Today is World Circus Day, an international moment to celebrate the circus arts. From the flying trapeze to the lion tamers to the jugglers, the circus captures the imaginations of young and old alike. It involves as well, of course, mastery of spectacle and deception. And both were practiced by one of the art form’s German legends, Adolf Althoff, in his dangerous and little known quest to save Jewish colleagues from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
The circus is a family business and the Althoff dynasty traces its roots back to the late-seventeenth century, not long after the circus as we know it first arrived in Germany. Dominik Althoff founded his own show in 1905 and married a haute ecole rider, Adele Mark, with whom he had eight children. Adolf, the baby of the family, was born in 1913 on the grounds of his parents’ circus as carnival music played outside. By the time he was 17 he was working as his parents’ publicity director and as a talented horse and elephant trainer. At 23, he was running his own show in partnership with his sister, a production whose signature attraction was a tiger riding on horseback. He married a member of another well-known circus family, Maria von der Gathen, and began a thirty year run as ringmaster of the Circus Adolf Althoff, later recalled as “one of the most technically proficient circuses in the world and what was one of Germany’s most popular shows” By the outbreak of World War II, he was employing 90 artists and crew.
As a group, circus artists were not considered potentially subversive to the Nazis the way artists and writers were, and indeed German circuses were often sent on international propaganda tours by Joseph Goebbels. But troupes were harshly purged of Jewish performers, a community that had been a significant part of the German circus for generations. Traveling circuses had particularly been a Jewish art form, and several of the great companies were forced into bankruptcy or sold at cut-rate prices. And while many leaders of the circus community, such as Carl Krone and Paula Busch, joined the Nazi Party, the Althoffs refused. Adolf’s brother and sister were known to hide Jews in concealed walls at their own circus. Adolf went even further.
“In a circus you can do a lot and keep it a secret,” Althoff remarked. And for more than five years he, his wife, and family risked their livelihood and their lives to save Jewish circus artists. On one occasion, Althoff for a time sheltered Gerda Blumenfeld—whose family had lost their circus and almost all of whom would perish in the camps—and hired her son Alfred as a director and press agent. Soon after, Irene Danner, an 18-year old member of the Lorch circus family—a legendary Jewish clan—asked Adolf for a job as an acrobat in the circus when his show came to Darmstadt. Expelled from school after Kristallnacht for being a Jew and forced to abandon training as a ballerina, Irene was a natural acrobat and Adolf found a role for her riding elephants. She soon fell in love with the clown Peter Bento. Although they were prevented from getting married until after the war, they had two children while they worked for Althoff. (The medical care for Irene’s caesarean deliveries was covertly provided by Althoff’s wife Maria.)
The situation became even more dangerous after the Jews of Darmstadt were deported in 1942 and 1943. Irene’s grandmother was sent to Poland, never to return, and the family house was confiscated. The Althoffs immediately agreed to protect Irene’s mother Alice and Irene’s twelve-year-old sister Gerda. “There was no question that we would let them stay,” Althoff recalled. “I couldn’t simply permit them to fall into the hands of the murderers. This would have made me a murderer.” They were soon joined by their father Hans, an Aryan sent home from the front with orders to divorce his Jewish wife, who also went underground.
Althoff took responsibility for hiding them all from certain death, allowing them to work under assumed names and without proper papers. Contacts at various tour stops would provide advance notice of Gestapo inspections. A subtle knock on the door and a whisper to “go fishing” was the signal for the Bentos and their relatives to hide in their wagon or run into the forest. Then Althoff would turn on the charm, offering free tickets, stories about performing in Kiev with bears, and flowing cognac. “They admired our circus because it was so neat. When they wanted to check the premises, I usually was able to divert them,” Adolf recalled. “Our hospitality became famous." The risk of denunciation was constant, given the secret was poorly kept among the troupe. But on only one occasion did an employee complain about the Jews in their midst: Althoff fired him and ejected him from the premises.
After the war, the Althoffs and Bentos continued as stars of the circus, and Adolf did not retire until well into his seventies, on one occasion continuing a performance after suffering a tiger bite. Decades after her rescue, Irene Donner said, “It was only natural for the Althoffs to help us. They didn’t want our gratitude. Without their help my family would not have survived the Holocaust in safety.” Adolf Althoff did not view himself as a hero. When recognized for his deeds by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, he stated, “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.” As we celebrate the circus today and the multicultural mélange at its heart, we should also celebrate the tolerance this unique art breeds, the connections it creates, and the heroism it inspired at the bleakest time.