Son of a Jew was conscripted by Nazis. The rest of his life has been making good on a promise

By:  @community, 8 months ago
Comments: 7 ..


Dr. Helmut Diefenthal, photographed in his Minneapolis home on  Dec. 13, 2016, started a radiology school in Tanzania.  (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)


This New Year, Dr. Helmut Diefenthal plans to relax a little, a rare occurrence over the past century.

Diefenthal, 92, spent his younger years fighting hookworm epidemics in rural Malaysia and tuberculosis at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Even as he approaches his own centennial, his adventures cross continents.

The Minneapolis-based medical missionary took two week-long trips to Tanzania this year to proctor exams in the medical school he founded 30 years ago, and a side trip to Buenos Aires to accept a lifetime achievement award for his work in radiology.

It’s been a relatively slow year for Diefenthal, who is accustomed to a much faster pace. That’s in part because of a promise he made when he was drafted into the German army during World War II.

He was a German army medic who, by his own description, served against his will on the wrong side of history. Diefenthal understood the Nazis’ ethnic hatred better than most. He saw it up close.

He spent the decades after trying to leave a better legacy.

During an interview this month in his Longfellow neighborhood home, Diefenthal reflected on his life and service. 


As a young Berliner growing up in Hitler’s Germany, Diefenthal watched in terror while the secret police jailed his Jewish father and shut down his family’s insurance firm. His father, who was arrested twice, was released for a single reason: He was married to a Lutheran.

“He was not sent to the extermination camp,” Diefenthal said.

Given his parentage, Diefenthal’s attempts to get a medical degree were repeatedly blocked, even when friends went to pick up his exam papers for him.

“I was considered of mixed ancestry — second class,” he said. “I could study chemistry but not medicine. I had to prove my Aryan ancestry, but of course I couldn’t.”

At one point in the early 1940s, Diefenthal was forced to make a decision.

Conscripted by the German army, he could board an eastbound train to Stalingrad and help Hitler fight the Russians. Or he could face imprisonment, the continued persecution of his parents and younger brother and possibly death.

He boarded the train and made a quiet promise to the Almighty. If he survived the Russians, the Nazis, and World War II, he pledged, he would devote his life to service, and his service to God.






Flagging unavailable
Larry Hampton
link 12/30/16 05:27:40PM @larry-hampton:

A great story about a wonderful couple who have given themselves over to serving others.

Very inspiring!

Flagging unavailable
link 12/30/16 05:43:36PM @enoch:

Dear Friend Larry Hampton: We best serve G-d by serving and and all of His who want it on their terms.

Happy and Healthy New Year to You and Yours.   


Flagging unavailable
Bob Nelson
link 12/30/16 06:11:40PM @bob-nelson:

 When I read something like this, I admire the subject... and at the same time, I kinda hate the person for demonstrating so vividly my own egoism. We could do so-o-o-o much more... 

Flagging unavailable
link 12/30/16 06:19:47PM @kavika:

This story and this man is a real hero, in so many more ways than one.


Flagging unavailable
Nowhere Man
link 12/30/16 07:35:59PM @nowhere-man:

There were a lot of Jews who chose to serve in the army rather than face extermination or as an "untermenshen" eternal ridicule and abuse.

They also watched many of their elders who also served in the German Army during WWI, loyal German citizens, go to the gas chambers. The last thing they clutched were their Iron Crosses, 3rd, 2nd and 1st class, many with clusters (multiple awards) but it didn't matter to the Nazi's.

It is one of the most difficult thing to do is subvert and suppress your most cherished traditions, beliefs and what makes you who you are to survive.

That is the price if we allow bigotry to control our society.

The man is a hero.

Flagging unavailable
Perrie Halpern R.A.
link 12/31/16 12:40:00AM @perrie-halpern:

That is an amazing life's story. I can't imagine how conflicted his early part of his life must have seemed to him. To know that the loss of his father's family must have been a lot for a soul to deal with. 

Then he finds goodness in his faith and the people around him and turns evil into good. How many of us have a shot in life to be able to do that? This man is an example of how you can do that. Truly inspirational. 

Flagging unavailable

Share This

Who is online

Visitors: 42