Thursday, January 28, 2016

Remembering a Gentle Hero—Werner Ellmann

Werner Ellamann accepting the first Peace and Justice Award at the 1997 Diversity Day Festival on Woodstock Square.

Ironically I read the news in the obituaries printed yesterday, January 27, in my local newspaper the Northwest Herald.  It was Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The notice was for Werner Ellmann who had been 91 when he died in a Geneva, Illinois hospital three days earlier.  That name won’t mean much except to a handful of McHenry County locals.  But he was a friend and inspiration to me—a German born U.S. Army World War II veteran who went on to be Nazi concentration camp liberator.  That experience so deeply affected him that he spent the rest of his life dedicating himself to making sure that nothing like he horrors that he witnessed would ever happen again.  He told his story over and over to anyone who would listen—school children, church groups, civic organization, historians, and film documentarians.  He stood against discrimination and bigotry of all sorts, marching in the civil rights movement, defending local hate crime victims, organizing for peace and justice, and combating bullying of all kinds.
I last saw Werner seven or eight years ago when he was still in his vigorous 80’s.  His full head of slightly unkempt hair was going salt and pepper.  He often wore a melancholy expression but could suddenly burst out with an impish grin and chuckle.  We were sitting around a table at Starbucks in Woodstock one morning with Harold Rail.  Together they were putting together a new local non-profit named Principled Minds which had ambitious plans.  One of the first projects was an anti-bullying campaign for area public schools.  I was on hand to advise on getting 501(c)3 tax exemption status and to do volunteer publicity.  Werner was as excited by the new project as I ever saw him.  He shepherded it to functional reality and saw the program adopted by several school districts.
After that, except for a few phone conversations, different projects took us in different directions.  Then, inevitably, time took a toll on him and he left McHenry County to be closer to a son in Kane County.
Ellmann was born on February 16, 1924 Bodenwoehr, Germany in the chaotic times of hyperinflation in the post-World War I Weimar Republic.  Like many desperate Germans, his father George immigrated to the United States in the late ‘20’s.  He was able to secure work in Chicago where there was a large German community and sent for his wife and three youngest children including five year old Werner in 1929.  Hopes to bring his older two sons over were dashed by the Great Depression and nearly eight years of unemployment.  Those sons who stayed behind were both drafted into the Wehrmacht.  One was killed by an artillery shell just has he arrived for service outside Leningrad.  The other was wounded on the Eastern Front and finished the war on the Western.  Many families were similarly split.
Growing up in Chicago Ellmann witnessed the rise of the German American Bund and its influence among many of his neighbors.  But Ellmann was more drawn to the old German socialists and to the liberalism of the New Deal.   His parents were able to send him for a visit to his brothers in Germany in the summer of 1938 where the Nazis frightened and appalled him.  He became a convinced anti-fascist.
Drafted into the Army in 1942 he was trained at Camp Callan in California in anti-aircraft artillery after basic training.  He was under suspicion because he was a German native and passed over for several assignments while he apparently was being investigated.  Eventually he was cleared for service in the Pacific.  But he wanted to fight the Nazis.  After making numerous appeals and trying to convince anyone of authority who would listen that his perfect German language skills would be useful in Europe, he was finally cleared for service in the ETO.
After mountain and cold weather training at Ft. Carson, Colorado and desert training at Ft. Bliss, Texas Ellmann was finally dispatched to London early in 1944.  There he served for a while as a liaison with the British.  He would briefly be loaned to them again after finally arriving in Europe that August, three months after D-Day.  Eventually with the rank of tech sergeant, he was assigned as a translator and scout with the 11th Armor Division where he saw his first action in the long, bloody and bitter Battle of the Hürtgen Forest.  In early December he was detached for liaison duty with the 101st Airborne just in time to be trapped in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.  He survived some of the bitterest fighting of the war with no combat wounds, but with severely frostbitten feet that bothered him the rest of his life.
During the Battle of the Bulge he encountered Germans who had spent time in America and returned to the Fatherland to fight with the Nazis.  They were dressed in captured GI uniforms, armed with American weapons, and even given Jeeps and half-ton trucks.  They infiltrated the lines and disrupted operations in every way they could including capturing and killing GIs.  Ellmann and his captain scouting alone in a Jeep were stopped by two posers pretended their own vehicle was broken down.  They hopped into his rear seat.  Realizing what was happening, Ellmann slammed on his brakes sending the impostors flying out of the vehicle.  Later in a village in Luxembourg Ellmann himself was suspected of being an infiltrator and almost shot by enraged Americans.
Eventually the last German offensive was stopped, Ellmann rejoined the 11th Armor, the Army crossed the Rhine and began racing across Germany to link up with Soviet forces.

Ellmann and fellow  G.I. liberators of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in  Austria discovered these stacks of emaciated corpses in May of 1945.

