One of the most haunting, moving stories I’ve ever reported concerned Steve Sharf.
A resident of Bloomfield Hills and a retired Chrysler executive vice president for manufacturing, Sharf in recent years has distinguished himself as a generous donor to Oakland University, Junior Achievement and other causes.
Sharf, 92, speaks English flavored with the accent of his native Germany. At first glance his story is typical. He simplified the spelling of his family name, immigrated to the U.S. in 1947, landed a job as a skilled tradesman for Ford. Later he moved to Chrysler. His dedication and talent elevated him to Chrysler’s board of directors and the highest executive ranks of the auto industry. During his automotive career, he turned into an avid, as well as full-fledged, citizen of the United States.
Amazingly, until a column was published in the Detroit Free Press several years ago, most of Sharf’s colleagues at Chrysler (and, earlier, at Ford Motor) never knew his “backstory.”
It is a horrifying yet uplifting tale of human determination. As a Jewish young man living in 1930s Berlin, Sharf decided that he wouldn’t flee the Nazi reign, that he would outlast it. Doctored papers saved Sharf from certain extermination. He survived to watch the allies pour into the Third Reich’s shattered capital in 1945. An international relief organization facilitated his refuge in the U.S.
Most German Jews who tried to survive Nazi Germany under ground weren’t so fortunate. Werner Scharff, Steve’s older brother, escaped from one Nazi concentration camp and returned to Berlin to engage in resistance activities. He was arrested and shot. Other members of Steve’s family perished in the death camps.
Last week I visited the Silent Heroes Memorial in Berlin, dedicated to the courageous WWII-era Germans and Jews who resisted Nazi persecution.
The small museum is located on Rosenthalerstrasse, amid the bustling, energetic cultural revival that has made Berlin the city one of Europe’s liveliest cities. Among the exhibits are a picture of Werner Scharff and another of the Scharff family, with a young Steve instantly recognizable among his mother, sisters and friends.
As the memorial guidebook explains, “there has been growing public interest in the life stories of people who helped Jews suffering persecution during the Nazi dictatorship.” Academic projects, as well as films such as “Schindler’s List” have documented selfless acts, inspired by a dedication to humanity that refused to be extinguished in the ocean of heartlessness and brutality engulfing it.
Among the documents portraying the rescues (and failed attempts) is a crude pamphlet distributed by Werner Scharff and his compatriots. It urged ordinary Germans to fight the Nazis, to refuse military conscription – to reclaim society in the name of morality. The pamphlets were stuffed into postboxes until Gestapo and SS finally caught up with the authors.
The global village in which we live grows smaller. German tourists today may visit Detroit and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to learn of one people’s journey from slavery to liberty. And, likewise, we Americans must make a point of stopping at Rosenthalerstrasse 39 when we are in Berlin – or check out the website – to recall the brave responses to one of humanity’s darkest chapters.