'I stood mesmerized, waiting for the crash; it never came'

Henry Wermuth, the man who tried to derail Hitler’s train, dies at 97

Awarded a medal for solo attempt to kill Nazi leader while interned in Poland in 1942, Holocaust survivor recovered from a suspected bout of COVID-19, passed away two weeks later

Henry Wermuth (screen capture: YouTube/USC Shoah Foundation)
Henry Wermuth (screen capture: YouTube/USC Shoah Foundation)

A Holocaust survivor who once attempted a solo mission to kill Germany’s Nazi wartime leader Adolf Hitler by derailing his train has died in London.

Henry Wermuth was 97 when he passed away from organ failure on May 19, the Times of London reported in an obituary. He had recently recovered from a suspected bout of COVID-19. He is survived by his wife Ilana, whom he met after the war, and their two daughters.

Wermuth was the sole survivor among his family. He eventually settled in London, where he built a successful real estate business. He was also a Holocaust educator, telling his story at schools across the UK.

He wrote his memoirs during the 1980s as well as four works of fiction.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions)

Wermuth’s most famous escapade was his attempt on Hitler’s life, for which he was awarded a medal by the German government several decades after the end of the war.

Wermuth was a 19-year-old inmate at a labor camp in Poland in 1942 when he took upon himself to change the course of history, the elderly Holocaust survivor’s daughter Ilana Metzger told The Daily Mail.

At the time, Wermuth was imprisoned, along with his father, at the Klaj ammunition camp in Poland after having been deported from Frankfurt and separated from his mother and sister. Security was not as tight as in concentration camps and he managed to befriend a disgruntled German soldier, Metzger recounted.

One day, the soldier confided in him that Hitler was scheduled to pass through the small Polish village on a train bound for the Russian front, where he was planning to visit German troops in the wake of their devastating losses in their assault on Stalingrad.

Henry Wermuth. (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust)

Unable to sleep the night before Hitler’s scheduled passage, Wermuth took advantage of the lax security to break out of the camp and escape into the woods. He made his way to the train tracks and piled logs and stones, hoping this would derail the locomotive.

The next day, Wermuth got as close as he could to the train station and managed to sneak a glimpse of Hitler.

The young would-be assassin waited anxiously as the train traveled the 2 kilometers toward the spot where he had improvised his obstacle, listening intently for the sound of the crash, but it never came. Devastated, Wermuth retreated back to the camp out of fear that he would be caught and sent to a worse fate; he never found out why his ploy failed.

“A train passed with three wagons, and in the window was a man who I recognized by the mustache as Hitler,” he told The Jewish Chronicle in 2013. “I stood there mesmerized, waiting for the crash, but it never came. Either a local farmer or someone patrolling must have removed the logs.”

While Wermuth failed to change history, he did manage to survive eight camps throughout the war, including Auschwitz. He even survived a shooting attempt by notorious concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth at Krakow-Plaszow.

Wermuth had stopped to warn two prisoners to stop talking, but Goeth, who was passing by, saw them and fired off three shots, killing a man to his right and another to his left, but narrowly missing Wermuth as he tried to catch one of the falling men and cover his wound. He might have been shot anyway, had the spraying blood not made it look like he’d been hit, according to Metzger.

When the Americans liberated the Mauthhausen concentration camp, where he was being held, in May 1945, Wermuth weighed just 33 kilograms (72 lbs) and had contracted tuberculosis. His father died of a head wound inflicted by a Nazi guard eight days before liberation. He never found out what happened to his mother and sister.

He found the fact that he was awarded a medal for his attempted assassination somewhat bizarre, telling his daughter that “at the time, they would have shot me on the spot — now they say I am a hero. It is funny how time changes things.”

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