On May 5, 1945 a platoon of 11 men from the 11th Armor with Ellmann in a Jeep as a forward scout arrived at the 11th at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.  As he rolled up to a stone arch gate he was startled to see “walking skeletons” coming to him.  He dismounted the Jeep and approached them asking in German who they were.  This so frightened the men that one literally dropped dead at his feet. 
No one had prepared the American troops for the sights of the concentration camps.  They were completely shocked and sickened by what they found inside the camp, including stacks of skeletal bodies, and survivors barely alive.  Worst off were the Jews who had all been marked for execution before the allies could arrive.  In slightly better condition were German political prisoners and Spanish Civil War POWs held since 1939.
Most of the guards had fled before the Americans arrived, but some S.S. officers were rounded up and marched back to the camp.  Ellmann participated in their interrogation.  Then an officer surprised him by telling them that they were free to go home.  Ten minutes after they left the officer announced that they had escaped.  They were dragged by twos and threes and camp inmates were allowed to literally “tear them to pieces” as Ellmann remembered it in an interview with Michael Hirsh for a Genocide Studies Program of the University of South Florida in 2008.
Ellmann was deeply shaken by the experience.  At first he hated all Germans for what they had done.  He was so bitter that when he was posted with occupation forces in Germany after the war that he refused to even see his grandmother and surviving older brother.  That service included serving as an interpreter for war crimes trials at Dachau and work in mufti trying to sniff out Nazis hiding in the civilian population.  On the lighter side he helped put on a G.I. musical, Hotel Rhythm and took it to bases and even to Moscow.

Ellmann found a congenial home in the first class of Roosevelt University, blessed and sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt which took great pride in welcoming all races, religions, and nationalities to its faculty and student body..  Experience there launched a lifelong commitment to Civil Rights.
Returning to Chicago in May of 1946 in his own words he stayed drunk for a year.  Not an uncommon experience.  They didn’t call it post-traumatic stress syndrome back then, but that’s what he had.  Ellmann was able to get himself together to take advantage of the new G.I. Bill of Rights.  He leapt at the opportunity to study at a brand new school, Roosevelt University which opened up on Wells Street in Downtown Chicago and soon moved into in the old Auditorium Theater Building.  He was thrilled and excited that the school was “the only one in America with no quotas.”  They took everyone—Jews, Blacks, Asians, immigrants, and lots of veterans.  Despite struggling academically in his first semesters due to his drinking, Ellmann thrived in the dynamic atmosphere, sense of adventure, and bold, leftist culture of the school.  It was there that he threw himself into the Civil Rights movement.

After finishing up at Roosevelt, Ellmann accepted a fellow veteran’s invitation to join him in California for a year off—living on unemployment in an attic apartment with a hot plate in Los Angeles.  He spent a year doing nothing much but intensive readingRussian and French literature in the original languages broken up by hitch hiking to Tijuana or Las Vegas for a bust out weekend.  It was a very Kerouac-ish sort of experience, although no one had yet invented a name for it.

In 1950 Ellmann returned to Chicago where he met Elizabeth Hagan after a short, almost whirlwind courtship they married that September.  They remained together until his death—a 66 year marriage.  Liz came to understand the night terrors that sometimes woke him up screaming.  Together they raised three sons and a daughter.

He also began some therapy to “find out why I was so messed up.”  He credited the client centered therapy developed by psychologist Carl Rogers with helping him.  In his first session he talked “95% of the time.”  When it was over he asked his female therapist why she had hardly said anything, “We’re here to help you cure yourself,” she said.  He came to grips with his shame and anger at being German, but also with “what I did” in the war, not just “what I saw.”  That meant coming to grips with having himself killed men.  Eventually that lead him to pacifism and an ardent desire the “all guns should be melted down.”

The war had shattered Ellmann’s Catholic faith.  In college and after he adopted a bitter atheism base on a hatred for a God that would allow such limitless cruelty.  Over time he would abandon that becoming a secular humanist indifferent to the existence or non-existence of God.  He believed that humans alone can act to end violence and suffering.  Late in life he described himself as something like a Deist.  He could respect any religion as long as it did not promote hatred and violence.  He collaborated comfortably with people of faith to promote shared goals.

Ellmann tried his hand at a variety of things, mostly sales before he stumbled into publishing. He started out with the McGraw-Hill trade magazine division peddling subscriptions and soon worked his way up to advertising sales eventually becoming the publisher of trade magazines.  He had a very successful and rewarding career as a publishing executive.

