Mormon who defied Hitler dies in Utah

Published May 10, 2010 7:15 pm
WW II» He and two fellow German church members paid for spreading the word against the Nazis.
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Karl Schnibbe was young and, he later would say, felt immortal in 1941, when he and two other Mormon lads denounced Adolf Hitler in leaflets they distributed by night around the working-class section of Hamburg.

False security is an affliction shared by youths everywhere, but these German boys faced the added terror of the guillotine or hard labor.

Busted by the Gestapo and sent to torturous prison camps -- first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets -- Schnibbe lived to age 86 before dying Sunday from complications of Parkinson's disease in Salt Lake City, the community he adopted after World War II.

His friend and pamphlet ringleader, Helmuth Huebener, was beheaded in 1942 at age 17. His other collaborator, Rudolph Wobbe, also immigrated to -- and died -- in Utah.

Schnibbe retold the horrors and courage of their ordeal many times after he resettled in Utah -- to Brigham Young University researchers who wrote several accounts of the boys' lives, to youth groups, even to Orem filmmaker Matthew Whitaker for a PBS documentary that frequently airs on KBYU. Later this year, Whitaker will retell it Hollywood-style in a feature film starring Haley Joel Osment as Huebener and Max von Sydow as the Nazi judge who sentenced the boys. The film, "Truth and Treason," is planned for release in fall 2011.

Retired BYU German professor Alan Keele, in the early 1970s, read a German magazine article about the boys. Keele looked up Schnibbe in the Salt Lake City phone book, called him for an interview and struck up a collaboration that would last through several books he wrote with BYU historians.

"He said, 'I've been waiting 25 years for this call,' " Keele said. "He knew it was an interesting story."

It goes like this: Huebener listened to British radio -- banned in Germany under threat of death -- and enlisted Schnibbe and Wobbe to wage a propaganda war telling Germans how they saw the war. Early versions were postcard-size with slogans such as "Hitler is a murderer," Keele said, and the boys moved about at night tacking them to bulletin boards, leaving them in phone booths and slipping them into pockets at opera-house cloak rooms. They kept it up through much of 1941, with the later leaflets describing the hopelessness of the German war effort based on the Third Reich's lack of oil, fights on multiple fronts and America's imminent entry.

A work colleague who Keele believes Huebener tried to recruit to the effort ratted out the trio. Huebener got death. Wobbe was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. And Schnibbe -- perhaps wise enough to stay quiet in court because, at age 18, he was the elder of the group, Keele said -- got five years.

At first, Schnibbe and Wobbe stood waist-high in cold swamps and cut peat outside Hamburg. They then moved to a camp in Poland to refurbish Messerschmitt warplanes. Schnibbe had been a painting apprentice, Keele said, so the Nazis had him paint the camouflage atop the factory.

As the Soviet army advanced westward, the Nazis marched their prisoners through the snow back to Hamburg, where Schnibbe's shorter sentence proved a curse. Wobbe wound up being liberated. But because much of Schnibbe's prison term was served by the war's final weeks, Keele said, the Nazis sent him to Czechoslovakia to train as a German

soldier. When the Soviets overran his camp there, they sent him to a Russian work post.

In all, he spent seven years in forced labor and emerged weighing less than 100 pounds and with poor night vision from malnutrition.

Tens of thousands of Mormons lived in Nazi Germany, Keele said, and they covered the political spectrum. Many of the boys' church mates kept their heads down even if they opposed the regime, he said, and their branch president was a Nazi Party member.

"The boys were more brash," he said. "As typical teenagers, they didn't think anything would happen to them."

When they were caught, Keele added, the Gestapo started coming around to church meetings to "find out what was the deal with this American sect -- did they want to overthrow the government or what?" Ultimately, the secret police were satisfied the boys acted alone.

Schnibbe's widow, Joan, said he loved America and touted its freedoms throughout the rest of his life. His second wife, she married him in 1976.

"Usually his message to young people was that they should be really proud to be Americans, and they should be really grateful for their freedoms," she said, "and then also that it's important to forgive."

Forgiveness came hard, she said, but the way he told it, he had been bitter after the war until he prayed with a German LDS Church official who told him to let it go. "He said he felt so much better letting the past be the past."

Schnibbe went on to be a detail painter in Utah, performing fancy stencil work and gold-leafing homes and public and church buildings.

Whitaker, the filmmaker who befriended him after hundreds of hours of interviews, said Schnibbe was humble.

"He would say, 'My friend Helmuth was the hero,' " Whitaker said. "Of course, I looked at it and thought all three were heroes."


Karl Schnibbe



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