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Gustav Gutman

Remembering Gustav Gutman

Posted: 06/05/2014
Shortly after I finished writing the following story about alumnus Gustav Gutman, his daughter, Sarah Elkin, called to say he had suddenly become very ill. Sadly, Gutman died a month later on Jan. 11, 2014.

Although I never met Gus personally, I had several lengthy and most enjoyable telephone conversations with him, the last after his return from Germany in November where he was the guest speaker at a ceremony honoring victims of the Holocaust. Gus was a fascinating man who kept saying to me, “I’m glad you asked me about that because it brings back so many great memories.” And whenever I requested more information, he looked it up and got right back to me with copies of old newspaper articles or stories he wrote.

I, like so many others, was glad to have him as a friend. “Gus was a first-class scientist, but more importantly a first-class human being,” said one of his colleagues from 3M. “I played in the East Metro Symphony Orchestra with Gus and we will all miss him and his wonderful positive energy,” said another in a written tribute. And a friend from Austin, Texas, succinctly said, “Gus was one of the nicest, most caring persons I ever knew.”

After her father’s funeral, Elkin wrote me and said, “Dad was so excited about your story. I hope you will still be able to print it.” We are delighted to do that.

Tom Karow

Gustav Gutman, like many Roosevelt alumni, sent a note to the Alumni News section of Roosevelt Review describing his activities since graduation, which in Gutman’s case was in 1964. His message was a fascinating tale of the varied life he has lived. A Holocaust survivor, Gutman is a chemist, inventor, playwright, opera singer, cancer survivor, musician, actor and lecturer.

""“I’ve certainly lived many different lives,” he said, chuckling. A natural storyteller, Gutman, who goes by the name Gus, readily shares anecdotes about acting with Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock, taking chemistry classes from Roosevelt’s renowned Harry Cohen and receiving 15 patents while working for 3M. However, it is his experiences in Nazi-occupied Germany that have shaped his life. Now 78, Gutman still has vivid memories of his life as a 4-year-old in Hildesheim, Germany, a small town near Hannover.

“I remember Nazi party leaflets being placed on the stairway leading to our attic,” he said. “We had to step on them on our way up and step on them on our way down and were thus accused of defacing party literature. I remember a tall painter in white overalls grabbing me and holding my head over a bucket of ammonia. I remember seeing our temple burn on Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht. I remember some men in big coats taking my dad away.”

Those horrific events have propelled him to tell others what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to him and millions of others. “Why tell this story?” he asks. “It’s really more than just to relate a childhood experience. When I was younger, there were lots more people alive who had escaped Nazi Germany, some with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms who had experienced the worst that can happen to a human being. But now there are fewer survivors. We must spread the word loud and clear so that the world will never forget.”

Despite the atrocities of the Nazis, the Gutmans were among the fortunate. In 1939, Walter Gutman, Gus’ father and the owner of a dry-cleaning business, was unexpectedly freed from a Nazi prison. And shortly later, the Gutman family was granted a one-year visa to visit a great uncle in England. After spending a year there, they were able to leave for the United States. On May 28, 1940, their overcrowded boat arrived at Ellis Island near the Statue of Liberty and the Gutmans were able to begin a new life in America.

“To this day,” Gutman said, “people ask me in an everyday greeting how I am, or how I’m doing? And, all this comes back in a flash, and I say, ‘I’m glad to be here.’”

The Gutmans settled in Chicago and Walter opened a dry-cleaning and dye shop at Wellington and Broadway similar to the one he had in Germany. An only child, Gus enjoyed helping his father run the store and did that until selling it a couple of years after his father died. His experiences working with chemicals in the dry cleaning business influenced his decision to enroll at Roosevelt in 1960 as a full-time student and pursue a degree in chemistry. “I really liked the diversity of Roosevelt,” he said. “I met all kinds of people – minorities, people coming out of the military, people my own age (25).

