Henri Korb, larger than life French Resistance fighter, dies at 90

When a Nazi officer pointed a gun at most Jews and demanded they remove their pants, two things usually happened: They removed their pants. Then they died.

Henri Korb was not most Jews. So when a pistol-toting Nazi demanded the Jewish underground French Resistance fighter drop trou, it didn’t go as the German had planned.

“Are you kidding? Do you think I’d be out here in plain view while your convoys drove by if I were Jewish? You think I’m an idiot? You want me to drop my pants?” he shouted at the Nazi.

Rattled, the German put his gun back in its holster and drove away.

Korb survived that encounter and others, dying at age 90 in his Kensington home Sept. 13.

“In this age of political correctness, my father was not afraid to take a stand. And if people disagreed, great. They’d have a healthy debate and go out and drink wine afterwards,” recalled Richard Korb, Henri’s son.

Henri Korb’s Old World charm and French accent served him well. Even late in Henri’s life Rabbi Ferenc Raj liked to joke with Richard Korb that his suave father was the “Don Juan of Beth El” in Berkeley.

Korb had time to work on his Don Juan act — he’d sailed the world as an officer-in-training in the French merchant navy wearing a blue uniform that matched his eyes. He later joined the French army and was stationed in Lebanon when World War II broke out.

Korb debated joining Gen. Charles de Gaulle in England, but instead returned to his hometown of Perigueux in southwest France to keep an eye on his family. Henri and his brother, Charles, attempted at one point to smuggle their sister’s three children into Spain over the Pyrenees, but all five were captured by Spanish border guards and transferred into a French prison.

French officials could have easily turned the five Jews over to the Gestapo but, in a stroke of luck, the French gendarmes released them after a month of imprisonment in fetid conditions.

Korb lived from hand to mouth and helped support his family as best he could as a surveyor, hiding his Jewishness from inquisitive Gestapo agents. After D-Day he joined the French Resistance, stealing guns from a munitions plant and blowing up roads and bridges to impede German advances.

And while Korb survived the war intact, his experiences left him a changed man.

“As much as I despised the Nazis, the prisoners we had were not S.S. [Nazis]; they were simply average Joes — ‘Wermacht’ soldiers. They would peel potatoes for us and play cards with us, and I would joke with them in German since I was one of the few who spoke both languages. When our leader ordered us to gather these men in a circle and kill them, I just could not bring myself to do it,” he wrote in his memoirs.

“So I watched in horror as my brethren opened fire on these helpless prisoners, pleading for their lives … because our group were not trained marksman, most of the shots missed vital organs, such that the prisoners died a slow death … I will never forget the face of one man, in agony, gesturing for us to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery.”

Korb’s wartime experience along with the loss of several family members in the Holocaust left him unable to believe in God, though he was comforted by Jewish rituals and attended synagogue for the rest of his life. He left Europe after the war, picking up his adventuresome ways in Canada. At one point he fell through the ice of a frozen lake and nearly drowned, but was rescued by a companion.

Korb and his wife, Madeline, immigrated to the Bay Area and he worked his way up to the position of chief engineer for Safeway, where he worked until his retirement in 1982.

He earned a reputation for passion and outspokenness, advocating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War before both positions were chic. During a meet-and-greet handshake opportunity in the mid-1960s, he instead debated Berkeley’s then-Congressman Jerome Waldie about Vietnam.

Korb and Madeline were both dominant personalities — “They were two people who took up a lot of space when they entered a room,” noted son Richard. The couple separated in the 1980s, though remained on good terms until Madeline’s death in 1998. Korb chose to be buried next to her.

Henri Korb is survived by his son, Richard of San Ramon; stepson, Dr. Peter Bickel of Berkeley; and five grandchildren. Donations in Korb’s memory can be sent to Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley, CA 94709.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.