The Perse School

Josef Behrmann (1939)


A survivor of the Holocaust and key witness at the Nuremburg Trials, Josef Behrmann was an actor and a tireless campaigner for Jewish causes. A Latvian Jew who boarded in Hillel House, the School’s former Jewish boarding house, Josef returned to Riga for the 1939 summer holiday. His mother decided not to send him back to England, now at war with Germany, thinking he would be safer in neutral and unoccupied Latvia. But in 1941 the Nazis overran the country.

Mr Behrmann saw his mother shot dead in the street for not displaying her yellow Star of David – it was on the coat she had over her arm on that warm day. Between 1941 and 1945 he passed through 14 camps, including the infamous Buchenwald, surviving them all by astonishing luck yet remaining scarred for life by what he had seen. He was 15 at the time of his original internment. He weighed only four stone at the time of his release.

After the war Mr Behrmann worked for nine years in U.S. intelligence and was a key witness at the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals. He became drawn to an acting career and was to appear in over 100 films, including The Naked Runner with Frank Sinatra and Edward Fox (subsequently to be a great friend), The Ipcress File with Michael Caine, 1984 with Richard Burton and Carve Her Name with Pride with Virginia McKenna – in which he played a brutal SS officer. Later he was an advisor for The Odessa File and Schindler’s List.

His stage name of Joscik Barbarossa is an ironic reference to the event that shattered his life, Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa to conquer Eastern Europe to the Urals.

In 1954 he wrote a moving letter to the School saying how in the death camps his mind often went back to the Perse playing fields and the kind of training in prowess and endurance that they represented. It was fitting that he should revisit the School on a perfect summer’s day in 1995, just a few months before his death. Accompanied by his friend Edward Fox, he spoke to the Sixth Form, and later with the Headmaster about his plans for a bequest. He knew his health was failing and in his final year he was anxious to leave some lasting testimony to his experiences.

Josef Behrmann donated his collection of books on the Holocaust and the Second World War, now housed in the Barry Room. In his memory an annual lecture on a Holocaust-related theme is held.

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