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Ernest Drucker chased Hitler and found the American dream

SEMINOLE — Ernest Drucker was 18 when Nazi storm troopers took over his hometown of Vienna.

He remembered a radio broadcast in March 1938 saying that Austria had ceded control to Germany. Later that evening, the paramilitary brownshirts held a torch-lit parade through the city.

From that moment on, Mr. Drucker believed that his fate and that of Adolf Hitler were intertwined.

He would later lead a counterintelligence unit for the U.S. Army, hunting down war criminals in the Bavarian forests who tried to blend in as farmers.

Mr. Drucker missed getting Hitler but captured several of his staff members and seized artifacts, including handwritten notes from a Hitler speech and a Christmas card bearing his signature.

Mr. Drucker would return to the United States and enjoy a prosperous life as a shirtmaker. But he never forgot his past and spent much of life fighting newer forms of terrorism. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Marietta, raised money for ambulances and flak jackets for drivers on Israel's West Bank.

Mr. Drucker died Wednesday, weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 92.

"The list of adjectives to describe this amazing gentleman is endless," Rabbi Leah Herz told hundreds of mourners Thursday at Congregation B'Nai Israel.

"He was handsome, gallant, debonair, a dreamer, a philanthropist, an organizer, a pillar of the Jewish community."

Back in Vienna in 1938, the sudden appearance of Nazi flags on lampposts and buildings meant the political and social climate was about to get much worse, Mr. Drucker wrote in his 2010 book, Ernst — Escaping the Horrors of the Nazi Occupation.

"I was just one of millions of Jewish people who faced even worse realities," he wrote. "But I do share a common trait of all Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust years, the development of a strong survival instinct."

Before the occupation, Mr, Drucker had begun an apprenticeship with a Viennese tailor. He fled to Paris and then Cuba before emigrating to the United States in 1941.

He enlisted in the Army late in 1942.

Mr. Drucker fought in the Normandy invasion and in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war ended, the Army used his fluency in French, Spanish, English and German to search for fleeing Nazi henchmen. His efforts leading a counterintelligence unit bore fruit, including the capture of one of Hitler's lieutenants who had been scorched in a 1944 bomb blast intended for Hitler.

"The lieutenant was so cooperative that I made him a temporary informant to assist us in our covert activities — so long as I was able to provide him with a high-powered pain medication," Mr. Drucker wrote.

As for Hitler himself, Mr. Drucker told the Times in 2007, "We thought maybe we could catch him, too. We really chased him, but he escaped to Berlin."

After the war, Mr, Drucker returned to New York, where he worked at a Macy's department store. In 1952, he met and married Marietta Sobel, another Holocaust survivor from Vienna.

"He swept me off my feet," said Marietta Drucker, 84.

They moved to Detroit, and Mr. Drucker eventually established his own custom clothing shop in Birmingham, Mich. He made custom shirts and other items for prominent auto industry and entertainment figures, including Berry Gordy, Bobby Darin, David Niven and Diana Ross.

Mr. Drucker dressed the part, polishing his shoes every day and pressing his own clothes, even after they came back from the dry cleaner.

Mr. Drucker later returned to visit Austria and Germany. He also tried to sell Hitler's notes, as well as the Christmas card, through Sotheby's. The auctioneer originally quoted a value of $10,000, his wife said, until Mr. Drucker made a critical mistake.

"They were starting to fall apart," his wife said. "Ernest had them laminated, which was the worst thing. They had no value then."

He refused an adjusted price of $1,000. The family has given the items to the Florida Holocaust Museum for display, his wife said.

Always active in his support for Israel, Mr. Drucker joined several organizations after moving to Seminole with his wife in 1995. He served on the board of the Menorah Manor Foundation, including time as its chairman. He also founded a local chapter of the American Red Magen David for Israel, which helps Israel's first responders provide emergency medical care to the wounded, and served as its president for eight years. Fundraising led by Ernest and Marietta Drucker led to four ambulances and protective gear used by first responders on Israel's West Bank.

Age had shown no signs of slowing him down. Mr. Drucker worked out with a trainer every day and played golf. Several weeks ago, he was dancing the Hava Nagila hora at a wedding.

In late June, doctors discovered late-stage pancreatic cancer.

"The doctor said, 'I don't recommend therapy. It will destroy the quality of your life,' " recalled Eric Ludin, Mr. Drucker's son-in-law. "Ernest then said, 'Okay then, we will continue dancing until the music stops.' That was his response."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

.Biography

Ernest Drucker

Born: Nov. 23, 1919

Died: July 25, 2012

Survivors: wife, Marietta; daughters Judy Ludin and Debbie Sokolov; and five grandchildren.

Ernest Drucker chased Hitler and found the American dream 07/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 11:58pm]

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