American widow of Holocaust survivor to give $22 million to German zoo

“We have no children,” she said. “Our children are the zoo.”

ByABC News
September 2, 2017, 9:52 AM

— -- A New Jersey woman has pledged to donate $22 million to a zoo in Cologne, Germany, in memory of her late husband, a Jewish man whom she met when he was hiding from Nazis during World War II.

Elizabeth Reichert, 93, was born in Cologne and met her husband, Arnulf, during the war while she was working with the German underground resistance to the Nazi regime, she told ABC News.

The husband and wife were lifelong animal lovers and did not have children. So before he died in 1998, they decided to leave a substantial gift to the city where they had met and which held a special place in their heart.

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

“We have no children,” she added. “Our children are the zoo.”

When Reichert’s banker first reached out to the zoo about the contribution in early 2015, the organization's chief financial officer was so surprised that he thought it might be a scam.

“I told him I wouldn’t pay any money in advance,” the financial officer, Christopher Landsberg, told ABC News. “He was laughing -- he said, ‘No, no, I’m a real banker, and everything is real here.’”

The zoo learned that Reichert planned to donate $22 million to a foundation that would invest the money and pay out a regular income to the zoo, in perpetuity. The arrangement was finalized in recent months, Landsberg said, after he flew to New Jersey in May to meet Reichert.

“We will spend the money to enlarge enclosures, to optimize enclosures, to make it nicer for the animals, and the people as well,” he said, noting that major philanthropic inheritances are rare in Germany. “It’s very special.”

Reichert said a South American pavilion will also be built and named after her husband. She has already started donating $6,000 each month, which she said would continue for the rest of her life.

More than anything, the gift is meant to honor her husband, Reichert said.

In Cologne during the Second World War, a Jewish neighbor of Reichert’s was slated to be sent to a concentration camp, but her aunt let him take refuge on her estate, Reichert said. Soon after, Reichert said, she joined the resistance as a courier who would sneak through fields.

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

The pair wed after Allied forces liberated Cologne in 1945, and several years later, they moved to Israel. After five years in the new Jewish state, they followed Reichert’s mother to the United States.

The couple ended up in New Jersey, where they ran a pet store.

“We are great animal lovers and we have always been concerned about the welfare of the animals,” Reichert said. Her husband, she added, strongly opposed hunting for sport and hated to see animals suffer.

“He was a wonderful person -- there was no one like him,” Reichert said. “I’m a widow for 19 years, and not for all the money in the world -- or anything -- would I ever want anything to do with anyone else.”

But the $22 million isn’t Reichert’s first contribution to the zoo.

In 1954, the couple donated a soft-shelled turtle they brought from the Jordan River.

Reichert recounted how the turtle first had to survive an eight- or nine-day, “horrible” journey in a burlap bag on a ship to Naples, Italy. “We tried to feed the turtle when we were on the boat with cold cuts from the table,” she said.

Later in life, she said, the couple decided they wanted to give back to the city they loved -- where they began their relationship, the hometown that never left their hearts. They had sometimes visited the zoo there when they were younger.

“We were born in Cologne and we remember forever Cologne,” said Reichert, whose German, Landsberg happily noted, is still tinged with Cologne slang.

“It’s in memory of my husband, who was a wonderful human being,” she said.