San Mateo man escaped from Auschwitz — his story is on film

At least 1.3 million people were sent there. More than 1 million died there. But fewer than 200 prisoners escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex.

Herman Shine was one of them.

The 92-year-old San Mateo resident has led an extraordinary life. He and his best friend and fellow escapee, the late Max Drimmer, told their story in the 2001 documentary “Escape from Auschwitz: Portrait of a Friendship.”

It included details of their childhood friendship in Berlin, deportation to the Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz camps, a daring escape and months in hiding in Poland before ultimate redemption in America.

The documentary aired 14 years ago on San Mateo PBS station KCSM, but had languished since then. That’s about to change, as KCSM will rebroadcast the 56-minute film at 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 15 to commemorate Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In addition, Shine will meet with the S.F.-based consul general of Germany on April 16.

That meeting is one show of respect for a true survivor, but reaching new generations with the documentary — now updated with additional material — means a lot to Shine.

Herman Shine

“It was 70 years ago, but it’s still on the mind,” he said of his ordeal. “We are the last of the survivors. The Jewish people went through a lot in history, but the Holocaust is something so horrible, it should be spoken of and read about by everyone.”

Getting the film updated and shown again came about thanks to the efforts of Palo Alto attorney and Jewish community activist Oscar Rosenbloom, who met Shine in 2011.

Shine invited him to watch the film, and Rosenbloom was so taken by it, he organized a screening at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. The screening, atwhich Shine and Drimmer appeared in person, was held to commemorate Kristallnacht, the notorious November 1938 “Night of Broken Glass” when Nazi thugs rampaged across Germany, looting Jewish-owned shops, torching synagogues and assaulting thousands of Jews.

“To my amazement we drew 300 people,” Rosenbloom recalled of the event at Kol Emeth. “Afterwards, Max and Herman took questions. This was the last time they appeared together.”

Drimmer died in August 2012. After that, Rosenbloom began his quest to have the film re-aired on KCSM, considering “Escape from Auschwitz” to be a “historically significant part of Holocaust education.”

A young Herman Shine

That’s understandable, given Shine and Drimmer’s miraculous survival.

Because both had Polish-born fathers, neither was considered a German citizen, and in September 1939, both were deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As Shine and Drimmer recount in their DVD, the two friends stayed alive by getting work detail, though both suffered beatings and other cruelties.

According to a narrative detailed on the Wollheim Memorial (a German Holocaust commemoration group), the two were sent east to Auschwitz in October 1942. Luck was with them as they again found construction work in the adjunct Buna/Monowitz camp, a subcamp of Auschwitz.

There they met a Polish day worker, Józef Wróna, who offered to help them escape. After weeks of preparation, they made their escape on the night of Sept. 20, 1944, hiding in a ditch and later walking more than 10 miles to Wrónas’ barn, where they hid behind a chicken coop with a trap door. “We were in the barn for four months,” Shine recalled. “Józef promised to get us deeper into partisans, but it never came to pass.”

Herman and Marianne on their wedding day in 1946

With the Soviet army pushing the crumbling German army westward, Shine and Drimmer made their way to Gleiwitz, Poland, where they found safe haven with a family. Eventually they went back to Berlin, reconnected with their sweethearts and had a double wedding on Feb. 17, 1946. Shine married Marianne Schlesinger, and the couple remains married to this day.

Both couples immigrated to California. Shine went into the roofing business, while his friend became a baker and a plumber. The Shines had one daughter, who lives in Sonoma. The two also devoted much time and energy to Holocaust education, telling their narrative wherever and whenever they could.

“His mental acuity is not to be believed,” Rosenbloom said of his friend. “Every time I sit down with him, Herman will throw out another story.”

Sadly, he must tell his stories alone, now that his friend and wartime companion is gone.

“We lived all our lives together,” Shine says of Drimmer. “We went through the bad times and the good life. We came to this great country and built a new existence.”

“Escape from Auschwitz: Portrait of a Friendship” will air at 10 p.m. April 15 on KCSM Channel 60.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.