to occur in a place of death.” He drew the obvious conclusion. The majority of those murdered at Auschwitz were Jews, and, for them, the “the whole camp area is the great cemetery of the Holocaust. No convent should stand on this cemetery.”26

Ernst Cramer with Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan
Ernst Cramer with Nancy and President Ronald Reagan at the Springer Building in Berlin, 1990

Even though he devoted his life to fostering close relations between Germany and America and between Germany and Israel, Ernst never hesitated in criticizing actions these countries took that he thought were wrong. He was especially demanding of Israel, saying that it, as a Jewish nation, must show more humanity and compassion than other nations in dealing with its foes. He defended the rights of Moslems to practice their religion freely in the West, and criticized America’s gullibility in relations with the Soviet Union. 

When the Wall was built between the eastern and western parts of the city in August 1961, Axel Springer, ever the provocateur, built a 22-story building in the middle of West Berlin, flush against this new-built barrier to reunification. Ernst would move his office there in 1966, and remain working there for the rest of his career. Starting in 1969 he became director of Springer’s publishing office, and in October 1981 co-publisher of the weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag. From 1988 to 1999 he served as chair of the Axel Springer Foundation.

Ernst was on site when, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall opened up to the West. It was, he said “a German event that I had aimed for with all my heart. When the people climbed over the Wall, I must admit, I stood there with tears in my eyes.”27 Ironically the fall of the Wall occurred on the exact same day as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, 51 years earlier.

Man and woman having a conversation
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ernst Cramer at a memorial program marking the 70th anniversary of “Kristallnacht,” 2008

Throughout his life, Ernst remained true to his principles and to his friends. Up until the day Curt Bondy died, Bondy was a frequent dinner guest at the Cramer home. Ernst continued to help produce occasional Gross Breesen newsletters up until 2003, helped organize a Gross Breesen trip to Israel in 1986 and several Gross Breesen reunions in the United States. On every birthday and death day of his mentor Axel Springer, who had died in 1985, Ernst visited the cemetery and lay a stone upon his gravestone. 

As for his own death, Ernst was adamant that there be no ceremony and that no memorial services be held by any of the organizations of which he’d been a part. As he put it: “ ‘No funeral’ is my last, grateful, melancholic gesture of reverence to my parents and my brother, for whom there was not only no funeral, but no burial, no resting place, no grave; indeed, for whose murder I was inadvertently partially guilty, since I had believed for too long that that horrible thing, that mass murder, could not be possible in Germany.”28

Germany respected his wishes. But it had also recognized his achievements while he was still alive. On January 27, 2006, he had the honor of addressing the German Bundestag [Parliament] on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He was awarded the highest civilian award that nation could give: the great Federal Cross of Merit with Star and Band. He received the Order of Merit both from the State of Bavaria and from the city of Berlin, was made an honorary citizen of the city of Augsburg, and was awarded the Heinz-Galinski-Prize by the Jewish Community of Berlin. Israel recognized him by giving him an honorary doctorate from the Bar Ilan University and making him an honorary fellow there. In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science. And, in the States, he was awarded the Leo-Baeck medal by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

Lasting tribute was also provided by the creation, in 2008, of an “Ernst Cramer Award” by the American Jewish Committee to honor those who promote German-American Jewish understanding, while a second “Ernst Cramer Award” was established in 2013 by the German-Israeli Association in Berlin to recognize individuals or institutions that further German-Israeli understanding. In this fashion Ernst’s loyalties to Germany, to the United States, and to the people of Israel continue to be recognized as a worthy goal. The German-Israeli award features a porcelain medal that shows Cramer, in silhouette, with words that motivated his actions throughout his lifetime: “Shared remembrance creates a shared future.”


Beverly Driver Eddy

March 2024


  1. Lars-Broder Keil, Sven Felix Kellerhof, eds. “Ich gehöre hierhin.” Remigration and Reeducation: Wie der Publizist Ernst Cramer für die Demokratisierung Deutschlands stritt. Munich: Allitera Varlag, 2020, 19. Most of the biographical information in this essay comes from this book. I have translated all the statements that I cite from it.

  2. Robert H. Gillette, The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer & A Rescue from Nazi Germany, Charleston: The History Press, 2011, 58.

  3. Ernst Cramer, Der Rundbrief, I, 572. Cited in The Virginia Plan, 65-65.

  4. Curt Bondy, “Problems of Internment Camps,” Testament of Survivors, (Rundbriefe). Cited in The Virginia Plan, 65.

  5. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 38.

  6. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 41.

  7. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 42.

  8. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 42.

  9. The Virginia Plan, 153.

  10. The Virginia Plan, 133.

  11. Gross Breesen Letter 10 (May 1941),

  12. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 48.

  13. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 45.

  14. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 46, 47.

  15. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 52-53.

  16. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 188, 54.

  17. Ernst Cramer, “How we interrogated the SS,” The Telegraph, 16 May 2004.

  18. James P. Pinkerton, “Man looks to world’s future through German-Jewish-American eyes,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, NJ), 5 July, 1999, 7.

  19. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 189.

  20.  “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 60.

  21. Cited in “Around the Jewish World: Germany’s Past and Future Reflected in Honor for German Jewish Journalist,” JTA, The Global Jewish News Source, 17 Oct. 2003.

  22. Ernst Cramer, “Address for the Convocation of a Memorial Tablet for the Jewish Victims of Nazism from Augsburg.” Delivered in the Golden Hall of the Augsburg City Hall on July 9, 2001.

  23. Gross Breesen Letter 15 (Sept. 1945).

  24. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 123.

  25. “Ich gehöre hierhin”, 150.

  26. Ernst Cramer, “Convent should go,” The Peninsula Times Tribune (Palo Alto, CA), 25 Sept. 1989, 13.

  27. Mathias Döpfner, “Ein Mann, der mit 92 Jahren zu googeln begann,” Die Welt, 19 Jan. 2010.

  28. Mathias Döpfner, “Ein Mann, der mit 92 Jahren zu googeln begann,” Die Welt, 19 Jan. 2010.

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