12/18/10

 

Perhaps the three most commonly asked questions from readers of this website are along the lines of: a) Am I related ‘though my surname is spelt slightly different? b) What is the meaning of the word Bensemann? c) Were the Bensemanns German Jews?

This page hopes to give some answers to those questions, but will also raise interesting uncertainties and side stories.

a) Spelling variations to "Bensemann" The common spellings in New Zealand are Bensemann and Benseman but historical literature shows spellings of Benzemann, Bensman and Bensmann. Followers of this website have provided versions also of Benseeman, Benzeman, (both from possible relatives in the United States) and Benceman (from possible relatives in Mexico who say the original spelling was "Benseman"). Because these names all seem to trace back to Lower Saxony in northern Germany, there is reason to suspect they may all be the same "clan". (Arguments for or against welcomed!)

b) Meaning of "Bensemann"

There's no consensus or firm information on this. According to one "oral history" version in New Zealand, "bense" was an old variety of wheat and Bensemann meant wheat-grower. A tentative suggestion from a relative in the States is that "Seeman" means "Sailor" in German and that ancestors of the name may have been keen seafarers. Another possible lead is the place-name Bensen - a hof or farm just 7km from the town of Engeln and 3km from Sudwalde - ie in the midst of the Bensemann homeland district of Lower Saxony. The name Bensen is said by one reader to appear as Bense on an old map.

c) Jews or Nazis?

One reason for suggesting a Jewish link is the name - ie "Ben" is a common Jewish name or start of a surname as it means "son" in Hebrew. Another is the fact that one of the most famous Bensemanns, Walther Bensemann, founder of German football, was Jewish. Walther's father Berthold Bensemann was a successful banker in Berlin and like many other German Jews, these Bensemanns were cosmopolitan, both intellectually and culturally, acknowledged their Jewish ancestry but adopted a secular attitude and felt emphatically part of German culture.

Berthold's line of descent is unknown but there is reason to believe other branches of the Bensemann family were ''Gentiles". Other than Walther's family, Bensemanns were generally left alone by the Nazis and accepted as non-Jewish; also none of the emigrants to America and New Zealand - who were predominantly Lutheran - were known to have mentioned any Jewish link and there seemed little reason in those days to deny it. The webmaster has heard recently from a couple of New Zealand Bensemanns who welcomed any Jewish ancestry but could not find such a link.

The short answer is probably that Bensemanns were both Jews and Gentiles and lived, fought, suffered, thrived and died on both sides of the Second World War. For example, John Rudolph Bensemann, Royal New Zealand Air Force flight sergeant, died aged 20 in a crash while training in night-flying exercises during the war and although he was brought up in Upper Moutere, was probably a full-blooded Gentile German (his mother was a Jurgens).

Hanswalter Bensemann, who ran a printing business in Germany, had a different perspective of the allied air forces and his experiences are best described in his own words (as written to Leo in 1953): "In 1943 in the total bombing attack by the RAF on Krefeld (near the western edge of Germany) our family was buried and dug out through five cellars. We left Krefeld the same night because nothing was left of our imposing building – nothing. We fled without proper clothes with only trousers, shirts and blankets, by the first night train which was machine gunned from the air, to Hadamar. Within three days we were already starting to build again, without any documents etc. without anything. We got the business going again - replaced - then a single attack by the 'honourable air-force' again struck our works and all that we had done was gone again… My hobby is old wood sculpture but my beautiful collection was burnt in Krefeld. 'God Save the Queen'."

It should be recorded also that while one famous Bensemann - Walther - had to flee to Switzerland to save his life, another probable member of the wider clan prospered under the Nazis and, it could be said, became nearly as famous as Walther. Dr Nikolaus (Niko) Bensmann lived in Bremen, the nearest large city to the New Zealand Bensemanns' home district in Lower Saxony, and although missing the "second e" was probably a far-distant relative to us all, including to Walther.

Niko studied at Colombia University in New York and while in the States worked at several auto plants around Detroit, became an oil-rig "roughneck" in Texas and Louisiana before shifting back to Germany to work for his family business Hermann Bensmann & Co. From there, Niko set up an enterprise representing the interests of the large American-based Texaco corporation in Germany and became a kind of European "super-manager" for the firm.

