Escaping the Holocaust in the Circus


In Europe, circuses used to travel across national borders, spending weeks moving through forests and little-used trails, and then set up shop in small villages. During the direst parts of World War II, villagers would flock to see the circus–especially in Germany. “Even during the Third Reich, a traveling circus meant a diversion from the daily drudgery of work and a glimpse into another, more glamorous way of life,” writes Sonja Herbert, a German writer.

Adolf Althoff was the ringmaster of one such traveling circus. After Kristallnacht, a young dancer, Irene Danner, asked if she could hide with the circus–she was half Jewish, and had a feeling that bad things were on the way. Althoff took her on. Soon, she’d entered a serious relationship with one of the clowns. They couldn’t legally get married, since she was Jewish according to German law and he was not, but the relationship became serious. They had a child, and then another. After the Nazis deported Danner’s grandmother in 1943, four other members of Danner’s family hid with the circus.

Only once during that time did the Nazis give the circus more than a cursory inspection. However, according to Yad Vashem, “the wily circus director knew how to distract the Gestapo officers’ attention with a drink or two, giving the illegals extra time to disappear.” In 1995, Althoff and his wife were recognized as Righteous Gentiles. You can read their entire story, including firsthand accounts from both Althoff and Irene Danner, on Yad Vashem’s website.

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