(Hans, an aerialist, practices his act outside the circus tent with his young female partner, Gret. Several Village Children are watching, astonished. Hans steps carefully onto the practice wire, which is strung maybe five feet off the ground. In his hands he carries an upright chair. He balances two feet of the chair on the wire, and prepares to do a handstand on the chair. He slips, rights himself. Gret and Mohammed, on the ground, spot him. Around them, circus life continues and takes no notice – except for SS Officer Bauer, a particularly obnoxious and humorless Nazi who sits in a chair outside of the Althoff’s wagon and watches Hans’ act with cool deliberation. Adolph exits his wagon, carrying two cups of coffee, and places one before Bauer.)
BAUER: It’s dangerous work even at that height. Why take such a foolish risk?
ADOLPH: He knows what he’s doing.
BAUER: Who’s the nigger?
(A beat before Adolph replies.)
ADOLPH: His name is Mohammed. He’s from Tangiers. I’ve known him since he was a boy.
BAUER: You have other foreigners here too. The clown act – they’re Belgian.
ADOLPH: They can stay as long as they were employed by us before the war. That’s the law.
BAUER: You also have a dwarf.
(A beat. Adolph swallows his dislike and replies.)
ADOLPH: And when our esteemed Fuhrer looks at Minister Goebbels, do you really think he doesn’t see his club foot?
(Bauer is sobered by the remark.)
ADOLPH: It’s not my joke – I heard it from an SS Commander in Berlin.
(Bauer smiles, then laughs – now that it’s sanctioned and safe.)
BAUER: Very good.
ADOLPH: We make use of dwarves, Colonel Bauer. You should be thankful. And everyone else employed by us is either too old to fight, a misfit, or a woman.
BAUER: And you?
ADOLPH: I’m an idiot. Only idiots can be circus directors – that’s the law too.
(Bauer smiles – he’ll play along, for the moment.)
BAUER: Are you a Party member, Mr. Althoff?
ADOLPH: I’ve applied.
BAUER: May I see you membership papers?
ADOLPH: They haven’t come yet. It takes a while for the mail to catch up with us, you know. So much red tape.
BAUER: Of course. I’ll speak to Berlin about it.
(Bauer sips his coffee. Adolph, sensing danger, reasons.)
ADOLPH: You need to make allowances for Circus, Colonel. We’re all the people have to take their minds off the present. Even if we do take such foolish risks.
This is the true and amazing story of a circus family, performing throughout Germany during World War Two, who successfully hid a Jewish couple in broad daylight.
When Showtime decided to make six hour-long episodes about Righteous Gentiles who rescued Jews during WWII, I was the first person they asked to write one. As such, I got my pick of the six stories they had chosen – but for me there really was no choice: the amazing story of the Althoff family circus and their bold act of hiding Jews in plain sight was one of the most astonishing true tales I’d ever encountered. I flew to Sweden where I met the Althoffs (their son was running the circus now, though mother and father were still alive and well and touring Scandinavia with the troupe) and then traveled to a small town outside Frankfurt to meet the Jewish couple they had rescued (their son was now running his own small circus.) This was a fascinating trip, a glimpse into the world of European Circus that was like entering an enchanted wonderland. The end result was a lovely little film directed by Tony Bill that traced this astonishing adventure in the world of high-wire and elephants (and a few non-complicit Nazis.)