Best of Berlin 2020

Berlin’s bank robbers the Brothers Sass.

Watch my documentary on this amazing story here

Stories of ‘good’ outlaws and buried treasure have been around for centuries, Robin Hood and Treasure Island perhaps perfect examples. 

But unlike Hood and Treasure Island, the story of the Berlin Sass brothers can be detailed accurately, and is very real. The role they thought out for themselves and their dreams of riches motivated them to become the ‘fairytale’ characters still remembered In Berlin today – and the real treasure they buried still has yet to be found.

I say the role the brothers thought out for themselves for a reason. It didn’t have to be. There were 5 Sass brothers, and only 2 strayed from the straight and narrow, becoming celebrity safe crackers in the late 1920’s, and 2 of Berlins most celebrated members of the criminal underworld.

Franz and Erich Sass were born at the beginning of the 1900s in the working – class district of Berlin Moabit, and as teenagers already known to the police and social services. The period after WWI, the time of their teenage years, was chaotic, tumultuous and revolutionary, perhaps lending itself to career path choices of ‘self-sufficiency’ and turning the brothers to crime. The German world had collapsed, the old order was gone, why shouldn’t it be every man for himself, especially if one despised the new democratic government in charge? The brothers dreamt of a life in a world of riches and comfort, far away from the cramped 1 room apartment and humble life of their parents, a tailor and washerwomen.

The 1920’s was also a time of modernisation and innovation and the Sass brothers used this to their advantage. In 1926 they decided on a criminal career change and went into ‘banking’. Using re-purposed oxy- acetylene welding tools, only invented some 20 years before, they decided to focus on safe cracking to make their fortune.

Their crimes were carefully planned, but initially they were unlucky. Their initial attempts to get hold of a torch came to notice of the police. This of course made them suspects for the subsequent robberies, and eventually a bête noire for the Kripo (criminal police) led by their young commissar Max Fabich. The police knew who had committed the crimes, but where was the final evidence to convict the brothers?

Erich and Franz’s safe cracking campaign started in March of 1927 in their home district of Moabit, there first attempt failing due to inexperience. They got to the Berliner Bank’s safe, but half way through the cutting the were overcome by fumes, either the lack of oxygen in the vault consumed by the torch, or possibly toxic gases released as the metal oxidised. Either way this robbery was abandoned. 

After this failure was discovered, the police put the family flat under surveillance.  This did not stop the brothers from attempting another bank job, this time in Charlottenburg, but the police were on to them and staked out the bank. The brother’s careful preparations rumbled the police trap and they called off the robbery. 

By March 1928 the Brothers had perfected their techniques, now spending days tunnelling into a bank safe room to steal the railway workers wages (this time in Kreuzberg) and camouflaging the trap during the day so skilfully it was not discovered.  On the final night of the break in the safe opening operation was disturbed by the vigilant watch man, and Erich and Franz recorded another near miss.

Just weeks later they tried again in the wealthy Ku’damm area.  The smell of burning was noticed and the fire brigade called, the brothers this time cutting through a wall to escape into an adjacent cellar from which the police concluded they had vanished into thin air.

This led to a warrant to raid their family apartment, but nothing was found.  The police changed tactics and put potential banks where the Sass brothers had been seen nearby under observation, but again the brothers noticed and disappeared. 

Then Erich and Franz went for the big one. They discovered that post WWI treaty of Versailles reparations money, 9 million in cash, was to be stored in the State Finance Office on their home turf of Moabit before its transfer to France.  Again, they came close, as they were half way through opening the safe Erich was spotted by the watchman as he cut the alarm wire and the brothers ran, this time leaving their tools behind.

One would have thought that perhaps the brothers would get downhearted, but one successful robbery would be enough to set them up for life, and the next attempt turned out to be their masterpiece. 

This time, in January 1929 they went for the 181 private safety deposits boxes in a vault of the Disconto Bankgesellschaft near Berlin’s famous department store the KaDeWe.  The alarm was raised by bank staff the next morning who had failed to open the vault door.  It took 2 further days for workers to break a hole through the vault wall where a scene of devastation greeted them.  Bundles of notes and other valuables had been left behind.  The brothers this time had got more than they could carry.  

The official haul was 150,000 Reichmarks, but as the valuables were private and perhaps undeclared to avoid taxes etc. the real sum could have been as high as 2 Million Marks.  There are those that say that amongst the booty of cash, bonds and gold was the original score of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and jewellery belonging to the Sultan of Zanzibar.

We have seen that Erich and Franz prepared thoroughly for their robberies, and must have had a knack of getting the inside information they wanted for the planning stages, but this time they had excelled themselves.   The vault itself had a ventilation shaft, this the brothers had accessed from a neighbouring house cellar, using it to gain access to the vault itself, sealing the door from the inside before ransacked the place.

The police redoubled their efforts to catch them, clearly tis was again a robbery bore the now familiar signature of the Sass brothers.  By now the Berlin public and even the police were full of admiration for their daring.  The flat was searched again and the brothers arrested, but released through lack of evidence.   Upon their the release Erich and Franz held a packed press conference in one of Berlin’s most fashionable restaurants, whilst cheering crowds thronged the streets outside. 

Then the police got a hot tip off.  Curtain twitching locals had noticed odd night time noises coming from a cemetery in Charlottenburg.  An investigation noticed newly turned earth and excavation revealed a boarded-up entrance to a wood-lined 3 room subterranean hideout full of the brothers torches, gas bottles and other equipment!  Staking out the graveyard one night soon after, Franz Sass appeared, climbing over the wall.  As the Police rushed him he escaped, Erich was waiting nearby and they ran to their lawyer who gave them an alibi.  Again, they escaped arrest.

For the next 4 years, the brothers lived undisturbed, some saying that at night, they anonymously stuffed the letter boxes of Moabiters in financial difficulties with cash in true Robin Hood fashion.  But as the Nazi regime came to power they fled to Copenhagen.  Possibly as they needed funds (perhaps confirming the booty was left in Berlin) they robbed a bank and a Factory, were caught and sentenced to 4 years for burglary and falsifying documents.  

It was then that their fame backfired.  They were extradited back to Germany for trial and sentenced again to 11 and 13 years in 1938, the brothers serving in 2 separate prisons.  It’s possible that the pain of their separation in Danish jail led them to seek repatriation hoping they might serve together.   But this was different Germany they returned to, and a few months after their sentencing, in March of 1940, they were unceremoniously executed in the industrial yard of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.  The commandant who organised the firing squad (and claimed to have taken part in the shooting personally) was a man called Rudolf Hoss, who a few months later would be reassigned to construct a new camp. Its name was Auschwitz.

PS

The treasure from the Brothers Sass last Berlin robbery was never found.  Criminal Police Commissioner Fabich claimed until the end of his days that that during the post robbery investigation he had seen Erich in the Grunewald forest with a shovel, not far from another cemetery.  There are those that still seek the treasure there, even today……