A Widow Of A Holocaust Survivor Donates $22 Million To A German Zoo

Elephants at the Cologne Zoological Garden CC BY 2.0 Marco Verch
Elephants at the Cologne Zoological Garden CC BY 2.0 Marco Verch

Little is known today about the German underground resistance against the Nazi Party as their actions were extremely limited and were very often brutally punished by the Gestapo. During the twelve years of Adolf Hitler’s regime, staying alive while secretly opposing the system was a real ordeal.


When a strict racial policy was adopted in Germany in 1933, many Jews went into hiding or tried to conceal their identities, often reinventing themselves as Germans.

In one such situation, when a young Jewish man was hidden within a German family, a great love story developed. In 1944 Elizabeth met Arnulf Reichert in her hometown of Cologne.

Elizabeth’s aunt was hiding her Jewish neighbor who had avoided being sent to a concentration camp by a thread. Elizabeth had joined the resistance as a courier, delivering important intelligence which was passed to the Allies.

As the resistance circle was small in numbers, she and her future husband fell in love during the desperate times of war. Many years later in an interview for ABC News, she recalled the start of her romance:

“That’s how I met Arnulf, and that is how we got together in ’44 because I knew all the underground people. Arnulf lived in hiding in Cologne, avoiding the Nazis. We got together during the night…”

Elizabeth Reichert is now a 93-year-old widow, living in New Jersey, where she moved together with Arnulf, after living the immediate post-war years in Israel. The pair worked hard and eventually owned a pet shop which developed into a lucrative business. Unfortunately, Arnulf died in 1998.

Cologne zoo from the air. Neuwieser – CC-BY SA 3.0
Cologne zoo from the air. Neuwieser – CC-BY SA 3.0

The couple did not have children, and before Arnulf departed, they had decided to make a considerable donation of 22 million dollars to Cologne Zoo, as that city where they met had always held a special place in their hearts:

“It meant a lot to my husband. That was his wish that whatever we have when we pass away should be donated to the zoo of Cologne. Cologne is our hometown.”

But it was not their first contribution. The couple started nurturing the bond with Cologne Zoo as early as 1954 when they donated a soft-shelled turtle, transported from the Jordan river.

Elizabeth recalled how the animal-loving couple made the nine-day journey with the sensitive creature when they accompanied it on a boat from Israel to Italy. The turtle was “packed” in a burlap bag, and although frightened it survived the trip and settled in Cologne Zoo as part of its big family.

Elephants at Cologne zoo
Elephants at Cologne zoo

Cologne Zoo was first approached by the Reichert family banker in 2015. The chief financial officer, Christopher Landsberg, was at first convinced that the donation was a scam or at least a bad joke. When he verified the 22 million dollar gift to the Zoo was real, he was amazed. Landsberg quickly traveled to New Jersey to meet Elizabeth and thank her in person.

“We will spend the money to enlarge enclosures, to optimize space, to make it better for the animals, and the people as well,” Landsberg told ABC News, noting that such significant donations are very rare in Germany, which makes this story even more endearing.

To honor Arnulf Reichert, Cologne Zoo decided to name the South American pavilion after him. Elizabeth concluded the interview, simply stating:

“More than anything, the gift is meant to honor my husband. We were born in Cologne, and we remember forever Cologne.” 

The Reicherts dedicated their lives to animals, as Arnulf was a great opponent of hunting and the mistreatment of animals. Their contribution to Cologne Zoo has ensured the future of the institution for many years to come.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE