How Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis

Shannon Quinn - October 30, 2018

In 1940, the Nazis were occupying Austria. A Jewish woman named Elsa Koditschek lived in a house that she and her husband built in the woods just outside of Vienna. She was a widow and lived alone comfortably when the Nazis first invaded. Before her husband died, they bought a painting called “Dämmernde Stadtby Egon Schiele together. It was one of her prized possessions, but it was sold during the chaos when and S.S. Officer and his wife decided to take over the downstairs apartment of her home. Elsa Koditschek spent the next five years hiding with her friends, and eventually even hiding on the third floor of her own home. This incredible story may have never been revealed to the world if it were not for the stolen Egon Schiele painting, which ended up being worth a fortune.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Portrait of Elsa Koditschek. Credit: The New York Times

The Nazi Occupation of Austria

As a young woman, Elsa Koditschek studied art, she got married to a Jewish banker named Siegfried Koditschek. They had children together, and lived a very happy life in their three-story villa that they designed and built in 1911. They were tucked away in the wooded suburbs outside of Vienna, Austria near the Alps, and everyone in their neighborhood was well-off. She and her husband did not have a huge art collection, but they purchased one painting from a Hungarian artist named Egon Schiele called Dämmernde Stadt“, or “The City in Twilight.”

The Koditscheks were married for years and watched their children grow up, get married, and start their own lives. Siegfried passed away when he was 48 years old and left Elsa as a widow who never got remarried. She kept herself busy with her friends in town that was a loving and tight-knit community.

When the Nazis first began occupying Austria, Elsa Koditschek realized that her house would not be safe if they knew a single Jewish widow was living there. She invited one of her best Christian friends, Sylvia Kosminski to live there by turning upstairs of the house into a separate apartment. Elsa’s bank account had been seized by the Nazi government, so any money or supplies had to come from the Kosminski family.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Dämmernde Stadt by Egon Schiele. Credit: Sotheby’s

Even though the villa was massive, Elsa began living in a tiny back room of her house that had once been designated as “the music room”. It only contained her piano, a couch, and a small table and chairs. The “Dämmernde Stadt” painting was hung on the wall. These were the objects that were her most prized possessions, and she didn’t mind if the rest of her furniture was being used by the Christian tenants in the house.

In 1940, an S.S. Officer named Herbert Gerbing was working at the Rothschild mansion in Vienna when he was looking for a Jewish property to take over for himself. He found out that Elsa Koditschek had split up the house into apartments, and discovered her living in the music room. Gerbing took pity on her because she was a 56 years old woman who clearly didn’t pose a threat to anyone. He did not send her to a concentration camp right away. Instead, she was told that she had 14 days to leave the premises and find a new place to live.

During that two-week time period, Elsa Koditschek started to sell all of her belongings in order to raise as much money as she could. One of the items she could not bear to part with, however, was the Egon Schiele painting. Elsa’s son was living in the United States, and her daughter was in Switzerland, but it was too late for her to run there. Unfortunately, no matter where she tried to run to, she couldn’t manage to leave, because her records showed that she was Jewish.

Herbert Gerbing and his wife took over the bottom two floors of Elsa Koditschek’s house, and frequently called her over so that she could teach them how to get certain things to work on the property. She had to be polite to the people who were stealing her house. They allowed Sylvia Kosminski to continue living on the third floor, while the Nazi officers lived in the downstairs apartment.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Nazi soldiers deporting Jewish people from the Lodz to the Chelmo killing camp. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

After a couple of weeks, her time was up. She had been very cooperative with the Nazis up to that point and begged Herbert Gerbing to give her more time to figure out a new place to emigrate. He refused, giving her the orders to be deported to a Jewish ghetto in Lodz. He told her that it was a wonderful place, but that she would not need to pack very much. She would not have known it at the time, but Lodz became little more than a temporary holding facility for people before they moved on to concentration camps.

She knew enough to know not to trust the Nazis when they told her that everything would be fine. Instead of showing up for her required deportation appointment, she visited her Christian friends, the Heinz family, and they agreed to hide her in their house. In retrospect, Elsa wrote to her son that she believed Herbert Gerbing was actually “very kind” for giving her two weeks to leave, and telling her not to pack much. He knew that her belongings were better off in the care of Sylvia Kosminski, and in the end, it saved her from losing absolutely everything.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Nazi troops walking through Vienna, Austria. Credit: New York Times

The Nazis Discover Elsa’s Hiding Place

While living in the Heinz home, a lot of friends would deliver supplies to take care of Elsa. Her friend Sylvia continued to keep an eye on the house in her absence, but she was forced to sell the painting and the piano in order to pay for much-needed supplies. People in the town loved Elsa, and her close friends were willing to keep her secret so that she could survive.

Elsa did not have any paper to write on, so she used onion skins to write letters to her son, which were smuggled out whenever possible. She spent two years living in the Heinz house. She would hide in her room most of the day, and only walk around the rest of the house at night, when the family was out on a weekend. The curtains were drawn, and she was too afraid to look outside. She would even have sudden panic attacks when she thought the Nazis might come inside, and crawled into a hidden passageway behind a cupboard and a large blanket box.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
One of the letters that Elsa sent to her son. Credit: New York Times

In 1943, Elsa had successfully hidden for two years before two Nazi soldiers were let into the house by Mr. Heinz. They heard rumors that he was hiding a Jewish woman in his home, and he had no choice but to allow them to search the house. But Elsa heard them coming, and she was able to slip into her hiding space. She could hear the Nazi soldiers opening every kitchen cabinet, upturning furniture, and moving things around. She waited for her moment to slip out the back door. At the time, she was only wearing a homemade house dress that was far too big for her and some hand-knit socks. She had to hide at a nearby hospital. Elsa knew that if she was seen by anyone in town, it would immediately look suspicious. She was thin and pale, with her cheeks slightly caving in from the years of hiding. Her clothes were also a head giveaway that she wasn’t exactly normal.

While she was in hiding, she had a “Plan B” ready with her friend and former tenant, Sylvia Kosminski. If the Nazis ever discovered her hiding place, Mr. Heinz was supposed to notify Sylvia about what happened, and she was supposed to rendezvous with Elsa at the hospital. However, there was much more going on that Elsa had no idea about. The reason why the Nazis had been investigating Heinz’s house in the first place was because he was caught selling jewelry on the black market, and they were about to take him to jail. So Sylvia did not show up. Hours continued to slip by, and by 8 PM, Elsa knew it was time to move on and figure out a Plan C. She moved on to another friend’s house. This time, it was the Hofrat Family. They were one of the many groups who were smuggling food into the Heinz house for two years.

Thankfully, Sylvia had not betrayed her best friend. The reason why she didn’t show up was because she was at a birthday party out of town, and no one was able to get in touch with her until around 10:30 PM. After getting food, clothes, and shoes from the Hoftrat family, Elsa and Sylvia met up while walking on the road. It was dark outside, and Elsa was walking quietly in the streets, trying not to make any noise or draw attention to herself. As far as the Nazis were concerned, they were just two ladies walking home from a party. Sylvia grasped Elsa’s arm, and they quickly walked to the house. Once they were finally safe inside, Elsa collapsed on her old couch that she had given up to Sylvia years before. After two years of hiding, she was finally home.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Elsa’s three-story villa outside of Vienna. Credit: New York Times

Hiding in Plain Sight

The war continued to rage on, and S.S. Officer Gerbing was stationed in Paris for a long time. His wife didn’t want to miss the opportunity to live in a city like Paris, so they would only stay in the Alps when they just so happened to be visiting Vienna in the spring and summer months. Elsa would peek out the windows to see delivery trucks showing up, giving the S.S. Officer’s wife, Mrs. Gerbing, elaborate gifts that they brought from all over the world. She also saw Jewish prisoners wearing yellow stars doing the gardening and housework downstairs.

Every day, Elsa would keep herself busy by taking care of the household chores for Sylvia while she was home alone. If anyone knocked on the door, they did not have any cleverly hidden passageways to slide into. Instead, they had a sewing mannequin sitting in the corner of the room with a long, heavy coat that reach down to the floor. Elsa was able to hide behind the mannequin undetected, and guests would assume that the coat was there because it needed to be tailored.

In 1944, Mrs. Gerbing got a letter in the mail letting her know that her husband had been killed, and that the war may end soon. She knew that the Nazi reign would come crashing down, and she had just enough time to flee Austria with her children. For a brief amount of time, Elsa had her house back. She could walk to the downstairs apartment to see all of the fancy things that the Nazis had brought to her house. But that didn’t last long. In 1945, the Russians invaded and took everything in the house, claiming that they were taking back things that the Nazis stole. However, they took everything- including Elsa and Sylvia’s stuff too. They didn’t even leave the candles and matches for them to see at night.

But, at the very least, the war was over, and Elsa was home. She moved to Switzerland to live with her daughter, and let Sylvia continue living in the house in Vienna. After all, the house no longer felt like home, and it had too many bad memories for her. She was able to write letters about her life story, mostly for the benefit of her kids.

Elsa Koditschek Cleverly Hid In Her Own House From the Nazis
Egon Schiele became a famous artist after World War II, and his paintings became very valuable. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Egon Schiele painting was sold to various collectors, and eventually ended up going to auction. When the story of Elsa Koditschek emerged, and everyone knew that this painting had been taken from her during World War II, Sotheby’s Auction arranged to make sure a huge portion to the sales price went to Elsa Koditschek’s great-grandchildren. It had only been estimated to be worth $15 million, but after hearing the story of the journey it went through, the painting sold for over $25 million at auction in 2018.

 

Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here are our Sources:

New York Times – The Nazi Downstairs: A Jewish Woman’s Tale of Hiding in Her Home

Forward – A Nazi Commandeered Her House. She Survived the Holocaust by Hiding In It Anyway.

AISH – Hiding from the Nazi Downstairs

The Independent – How A Jewish Woman Survived the Second World War by Hiding Above a Nazi Officer

Encyclopedia Britannica – Egon Schiele

Tate – Five Things to Know: Egon Schiele

Art Law & More – Sotheby’s to Sell Schiele Painting Forcibly Sold During Ww2

DER Standard – Why the Auction of This Painting By Egon Schiele Is A Sensation

Sothebys – A Restituted Masterpiece by Egon Schiele

Wikipedia – Elsa Koditschek

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