February 22, 2019

Jews Go Underground as ‘Aryans’ in ‘The Invisibles’

Alice Dwyer as Hanni Lévy. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

World War II movies frequently feature daredevil heroes with steel-trap minds, but for sheer guts and ingenuity it’s hard to beat four young Jews in “The Invisibles,” alternately titled “We Want to Live.”

The four main characters, two men and two women in their late teens and early 20s, were born and raised in Berlin. However, instead of emigrating after Hitler came to power in 1933, they stayed in their native city. When all escape routes were cut off, they went underground as German “Aryans.”

Cioma Schönhaus, a former art student, became a skilled forger, not only saving dozens of Jewish lives but also earning enough money to buy his own sailboat to paddle around Berlin’s lakes. Hanni Lévy dyed her black hair blond, spent most of her days in dark movie houses and went out in the evening posing as a bereaved German war widow. Ruth Arndt worked for a high-ranking Nazi officer who entertained his colleagues with lavish banquets, and Eugen Friede hid out with remaining German communists and socialists and joined an anti-Nazi resistance group.

My second cousin, Ernest Güenter Fontheim, was himself one of the “Invisibles,” and major segments of the movie parallel his own experiences. Before the Nazi takeover in 1933, some 180,000 Jews lived in Berlin (including my parents, sister and myself). Mainly through large-scale emigration, by 1943 the Jewish population figure was down to 7,000. In the same year, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels went even further and proudly announced that the German capital was now “Judenrein” (“cleansed of Jews”).

A number of the surviving Jews were in mixed marriages and were saved by the intercession of their gentile spouses, but most Jews went underground, and an astonishing 1,700 Jews were still alive when Russian troops conquered Berlin in the spring of 1945.

What did it take to stay alive when the slightest suspicion or slipup could lead to concentration camp internment and/or death?

Aaron Altaras as Eugen Friede. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

“The common characteristic of the ‘Invisibles’ was that they were young,” Claus Räfle, director of the film, told the Journal. “They had to make instant decisions and be able to play other characters naturally. If questioned or eyed with suspicion, they had to be able to respond in a self-assured, relaxed manner, as without a care in the world.”

Other survival factors were sheer chance, good luck and the aid of courageous German gentiles willing to risk their jobs and freedom to help Jewish strangers. Among them was Hanni Lévy (played by Alice Dwyer), who hid during daytime in movie theaters. After a while, the cashier at the theater became suspicious, but instead of turning in Levy, she offered Levy shelter and safety in her apartment.

Räfle combines a feature film, in which youthful actors re-create the young principals as the wartime activists, while the actual, now elderly survivors comment on their own stories.

Even after liberation, the surviving “Invisibles” were at risk. Germans may have been skeptical when Goebbels declared in 1943 that there were no more Jews in Berlin. However, Russian soldiers took Goebbels at his word and refused to believe the claims of the Jewish survivors by declaring firmly, “Hitler killed all the Jews.”

This predicament is dramatized in the film when a Soviet officer confronts Schöonhaus (Max Mauff) and Friede (Aaron Altaras). As the two men plead desperately for their lives, the officer demands of them, “If you are Jews, then recite the Shema Yisra’el prayer.” Sweating and stuttering, the men comply and are embraced by the Soviet officer.

My cousin recalled a similar situation. He was hiding in Berlin when Soviet troops conquered the city. He was confronted by a drunken Russian soldier. Refusing to believe that my cousin was a Jew, the soldier ordered him to stand against the wall, raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. However, the pistol chamber was empty and the soldier ordered my cousin to remain standing at the wall until he could find a new supply of bullets to reload the pistol. Ernest took off as fast as he could.

In 1947, Ernest immigrated to the United States, formalized his interest in science and embarked on a distinguished career as professor of physics at the University of Michigan. At 96, he is now retired and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and close to their two children.


“The Invisibles,” in German with English subtitles, opens Jan. 25 at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles and Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.