When Irene Danner was expelled from school in 1938 for being half-Jewish, she found safety from the Nazis’ persecution amidst Adolf Althoff’s circus.
Althoff, a direct descendent of the famous Althoff circus family, was actually born in the family’s circus wagon and started his own show in 1939. Just two years later, Irene went to see Adolf’s group of 90 performers when they stopped near Darmstadt, Germany.
Despite having a non-Jewish father who was enlisted in Germany’s army, Irene was already facing extreme discrimination by the time she went to see the circus. Having been barred from her violin lessons and ballet class, and shunned by her classmates, the young girl sought out Adolf Althoff and asked to join his troupe.
Althoff was fully aware of her Jewish descent and was under strict control by the German Ministry of Culture, but agreed to take Irene. Shortly after, in March 1942, the first deportation from Darmstadt to the Lublin concentration camp began.
The last deportation from Darmstadt took Irene’s Jewish grandmother, but her mother Alice and sister Gerda were able to escape to the circus. Irene had since fallen in love with a fellow circus-employee, Peter Storm-Bento, and though they could not marry due to racial laws, he pleaded with Althoff to care for Irene’s family.
“There was no question in our minds that we would let them stay,” Althoff explained after the war, “I couldn’t simply permit them to fall into the hands of the murderers. This would have made me a murderer.”
Irene’s father, Hans Danner, who like most spouses in inter-faith marriages was sent home from the army and told to divorce his Jewish wife, defied his commander’s demands and later joined them on the circus tour.
Althoff hid the entire family until the war ended, despite regular inspections by the Gestapo. During the common visits from Nazi officers, the Danner family would hide among the grounds. Adolf occasionally distracted the Gestapo with a drink when threatened with exposure.
On January 2, 1995, Yad Vashem recognized Adolf and his wife Maria Althoff as Righteous Among the Nations. Upon receiving the honor, Mr. Althoff said, “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.”