Henry Winkler said his dad outsmarted the Nazis with a box of chocolates. Harry Winkler was a Jewish business owner in Berlin when Adolf Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s. By the end of the decade, the Winklers realized they needed to get out of the country before it was too late. But if they were going to start a new life in America, they would need money.
The Nazis began their campaign against Jewish citizens a few months after Hitler took power in 1933. Anti-semitic graffiti and rhetoric gave way to violence and attacks on Jewish-owned businesses. Harry Winkler owned a lumber import and export business, and he could sense where things were heading, Henry Winkler told Fresh Air in 2019. In 1939, Harry told his wife that they needed to go on a business trip to America. He didn’t tell her that they were fleeing the country.
The Nazis interrogated Jewish citizens that tried to leave Germany. They stole their money and confiscated their valuables. Harry Winkler covered his family’s jewelry in melted chocolate and hid them in a candy box he tucked under his arm. Luckily, they didn’t search the box.
He pawned the jewelry once they arrived in New York City. That gave them the seed money they needed to start over. Henry Winkler was born in 1945, six years after his parents escaped the Nazis.
To stay in the country, Harry Winkler had to request an extension on his visa to the U.S. government. Henry Winkler still has the replies.
“I have the actual letters from the government each time my father requested to stay a little longer, and they would say yes,” he told host Terry Gross. “And I was born, and thank God, because I love our country.”
Henry Winkler Lost Most of His Extended Family in the Holocaust
But most of the Winklers remained in Germany. Harry Winkler wanted his brother Helmut to run away to America with him. But at the last minute, Helmut decided to stay in Germany for another 24 hours and leave in the morning. He never left.
“He waited one day too long,” Henry Winkler told the Arizona Republic. “He was going to go, but the tailor was making a dinner jacket (for him), and he thought he could wait one more day and then take it with him.”
The Nazis arrested Helmut that night and later shipped him to Auschwitz where he died. Most of Henry Winkler’s extended family died in the Holocaust or the war. But the survivors formed new families in tight-knit Jewish communities around the world.
“I lived with the documentary in my house,” the Happy Days actor said. “My doctor, our cousins, they were all pretty much faux family, because everyone that survived, that met in New York and escaped Hungary or Germany or whatever, became family. So they were all around me.”