At the peak of his career, Mr. Beitz was among the most influential businessmen in Europe. During the Cold War, he made news by meeting with business leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including automotive executives in Detroit and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who received him for what Time magazine described as a “21-hour chat.”
Little publicized at that time were his efforts on behalf of his Jewish workers in Poland during World War II. When Mr. Beitz returned to the country as an unofficial West German ambassador in 1960, a New York Times reporter noted simply — and in retrospect, poignantly — that he had “left behind a favorable reputation for good treatment of his Polish” employees.
Mr. Beitz did not set out to join the Gentile rescuers who became known as the “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation conferred on him by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, in 1973. He came from a family of Nazi sympathizers, according to accounts of his life, and at the outbreak of the war was working for Royal Dutch Shell in Hamburg as an oil executive.
In 1941, Mr. Beitz accompanied his grandfather to a dinner at the home of Alfried Krupp, the steel titan whose weaponry concern had armed German kaisers with cannons and Adolf Hitler with tanks. There he met Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi SS special police and a principal designer of the “final solution” to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Mr. Beitz heard Heydrich discussing the strategically important oil fields in what was then Poland and expressed interest in the work. Then in his late 20s, Mr. Beitz soon received a military commission to serve as business manager of the Carpathian Oil company in Boryslaw, a town now located in Ukraine. Many of the company’s workers were Jews.
Mr. Beitz once told the Times that he began his rescue work not out of political conviction but rather with “purely humane, moral motives.’’ In 1942, according to Yad Vashem, he saw babies tossed from windows during the liquidation of a Jewish orphanage, an experience that left him deeply scarred.
Mr. Beitz used his connections with Nazi officials — as well as what he described as “self-assurance” and “incredible luck” — to carry out a daring and risky rescue effort. Permitted to review transports of Jews before they left for Nazi death camps, Mr. Beitz pulled from the trains his employees and others. In August 1942, according to Yad Vashem, Mr. Beitz removed 250 Jews from a transport to the Belzec camp by calling them “professional workers.”