Anton Schmid was an electrician who owned a small radio shop in Vienna. He was drafted into the German army after the Anschluss of 1938. Little did he know, that his short military career would posthumously become a case for innate basic human decency.
Schmid found himself stationed near Vilnius in the autumn of 1941. During much of the 19th century and continuing in the 20th century until the Nazi invasion, Vilnius and Warsaw were Europe’s two pre-eminent centres of Jewish cultural, intellectual, religious and political life.
In the summer of 1941, the Nazis launched a genocidal campaign of mass murder and deportations to death camps that, in three years, systematically killed about 180,000 Jews, i.e. about 94% of the Jews living in Lithuania before World War II, the largest percentage of any country.
As a sergeant of the Wehrmacht, Schmid witnessed the herding of Jews into two ghettos and the shooting of thousands of them in nearby Ponary. In a letter to his wife, Schmid described his horror at the sight of mass murder and of “children being beaten on the way”. He related: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.”
Anton Schmid was moved by the suffering of the Jews in the Vilnius ghetto and decided to help. He managed to release Jews from jail and risked his own life by smuggling food into the ghetto. His courageous assistance involved the saving of more than 250 Jews whom he managed to hide. He also supplied material and forged papers to the Jewish underground.
Schmid was arrested in January 1942, and summarily tried before a Nazi military court on February 25. He was found guilty and executed on April 13 by the Nazis for his humanitarian acts.
If Sergeant Schmid’s acts were enormously rare, he evidently saw nothing extraordinary in them.
“I merely behaved as a human being,”
he said in his last letter to his wife. In all the hell that was breaking loose around him, he chose to stay awake, to keep his head up and his heart opened. In the midst of so much death and destruction, he found some way to value life. Schmid stood out as one of the few known German soldiers who had enough courage to do what they felt was right.
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt singled out the example of Sergeant Schmid as illustrating the lesson that “under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not.” She continued, “How utterly different everything would have been in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.”
On 16 May 1967, the Israeli government paid tribute to Sergeant Anton Schmid. Yad Vashem awarded his widow the medal Righteous Among the Nations which bears the inscription:
“Whoever saves one life – saves the world entire.”