S.F. man reunites with German friend after 75 years

It is never too late to meet up with an old friend.

Just ask 89-year-old Gunter Ullmann, a longtime San Francisco resident who reunited with his former girlfriend this spring — 74 years after fleeing Nazi Germany.

Ullmann, then 16, bolted Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938 with his parents and brother. They ended up in Shanghai for 10 years.

Among the people he left behind was his girlfriend, Elfie Haas, nee Hübner, a Christian girl whose father, a landlord, helped the Ullmanns escape by telling German officials that there were no more Jews in his building.

Gunter Ullmann with Elfie Haas (center) and his wife, Ilse, during reunion in Germany

Thanks to the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victim Center in Washington, D.C., and the International Tracing Service, Ullmann and Haas got to see each other again during a 10-day visit in Germany in May.

Ullmann’s wife of 63 years, Ilse, and their son, Peter, flew from San Francisco to Frankfurt; Lufthansa was so touched by the story that the airline upgraded the trio’s seats. After arriving, the family drove two hours to the town where Haas lives, Schwäbisch Hall.

The old friends hadn’t heard from each other for 70 long years when, in 2008, Ullmann’s younger brother, Walter, got a phone call from the Red Cross saying that the Haas family was looking for the Ullmann family.

Haas’ son-in-law had filed a form with the Holocaust and War Victim Center in 2001 in an attempt to find Ullmann. Although some cases are solved in a matter of months, this one took seven years.

Founded in 1990, the HWVC has investigated more than 46,000 cases and has reunited 1,600 people with some form of contact. The center is staffed by one full-time employee, Sue Bornemann, who said the Ullmann-Haas reunion is a great example of what the service is about. “They were just wonderful,” Bornemann said of both families. “It was a multigenerational connection.”

After contact was made in 2008, Ullmann and Haas communicated for four years over the phone and through email before deciding to see each other face to face.

“It was very emotional,” Ullmann said of the reunion. “It brought back a lot of memories. We felt like were never apart. My wife became good friends with [Elfie] too. We had a fantastic reunion.”

Ullmann and Haas traveled to their old hometown of Mannheim, where the mayor gave them a tour of the city. Ullmann said he was impressed by how Germany had changed since World War II.

“The best part was the change of energy of the German citizens,” he said. “We were treated like royalty.”

Although he said he would never forget the past, Ullmann said it was an important visit.

“It didn’t erase our memories, of course,” Ullmann said, “but we came back [to San Francisco] with a better feeling.”

Ullmann met his wife, Ilse, during their time in Shanghai after fleeing Europe. Her family had escaped Austria just before the war.

In 1948, Ullmann and his family moved to San Francisco, where his father and other Shanghai refugees formed Conservative Congregation B’nai Emunah. Ilse moved to the city in 1949, and the two got married that year. They are still members of B’nai Emunah.

Ullmann worked as a mechanic,  then ran Zim’s restaurant in South San Francisco from 1974 to 1980 before buying it and renaming it Gunter’s. He sold it in 1999 and began volunteering with the San Francisco Visitors Center, which he still does.

Ullmann built a nice life for himself, but over the decades he often thought about his teenage girlfriend. Some 6,000 miles away, Elfie never forgot about him, either.

“She was very excited,” Ullmann said of the reunion. “We just hugged and didn’t say anything for a while.”

To see a video of the reunion and Gunter Ullmann’s story, visit www.bit.ly/NXH0uL.