A 50-year tale of love, war, friends and survival

Herman Shine first saw her from a rooftop in Auschwitz.

He was an inmate and Marianne Schlesinger was a 15-year-old assigned to pick up trash from the camp.

Shine remembers seeing her from above, like a beautiful apparition wearing a yellow Star of David. When he dared speak to her during his weeks fixing the roof, she transformed from a vision to a real person — one through whom he could tell the outside world about the horrors inside Auschwitz.

After all, he and his best friend Max Drimmer didn't know if they'd ever get out.

The two men were inseparable for five long years, first as inmates in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then in Auschwitz.

Drimmer also had a vision that helped keep him alive. It was of Herta Zowe, whom he had met at a Jewish youth dance in Berlin before the war.

"I knew more about Herta than anybody," jokes Shine.

Drimmer adds: "I told him that if I survive the war, I'll marry her."

The two women, both half Jewish, survived the war in Nazi-occupied Europe. The men escaped from Auschwitz together, and both couples were married in a joint ceremony in Berlin on Feb. 17, 1946.

Neither Auschwitz nor the Gestapo, or even the cold hand of Josef Mengele himself, could keep the foursome from arriving at this week together — their 50th anniversary.

"God was with you all the way," says Herta Drimmer, expressing a sentiment that also permeates Marianne Shine's conversation.

The couples live just minutes apart: the Shines in Hillsborough and the Drimmers in Burlingame. They slip into their story with the ease of experienced tango dancers. There are elongated moments of suspense that are almost palpably painful. But there is also an underlying beauty, a comfortable flow through the familiar steps.

Max Drimmer leans his tattooed forearm on the kitchen table. The thick, black letters below his shirt sleeve are jarring, out of place in the sunny suburban kitchen among delicate coffee cups and petit fours.

But Drimmer is a man who often wears short sleeves. The war isn't something he wants to cloak in niceties. Or forget.

The story begins when Drimmer and Shine were sent to Sachsenhausen from Berlin in September 1939, both arrested as "Polish Jews" because their parents had immigrated from Poland.

When prisoners in the camp were asked to give up their utensils and belts, they knew they were about to be executed. Drimmer and Shine were part of a Jewish-organized mutiny in which prisoners attacked the guards, pushing guns out of their hands.

"The commander came and saw SS guards on the floor and said, `How can these starving Jews start a mutiny with machine guns everywhere?' We were ordered to our barracks," says Drimmer. The commander decided not to kill the Jews involved but sent 500 of them off to Auschwitz.

Almost six days later, most of the 500 Jews in the cattle car to Auschwitz had died. Shine and Drimmer survived.

When Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who performed horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners, pointed them in different directions at the gates of the camp, Drimmer risked his life to sneak into Shine's line. Neither knew it but that move meant work detail instead of the gas chamber.

"I was sentenced to death many times," Drimmer says.

As a factory worker with access to civilians, he was soon able to repay the favor to Shine.

A Polish factory worker warned Drimmer, then 22, that Auschwitz was to be liquidated, and offered to help him escape. Drimmer asked if he could bring Shine, then 20.

For 36 hours, the two hid in a 6-foot hole they dug outside the camp's fence. They walked 18 miles to their hiding place in the house of the Polish civilian, a partisan named Yosef Wrona. That's when Drimmer was finally able to write a letter to Herta back in Berlin.

"I was so happy he was alive, I had it with me all the time," she says of the letter.

But when Nazis found it in her handbag, they showed up at the secret hiding place where the men were living in a barn. Miraculously, soldiers and several dogs didn't find them. But the barn was no longer safe.

They had no place to go. Then Shine remembered a conversation with Marianne in the camp. "I got her address and put it in my head."

Because of her father's work as a lawyer for a prominent German, Marianne's family was spared the camps. Instead, they were made to clean streets and collect garbage. They were also allowed to keep a family villa 19 miles away. That's where they sent the young men to hide.

"We were in paradise. The place was full of food. We were liberated from there," Drimmer says.

After the war, the two men went back to Berlin. Both had lost their parents and most of their family members but Drimmer tracked down Herta. He whistled a tune to her window, the secret whistle of the Jewish youth group where the two had met in better times at a dance so long before.

Herta Drimmer says there are no words to describe her relief. She thought the SS had probably killed the men after finding the letter in her handbag.

She moved in with the two men in what she calls "a half-bombed-out Berlin apartment." As soon as he could, Shine rode back to Poland on top of a military train to pick up Marianne, as he had promised he would.

Both couples were married together in 1946, immigrating to the United States in 1947, where both men became contractors. They were also both active on the board of Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco, where the couples lived for many years.

The Drimmers' two sons and four grandchildren, as well as the Shines' many friends, nieces and nephews will be celebrating with them at an anniversary party. As the women confer in the kitchen, checking over the name cards and other last minute details for the event, they never seem to lose the sense that have been touched by grace.

"We celebrate now our 50th, with God's will," says Herta.