Ashlander recalls Gestapo getaway

After three years of dodging the Gestapo in war-torn Berlin, Ashlander Ralph Neuman's luck had finally run out. On a train in February 1945, the Gestapo discovered his false identification. The teenage Jew was arrested, beaten, interrogated and scheduled for shipment to a death camp.

But in a few days, Neuman's luck turned around when Allied bombs tore apart the detention center where he was being held. When doors and windows were blown off, Neuman saw daylight and decided to go for it.

His sister Rita, who had turned herself in so she could be by his side, was with him. Neuman found a length of rope in a laundry room and they slid to the ground, sustaining horrible rope burns but scurrying to the home of a friend.

Within days, occupying Russians were in the city and feeding them the most delicious black bread and soup they'd ever tasted.

Neuman's harrowing tale is related in his memoir, "Memories from My Early Life in Germany 1926-1946," which is stored online at the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin.

Fed up with the anti-Semitism and disheartened by the loss of many friends and kin, Neuman emigrated in 1946, learned English, got an education at City College of New York and the University of New Mexico, and went to work as an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

His career was spent building life-support and nuclear-powered spaceship engines for a proposed flight — never taken — from an orbiting space station to Mars. It was dubbed "the bird that doesn't fly," he says, noting scientists struggled to overcome the loss of bone mass in weightlessness.

In 1966, he joined research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor in Palo Alto, Calif., and in 1987 he retired to Ashland with family members.

Not content with the rocking chair, Neuman volunteered locally for Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance, which helps Rogue Valley residents understand the complexities of Medicare and supplemental insurance. He just retired from SHIBA because of health issues.

SHIBA counselor Christine Meredith, who was mentored by Neuman, calls him "a wonderful and generous teacher (with) a range and depth of Medicare knowledge."

Another counselor, Al Hass, calls Neuman "the most gentle and soft-spoken person I ever met."

"You have to really work with people because it has a substantial deductible," Neuman says. "If you spend a little more on premiums, you save a lot of money. I helped people solve a lot of problems."

Written in a steady, matter-of-fact tone, Neuman's memoir gives a chilling account of the tightening noose of Nazism as Germany's Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and were barred from theaters, trains and buses.

As more and more people disappeared into concentration camps, thousands fled the country, but many stayed — including his widowed mother, he writes — because of pensions, reluctance to start new lives, and vain hopes it would all end soon.

"Under the Nazi regime, Jews were stripped of most of their civil rights ... the state had the power to abuse, harm and even murder the Jewish population. For somebody who has not lived under these conditions, it is unimaginable how inhumane, brutal and outright evil the Nazi regime was against those it labeled 'undesirables.' "

By February 1943, Neuman's family had been sent to do forced labor in Berlin. That ended with a summons from the Gestapo "to report for deportation."

"Without ever discussing it much in advance, the three of us decided not to comply with the order. Knowing the fate of those who had complied, it was too frightful not to opt for an alternative ... simply to disappear, to live underground. ... We had no real plan ... except that fear drove us on," Neuman writes.

Neuman, Rita and their mother fled their tiny apartment, but his mother went back to get some things and was never seen again, he writes. After the war, he learned the Gestapo had killed and buried her. He and Rita later found the grave and provided a stone.

Finally captured by the Gestapo, Neuman describes being caged with other prisoners and trying to talk with a Russian.

"He told me that this side faced a courtyard where prisoners were executed by a firing squad regularly. ... We could hear shots coming from the courtyard. The people around me looked half dead. ... A strong stench pervaded the air. Every few hours, the cages were unlocked and we were allowed to use the latrine and drink water from the only faucet.

"I took too long for the guard's liking, and he started beating me with something made of metal. ... I had nothing to drink or eat for 12 to 16 hours. In this horrible situation, if I could have found a way to end my life, I would have."

But Neuman knew the war was coming to an end and there must be hope. Oddly, they sent him to a hospital for treatment of his beating injuries.

"Although we were destined for an extermination camp, the Nazis wanted me to be healthy when I arrived there. This was utterly paradoxical. It had to do with their devilish pretense to appear humane and law-abiding toward the outside world. This way, the (prisoners) were kept in the dark about their true intentions."

It was from that detention camp that Neuman and his sister managed to escape, and they remained in hiding until the Russians liberated Berlin.

Neuman met his to-be wife, Gretel, soon after the war, and she joined him in America in 1949. They had two sons. She died in 1995, and he remarried, to Nora.

Rita also found love right after the war and came to America. She arrived here before her brother and was there to greet him when he got off the boat. She had two children and died at age 58 in 1977 in Connecticut.

At the end of his book, Neuman thanks the many people who risked their lives to save his. During shortages in the rebuilding of Germany, he sent them food packages.

"They fought against the tyranny of the Nazi regime," Neuman writes. "The Talmud says those who save one life, save the world. ... They will never be forgotten."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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