How a young Jewish man with a talent for forgery hid in plain sight in WWII Berlin
Now playing in the US, the German-language feature film ‘The Forger’ recounts true-life story of the spirited Cioma Schönhaus, who created documents that saved hundreds of lives
Cioma Schönhaus survived the Holocaust by hiding in plain sight in Berlin.
The young Jewish man’s parents and grandmother were deported to death camps in the East, but he stayed behind thanks to an exemption allowing him to work in an armaments factory. When his job ended, he remained in the city illegally, took off his yellow star, assumed the more Germanic name Peter Schönhausen, and blended in.
Recklessly, he didn’t always keep a low profile: He joined the underground and used his graphic skills to forge passports that enabled hundreds of Jews to flee the country, thus saving their lives.
When the Gestapo closed in on Schönhaus, he forged a German Wehrmacht soldier’s identity card and holiday pass for himself and fled on a bicycle to Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Schönhaus’s extraordinary World War II story is portrayed in “The Forger,” a German-language feature film written and directed by Maggie Peren. It opened in New York on March 3 and will play in theaters in Los Angeles on March 17.
“The Forger” is based on Schönhaus’s memoir of the same name. Originally published in German in 2004, the English edition followed in 2008.
“I decided to make the film after I met Cioma in November 2013. I couldn’t get his story and love of life out of my head after reading his book. I just called him up and took the train to Basel to meet him,” Peren said.
In conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in Munich, Peren, 48, recounted that she met with Schönhaus in person four times, and was in constant contact with him by phone until he died in 2015 at age 93.
“When he died I was into the fourth or fifth draft of the film’s script,” Peren said.
“The Forger” is an intimate film, with everything seen from Schönhaus’s perspective. With his winning personality and zest for life, he mostly prevailed in the face of constant threats. His upbeat nature serves as a psychological coping mechanism, and — along with a lot of luck — gets him through the war.
Although images of Hitler appear in the film, there are no scenes of Nazi rallies, large swastika flags, roundups of Jews for deportation, or soldiers goose-stepping through the streets.
“Cioma was hiding, so it didn’t make sense to make a film that was big in scope. I wanted to reflect on Cioma’s personal world at the time. He wasn’t going to Nazi parades,” Peren said.
Rising star Louis Hofmann, 25, who puts in a highly intelligent performance as Cioma, agreed with his director’s approach.
“We’ve seen so many war films. We know those images inside and out. We don’t need any more big, cruel Nazi scenes. This film is the opposite and its tight focus works,” he said.
The film’s time frame is also limited, covering mid-1942 through early 1943. It starts at a very specific moment, and what came before is merely hinted at throughout the film. Just as would have happened in real life, in the movie the characters reveal almost nothing about themselves to one another for safety’s sake.
The film opens with 21-year-old Cioma coming home from work on the fifth day after his parents and grandmother were deported. He is alone until his friend Det Kassriel (Jonathan Berlin), whose parents were also recently deported, shows up asking if he can stay with Cioma. Det had been working in a German military uniform factory, but his exemption expired and he is now illegal. He survives by sewing for the market women in exchange for food.
Even less is known about “Gerda” (Luna Wedler), a young woman living under a false identity who exchanges sexual favors for food ration coupons to survive. Cioma develops a relationship with her, but she cuts things off when his carelessness puts her in danger.
Viewers are left to read Schönhaus’s book or do other research to fill in the blanks about him. Samson (Cioma is a diminutive nickname) Schönhaus’s parents were born in Minsk. After his father deserted from the Red Army, he and his wife moved to Berlin, where Cioma, their only child, was born in 1922. The family moved to Haifa, in what was then British Mandate Palestine in 1926, but returned to Berlin a year later.
They settled in the city’s Mitte neighborhood and owned a mineral water company, which was expropriated by the Nazi regime in 1938. Cioma was forced to abandon his studies in graphic design and art when he was made to perform forced labor in 1941.
In an interview from his new home in London (he previously lived in Cologne and Berlin), Hofmann said he fell in love with the Cioma character immediately upon reading the script.
“I felt even more so after I read Schönhaus’s memoir. He was such an extraordinary person. His story is so life-affirming. He shone so much light in a time of darkness. I tried to find that light energy in myself to play the role,” he said.
Hofmann said he never learned that Jews survived in hiding in Berlin as part of the Holocaust education he received while growing up. However, he vaguely remembered Schönhaus from watching the 2015 film “The Invisibles” about four young Jews who hid in plain sight in Berlin despite the Nazis having declared the city ‘Judenfrei’ in 1943. That film uses interviews, dramatic reenactments, archival footage, and narration to portray how Schönhaus and the others were among the 1,700 Jews who survived out of 7,000 who originally went into hiding in the capital.
Marc Limpach and Nina Gummich round out the main cast of “The Forger.” Limpach plays Franz Kaufmann. A jurist and member of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, Kaufmann, together with a woman named Helene Jacobs, ran a network that supplied forged documents to Jews in hiding. Although of Jewish origin, Kaufmann was baptized as a Protestant. He avoided deportation by being married to a Christian woman whose father was a high-ranking Nazi, and by raising his child as a Christian. In 1944 he was arrested by the Gestapo and shot to death at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Gummich plays Mrs. Peters, a young war widow and the nosey landlady of the building where the Schönhauses lived. She makes Cioma remove the corpses of Jewish neighbors who killed themselves out of despair.
“It’s up to you to remove your own kind,” she tells him.
Mrs. Peters considers herself righteous for personally selling all of the Schönhaus family’s belongings to prevent Nazi party bigwigs from benefiting from them. After much convincing, she lends Cioma her husband’s Wehrmacht identity card for a few days but refuses to do anything else for him — even refusing to give him a blanket so he doesn’t freeze in subzero temperatures.
“We Germans hold onto the narrative that there was the ‘Good German’ and ‘The Nazi.’ This simply was not the case. Antisemitism was ingrained throughout German society. Almost all Germans were like Mrs. Peters, who supported — or at least went along with — the Nazi regime and would do and say antisemitic things,” director Peren said.
Schönhaus was well aware of this and used it to blend in. In the film, Cioma speaks repeatedly about his practicing the art of “mimicry,” or taking on the negative aspects of one’s predator’s personality and behavior.
As much as Schönhaus was a glass-half-full type of person, Peren said he was traumatized on a deep level by his war experiences and feared the continued existence of antisemitism in Europe.
“He didn’t discuss that he was Jewish until he was in his late 70s. It was only then that he started talking to student groups,” Peren said.
Peren admitted that her own family was no exception to the antisemitism among average Germans. When going through her grandmother’s things, she found a postcard with Hitler’s picture on it.
According to Peren, it was important to her to make this film because the hatred of Jews in Germany never really went away, and she is concerned about the resurgence of its public expression today.
Hofmann said he wanted to be involved in “The Forger” because it differs from so many Holocaust movies that portray Jews merely as victims in the camps.
“Cioma rebelled against being stereotyped or stigmatized,” he said.
The film also attests to the fact — not widely known — that there were Jews in the German underground and that they risked their own lives to help others escape or survive under false identities.
“I hope people will remember Cioma Schönhaus’s name,” said Peren.
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