During the same time as his career took off, he kept up his commitment to Civil Rights causes.  Not only did march at picket, but he put his life on the line.  Once he and carloads of veteran buddies went to a South Side police station to bail out some college professors who had been attacked in an open housing demonstration.  They had been locked up with the men who attacked them.  While waiting outside the station for attorneys to arrange bail he and his friends were attacked by plain clothes police.  He was sent to the hospital where he got 28 stitches in his mouth.  He called this and other harrowing experiences “my penance.” 

Ellmann shunned the American Legion and other traditional veterans’ groups. He did join something called the American Veterans, a “very liberal group,” that sounds like a fore-runner to Vets for Peace.

In the ‘60’s he moved his family to McHenry County, settling in a semi-rural home near the city of McHenry.  

As the Vietnam War was heating up his oldest two sons were becoming eligible for the Draft.  He told them he would drive them to Canada but that he did not want them in the Army.  Both turned out to have high Draft numbers and were never called.  None-the-less Ellmann became very active in the Anti-War Movement and frequently spoke at rallies as a veteran.  About the same time he began his visits to school classrooms to tell his holocaust stories and teach tolerance and acceptance of those who are different.

Ellmann became a tireless volunteer in his adopted community, lending his time, talent, and support to a wide range of causes.  Always a believer in second chances he volunteered as a mentor to parolees.  He was the founder of McHenry County Habitat for Humanity, a board member of Pioneer Center which served developmentally disabled children and adults, and was a founding member and Vice Chair of the McHenry County Human Relations Commission.  Later he promoted projects for voters to examine the legislative voting records of their Federal and State representatives.   

I first met him through the Rev. Dan Larsen of the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock in the early ‘90’s.  Despite his professed apostasy he was out close collaborator in the Interfaith Council for Social Justice working on a number of issues including housing discrimination, immigrant rights, gun violence, and education.  In 1995 he helped us found the Peace and Justice Festival which began as an alternative event to a Ku Klux Klan rally at the McHenry County Government Center.  That event on Woodstock Square became the annual Diversity Day Festival.  In 1997 when we began awarding our annual Peace and Justice Award at the festival, Ellmann was the hands-down choice as the first recipient

After 9/11 joined and became active in the McHenry County Peace Group standing in many vigils and speaking at our rallies in Woodstock, Crystal Lake, and Harvard as well as at educational programs we co-sponsored with the McHenry County College Student Peace Network.

That’s the Werner I remember.

Ellmann's former home, Haystacks, now house the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation. in McHenry.

And there are sorts of cosmic connections.  When Ellmann built a dream home for his family on Bull Valley Road outside of McHenry, he asked the architect to evoke Claude Monet’s haystack paintings.  The roof of the house was supposed to echo those mounds and change color with shifting time and seasons.  He named his home Haystacks.  When his children grew up and he and Liz wanted to move to smaller home, he sold it to a French chef and restaurateur who opened up the elegant Haystacks Manor.  The economic crash of 2008 put that fine dining establishment out of business.  Another establishment in the same location also quickly failed.  After sitting vacant for a couple of years, the building was bought by the Woodstock Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  It is now the home to the re-named Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation which keeps alive the old name in our quarterly Haystacks Coffee Houses.  And we believe our continued dedications to the same caused of peace, civil rights, and social justice as our old friend Werner Ellmann is a suitable memorial.

A celebration of Ellmann’s life will be held sometime this spring. Meanwhile his ashes will be interred at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.  Memorials in his name can be sent to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, Illinois 60077 or to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Boulevard, Montgomery, Alabama 36104.




  1. This was beautiful and thank you for sharing. The journey of his life revealed the soul of a man committed to positive change and deep caring.

  2. Werner was my grandfather. I have always been close with him and feel a great absence at his loss. I came across your blog from a Google search and am extremely grateful as you managed to teach me things about his life that I did not know, as well as to remind me of things I did. Thank you for writing this and thank you for being the kind of person that he would want around (clearly the best kind of selfless, empowered, determined, justice seeking type).

    1. Thank you Emily! I was looking for a way to share it with the family. Werner was a special individual who always inspired me to try and be a better man.

  3. What a wonderful gift you have given to the Ellmann family Patrick, and what an incredible Grandfather you have Emily. Men (and women) like him do not come along often.

  4. The world was blessed by the presence of your father.

  5. Patrick what a wonderful blog. It brought me to tears. Thank you for honoring my father and telling his story. I will cherish the words and photos. Please join us for the celebration of his life on April 9th in Batavia Il. 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. invitations will be sent soon.
    Peace Dave Ellmann

  6. Every time I watch Werner's portion of Rex Bloomstein's documentary "Libertion" I find myself moved to tears. He comes off in the interview as a wonderful man. I once google searched his name following another year of using clips in my history class from "Liberation", and when I read his obituary in a Chicago paper about how he used his life after WWII to educate and inform others about the Holocaust and tolerance I found myself truly admiring this man. Thanks for this detailed history.