Kidnapping Germany’s Greatest Surgeon

Benjamin B. Ferencz

January 1947 was freezing cold in Berlin. Coal was rationed for everyone, and even the Americans suffered. Early one snowy Sunday morning, I was awakened by a phone call from the U.S. Consul General in Bern, Switzerland. He reported that a member of my staff, Alfred Booth, had fallen ill while on vacation and was in a Swiss hospital in Zurich dying of cancer. The only one who could possibly save him, according to the Swiss physicians, was Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, Germany’s most famous surgeon. Frankly, I didn’t know Sauerbruch from sauerkraut but I did know Alfred Booth. He was an intellectual who had been forced to flee Germany as a political opponent of the Nazis. He had found work as a bricklayer in New York and was glad when he was able to return to Germany after the war to help prosecute Nazi industrialists. He was an excellent researcher and I valued his friendship. I would do whatever I could to try to save his life.

All I needed was to locate Sauerbruch, wherever he was; persuade him to undertake the operation; get permission to move the prominent surgeon, who was a war crimes suspect, out of East Germany; transport him as quickly as possible from his present location to the hospital in Switzerland where Alfred Booth lay dying; arrange the fastest transport humanly possible from Berlin to Switzerland; get the Swiss government to permit Sauerbruch to enter; transport the physician to the patient; have the Swiss hospital permit the German doctor to operate on the dying American; get him safely back to Berlin; and then hope for the best. The last part was easy. The rest was impossible. So I grabbed the phone and went to work. No problem.

The first mission, as I learned in the artillery, was to locate the target. I phoned the telephone operator for information. In my best broken German, I flashed the name General Taylor, and explained that it was a matter of life or death. I had to locate Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch immediately. Within a minute, I had the professor’s wife on the line. Yes, she knew where her husband was. He was operating on someone in Lichterfelder. Where’s Lichterfelder? About 20 miles outside of Berlin—in the Russian zone. I told her to get him on the phone and tell him to get ready to leave for Switzerland immediately for an emergency operation on an important American. Then, to make sure she would do as told, I explained that I would try to arrange for her to accompany her husband on the trip. That did it. No German citizens were allowed to leave the country without consent from the quadripartite Kommandatura, which would never have agreed. The prospect of a visit to Switzerland suddenly turned Frau Professor Dr. Sauerbruch from an enemy to a friend. A carrot can have more power than a stick—especially if it’s accompanied by a good Swiss meal.

The next step was to call up the reserves. I got my aide, Eugene Klein, on the phone, told him it was an emergency, and ordered him to get three military sedans from our motor pool and show up at my home immediately. I then phoned Lt. Col. Wuest, my staff army liaison man, who was just returning from church. I explained the situation briefly and told him I needed official orders authorizing a German doctor named Sauerbruch and his nurse to be transported to Switzerland on a U.S. rescue mission. “Why does everything have to happen on Sunday?” he moaned. “Do it now!” I replied. Illness knows no Sabbath. He was to report back and stand by for further orders. Rail travel through several borders would be too slow and too late. I needed an airplane. I phoned Templehof airport which was under U.S. military control. I reached the person in charge. It turned out to be a female sergeant on duty on Sunday. She confirmed that there was an empty plane on the tarmac but she had no authority to do anything, and the officer-in-charge was nowhere be found. I explained the situation, stressed that I was acting for General Taylor and we needed a plane immediately to save an American in Switzerland. “His life is in your hands.” I said. I assured her that General Taylor would vouch for her. “Count me in!” she said. She promised to find a pilot.

I still needed permission from the Swiss and some way to get Sauerbruch out of the Russian zone. Snow was on the ground and more was coming down. I phoned the Swiss Consulate in Berlin and managed to get the home phone of the Consul. His wife told me he was skiing in Berlin’s Grunewald park. Gene Klein pulled up with his fleet of three sedans. I briefed him and instructed him to find the Consul in the woods and bring him in. Then I called back to Mrs. Sauerbruch to see if she had been able to contact her famous husband. She confirmed that she had spoken to him and he was eager to accept the assignment—on condition, of course, that she could go with him. There was one slight obstacle, however. The road between Lichterfelder and Berlin was blocked by snow. There appeared to be no way we could get the doctor out.

