Arthur Kerdemann, Dachau survivor, dies at 97

When SS men detained Arthur Kerdemann, a 5-foot-5 inch Viennese man with a prominent forehead, they hustled him into a laboratory lined with skulls floating in jars of formaldehyde.

“His head was very intriguing to the Nazis,” said his daughter, Nancy Kosro. “They took all kinds of measurements of it. When they brought my dad near the jars, he impishly asked one of the SS guards, ‘Are these my new roommates?’ ”

This dry wit, coupled with a warm and caring spirit, captured the essence of Kerdemann, who died Dec. 28 at the Peninsula Regent, a senior facility in San Mateo where he had lived for the past 10 years. He was 97.

Born Aug. 17, 1911 in Kalaharowka (then a part of Poland), Kerdemann grew up poor and was sent to Siberia with his two sisters at the start of World War I. In 1918, his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where SS men would arrest him during Kristallnacht Nov. 9, 1938.

“I was taken by paddy wagon together with other rounded-up Jews to some public building and herded by shouting SS men into a large assembly room,” Kerdemann wrote in an essay for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. “Several hundred prisoners were jammed tightly in a standing position with no elbow room between individuals. The windows were shut and covered with black paper. Several fainted and others went amuck.

“From that location, we were transported by truck to the central police station. We were met there by SS men who ordered us off the trucks with abusive shouts and beating. We were chased into a long corridor in the basement. It was a ghastly atmosphere, dim lighting, moldy bread on windowsills, blood puddles on the concrete floor.”

Kerdemann was deported to Dachau, where he was forced to dig trenches in freezing conditions. In the midst of this, however, he cleverly sought out new Austrian detainees to ask for the latest news.

He learned that if he could obtain a visa to Shanghai, he would be released. Kerdemann wrote to his family, which acquired a visa from Dr. Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who issued innumerable visas to Jews escaping Austria after the 1938 Nazi takeover there.

Kerdemann was released from Dachau on March 22, 1939 after signing an affidavit stating he would leave Germany within 72 hours.

Years later, in 2002, Kerdemann spoke to Ho’s daughter, Manli Ho, who documented their interview for a book about her father.

“Arthur was an extraordinary person,” said Ho, who lives in San Francisco. “In some ways, he reminded me of my father. He was very determined and strong. What I admire most about him is that he was able to survive a period that was unimaginably terrible. To do that and not be crippled by it is a real triumph.”

Kerdemann never went to Shanghai. Instead, he made his way to London, then Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended Case Western Reserve University, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. He was drafted into the Army in 1943, serving in the Intelligence unit in North America and Europe until his discharge in 1945.

He married in Chicago in 1951. Five years later, he and his wife, Esther, moved to Millbrae where they raised two daughters, Nancy and Debby. He took a job with the Federal Power Com-mission (now the Department of Energy) in San Francisco as an electrical engineer. The Kerdemanns joined Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo in the late 1950s.

The family loved vacationing in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Canada and tending a vegetable garden at home. Birthdays were always special, Debby Kerdeman recalled.

“Every birthday, my mother would bake a cake and my father would decorate it,” she said. “On my 11th birthday, the cake was especially lovely and my dad wanted to take a photo. To get a good view, he told me to move it just a little lower, a little lower. And the cake fell in the dirt.”

An avid photographer, Kerdemann captured images of nature, intriguing people and landscapes in Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Mendocino. He would then turn his favorite photos into oil paintings.

Even as his eyesight deteriorated, Kerdemann continued to take photos. And though he had to scale back his routine hikes and walks through San Mateo, Kerdemann still strolled the Peninsula Regent courtyard.

“He remained quite fascinated by life until the very end,” Debby Kerdeman said. “He had an openness to learning about new things and enjoyed people from all walks of life.”

Kerdemann is survived by daughters Debby Kerdeman and Nancy Kosro. His wife, Esther, predeceased him in 1991. Donations may be made to Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo, CA 94403 or Mission Hospice, 1900 O’Farrell St., Suite 200, San Mateo, CA 94403.