“Plus I liked taking courses from Harry Cohen, who was charismatic and demanding. He made organic chemistry very interesting. I’ve had lots of chemistry professors over the years, but he held his students to a very high standard. You had to fight to get a good grade from him.” A few years after receiving his Roosevelt degree and having earned a master’s in chemistry, Gutman began a 29-year career with 3M Company at offices in St. Paul, Minn. and Austin, Texas. The Holocaust survivor became an expert in chemical synthesis and received 15 patents for his work, including one for a new type of antistatic tape.

“Regular Scotch Tape creates an electrostatic charge when unrolled which can damage electronic components during assembly especially in a low-humidity clean room,” he explained. “When unrolled, my tape, known as Type 40 Tape, doesn’t stick to you like Scotch Tape does, it just hangs there. It’s still available in electronic specialty stories or online from 3M.”

Gutman’s creativity is not limited to developing new chemicals or creating useable tape. He’s a Renaissance man who loves to perform, be it singing on stage, acting in a movie, playing the violin or starring in a play. “It’s hard to keep up with Gus,” said his former wife, Greta. “He always has to be doing something and is always thinking about his next project. He has a very fertile brain.” For 15 years, Gutman was a paid singer for the Austin Lyric Opera Chorus, performing in 36 operas. “It was a wonderful time,” he recalled. “I worked all day in the lab and then hit the stage in front of 3,000 people at night. The other singers couldn’t believe what my day job was.”

Gutman with his granddaughters Moriah and Rebecca, taken in October 2013 in St. Paul, Minn

In fact when he was a cancer patient recovering from surgery, all he could think about was being released so he could sing Wagner’s "Tannhauser" with the chorus. “I really wanted to be in that opera, and I made it,” he said proudly. And now that he’s retired and living in St. Paul, he does sing-alongs in retirement homes and plays the violin in the Twin City’s East Metro Symphony Orchestra and in a violin, cello and piano trio. Movies are another of Gutman’s loves and whenever possible while in Texas he volunteered to be an extra on a movie set. One of his favorite memories was being a wedding guest in the movie Miss Congeniality starring Sandra Bullock. Smartly dressed in a summer suit, he was filmed with the Academy Award-winning actress in wedding and reception scenes and afterwards couldn’t wait to see his performance. The only problem was the entire wedding was cut from the movie. “I anxiously went to opening night in Austin several months later with family and friends, only to wait for the wedding scene that didn’t come,” he said wryly.

It’s the Holocaust, however, that remains foremost in his mind and he has given numerous talks on the subject in the United States and in Germany (in German) at churches, synagogues, high schools, colleges, summer camps, senior groups and other organizations. “My last recollection of Germany,” he often tells them, “was a sad one as we stood on the dock in Hamburg ready to board a ship in May 1939, just months before the doors of Nazi Germany were finally closed. I remember my mother’s brother’s family didn’t want us to leave. ‘This thing will blow over,’” they said. For younger audience members who often have little or no knowledge of the Holocaust, he describes his life as a 4-year-old, relating how his scooter was smashed and his toys were taken, and he tries to answer the lingering question, “What could one do?”

Gutman illustrates his talks with pictures and vestiges from his life in Germany, including family passports. They have swastikas and new middle names printed under the pictures. “Simon” was used for all Jewish men and “Sara” for all Jewish women. Another way Gutman has kept the memories active is through a play he wrote and acted in about life in his hometown of Hildesheim. Guests of the City, which he wrote at the age of 70, begins with Gutman preparing to deliver a speech that he gave in Hildesheim in 1999 on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night Nazis burned 267 synagogues to the ground in Germany and Austria. The play then tells Gutman’s family story in a series of flashbacks. When it was presented at Hildesheim in 2008, several hundred people attended the play’s two-night run in the same theater where his parents were banned because they were Jewish.

In November 2013, Gutman was once again invited back to Hildesheim. This time it was to speak at the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. In his speech, Gutman, one of only two Hildesheim Holocaust survivors still alive, talked about the importance of remembering not just the many Jews who were lost, but also the orthodox members who followed their religion no matter what awful things occurred around them.

“I was doing OK through most of my talk,” he said, “but lost my composure when I tried to sing the little star song about the Jews who were no longer there but were watching over the ceremony. Fortunately, I was rescued by a beautiful choir.”

Last updated 06/17/2014