But he had a double life, which was not revealed publicly until after the war. In 1936 he quietly joined the Bremen branch of the Abwehr or secret service and at the outbreak of hostilities was appointed full-time Sonderfuehrer or Specialist Leader. Niko became no less than the main authority in Germany about President Franklin D Roosevelt and the White House, and on the United States position leading up to its entry into the war.

The Game of Foxes (Pan 1973) by Hungarian journalist and intelligence officer Ladislas Farago described Niko as 

...a big and ruddy faced man who spoke English fluently in the American idiom - a delightful companion with exquisite taste for beautiful women, good food and vintage wines, an especially wonderful escort for tired businessmen relaxing on trips to Germany. 

Niko appeared more sophisticated than the uncouth air and repulsive swagger of the big-shot Nazis and hid his real allegiance by entertaining American friends with jokes ridiculing Hitler. (Continues, right column)

This isn't Niko Bensemann (see "Jews or Nazis?), but rather his most important contact, US oil tycoon Torkild Rieber. There is still debate on whether Niko "turned" Rieber.  More likely Rieber was ignorant of Niko's job in the Abwehr. The Time cover came on May 4, 1936 when the US oil industry was booming.

 

 

In this way, and by his own network of spies in Germany and the United States, he gathered day to day private activities of the President and discovered details of support for Britain and preparations for war, at a time when the United States was supposedly neutral.  

One of his agents, Waldermar Othmer, became a stevedore earning 45 to 65c an hour at one of America's most important naval bases, at Norfolk, Virginia. From here he was able to build up a detailed mosaic for Niko of American naval power, including the names of ships and the types and ranges of their guns.

Niko devised an ingenious cipher using patent numbers (see example below) in which he was able to gather information from his agents in the United States without attracting suspicion and wrote a Satzbuch or code book along these lines for the Abwehr. He was also one of the Abwehr officers behind a successful operation to unscramble secret allied radio conversations including between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It meant Germany knew when the invasion of continental Europe was imminent and that Italy was about to capitulate to the allies.

In 1940, from his contacts in American corporations, and especially the oil industry, Niko was able to obtain an accurate 58-page study showing that 50,000 war planes were required by Roosevelt for the war effort and that this was within the capability of US industry. The study, and his reports about ship and tank production, convinced Niko's Abwehr associates about the titanic power of the United States. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, took the report about the planes to Hitler but the Fuehrer shrugged it off and threatened to punish those who believed or circulated such "defeatist rubbish".

According to Ladislas Farago, Hitler said,

"You must be out of your mind to take such crap seriously. 50,000 rubber tranquilizers maybe, for the poor little babies of America. But 50,000 planes? Don't be ridiculous!"

It meant that although Niko continued to gather authentic information about the growing American war potential, there was no place to take the intelligence. However it convinced Canaris of the hopelessness of the German cause and was a reason he became a plotter of peace and involved in two abortive plots to assassinate Hitler. Canaris was led to the gallows barefoot and naked and hung on Hitler's orders on April 9 1945, just weeks before the end of the war. What happened to Niko is unknown.

~

1940 example, from one of his American agents, of Niko's code - which gave war-time Germany details of US military power and activities:

 

Subject: Our Opposition Filed Against USA Patent Applications.

Against the various claims claimed by these patents we think that the following issued patents can be used:

Claim No. 1  USA    528 127

                        DRP    505 985

                        DRP    561 838

          French patent  529 727

Claim No. 2   USA    612 001

USA    611 095

                                   British patent 531 937

                                                USA    626 197

                        Claim No. 3 British  552 830

                                                USA    616 606

 

We furthermore think that in general USA patent 552 205 and USA patent 557 010 will be found noxious by the examiner…

 

When Niko decoded the letter it read: [528 127] March10th [505 985] departed [561 838] Genoa [529 727] Marseille [611 095] American liner [531 937] President Polk [626 197] carrying [552 830]  2500 crates [616 606] inflammable goods [552 205] 1000 barrels [557 010] gasoline.             

 

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This site was last updated 12/18/10