I contacted the MPs and explained the situation to the sergeant in charge. He responded immediately. He would get a fleet of snowplows out on the road to rescue the stranded surgeon. I phoned back to Mrs. Sauerbruch. Meanwhile, her husband had phoned saying he was hitching a ride on a Russian army truck that would get him back to his hospital—which was in the Russian sector. The airport reported that because of foul weather, they might need a “command pilot” qualified to fly in a snowstorm. Lt. Col. Wuest reported that he had obtained the needed military orders. I told him to proceed to the airport. Klein called to say that he had located the Consul in the woods but no visa could be issued without the official seal so they were heading for the Consulate to pick it up. I asked him to find one of our Swiss staff members so that he would be available to help when the plane landed in Zurich. He was also to pick up Mrs. Sauerbruch on the way. We would all rendezvous at Sauerbruch’s hospital, known as the Charite, in East Berlin. I hopped into my waiting sedan and raced for our agreed assembly point.

The scene at the hospital was memorable. The doctor had just arrived, still dressed in his white medical gown. The Swiss Consul was carrying his skis in one hand and an official seal in the other. Mrs. Sauerbruch, who remembered to bring their passports with the big swastika on the cover, was busy stuffing clothes into a suitcase. A crowd of German nurses swarmed around their idol in excitement that he was going to get out of Berlin. Some cried and some cheered as I gave the order, “Let’s roll!” Our convoy, with the Stars and Stripes flying from my front fender, sped past the Russian sentries at the gate as they stood at attention and saluted. We were on the way to the U.S. airport at Templehof.

The snow was falling. The pilot was warming up the engines. I hugged the sergeant who had authorized the flight. The passengers and luggage were put on board. The flight captain asked to see the orders. Lt. Col. Wuest handed them to me. There it was: The official U.S. ARMY BERLIN HQ letterhead over a TRAVEL AUTHORIZATION. The typed in portion said that a German national named Sauerbruch and his wife were authorized to proceed by rail to Frankfurt! I thought I was going to die. I had requested flight authorization to Switzerland. Wuest explained apologetically that it was the best he could do. I folded the paper in half so that only the Letterhead and the TRAVEL AUTHORIZATION was visible. I passed it quickly under the pilot’s nose and then stuffed it into his pocket saying the snow was getting heavier, night was falling, and there was no time for delay. He agreed, and the plane took off.

It would be nice to have a happy ending to this story. But alas, life isn’t always so accommodating. Soon after the operation, Booth passed away. Sauerbruch said he had come too late. But Mr. and Mrs. Sauerbruch remained in the fanciest hotel in Zurich and lived it up for a week. If I didn’t get them back to Berlin soon, there would be a major diplomatic incident. As far as I was concerned, the Sauerbruch’s could come back by mule train. But that and rail travel was also out of the question when the French refused to grant a suspected war criminal a laissez-passer through their zone. If I didn’t get them back to Berlin soon, there might be more onerous unforeseen consequences. As a good American citizen, I did not wish to see my Government embroiled in any imbroglios—particularly if I would probably be the first victim. I therefore personally paid for the private airline tickets to bring the Sauerbruchs from Zurich to Frankfurt, and then I arranged for them to be taken by military aircraft back to Berlin.

Professor Dr. Sauerbruch was so grateful that he promptly sent a letter of appreciation to the Commanding General of the Berlin Command. He expressed regret that he had not been able to save the life of Alfred Booth who worked for the OCCWC, and he would therefore waive his normal fee for the surgery. He would however appreciate it if the U.S. Army, that had been so accommodating by providing him with a private military plane, would kindly pay his hotel bill, including the cost of several silk shirts, which amounted to about $1000. The General’s response, when he phoned me, was, “What the (expletive) is this about?” I explained that there must be some mistake and he was not to worry about it. Since it involved an OCCWC staff member, I would take care of everything. I already had pending charges for a missing Maybach limo. I didn’t need any more charges about a misappropriated airplane and a war crimes suspect snatched from under the Russians’ noses in violation of Kommandatura decrees. What next?

Even in times of adversity and sorrow, one can find a happy ending. After its passengers had been deposited in Zurich, the army plane was ordered to depart. They were back in Berlin before they were missed. A brief story in the Army paper Stars and Stripes referred to a mercy mission by the Air Force; I hoped the Air Force command hadn’t read it. Mrs. Booth, who was in New York while these events took place, was grateful for what we had tried to do to save her husband. She insisted on paying the Sauerbruch’s hotel bill, and even reimbursed me for their flight tickets back to Frankfurt. The Commanding General heard no more about the incident, and therefore neither did I. It was deliberately forgotten. What remained unforgettable for me was the fact that when a human life was at stake, everyone I approached, from the sergeant at Templehof who took it upon herself to release an army plane, to the MPs who sent snowplows out to rescue a stranded German doctor, to the pilot who was ready to fly into a storm, to the phone operators, and the staff and others, all were prepared to do whatever they could in an effort to save one human life. This true reflection of the finest in human character is worth remembering.