Surviving Berlin – An Oral History


“Karl von der Heyden has written two fascinating autobiographies wrapped in one. The first is of his childhood years in Nazi Germany, as seen through the eyes of a youngster trying to live a normal life. The second is of a young immigrant’s discovery of America, and his growing love for his adopted new home, even as he discovers the racial injustices of the South that remind him of the anti-Semitic racism of his native land under Nazism. He belongs to that generation of young Germans who, years later, first confronted their Nazi parents with the hard questions of ‘what did you know, what did you do, and why did you go along?’ Insightful and well-written, Surviving Berlin eloquently raises questions that continue to have relevance today. It’s a book you will not want to put down.”

Michael Blumenthal, former United States Secretary of the Treasury


“Karl von der Heyden has done a signal service to those of us who wonder what it was like to grow up in Germany under Nazi rule. His intimate account of life as a Berliner coming of age during World War II and its aftermath is a reminder in these troubled times that averting our eyes from racist intolerance has devastating personal consequences.”

—Martin Indyk, Executive Vice President of the Brookings Institution
and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel

Karl M. von der Heyden was born in 1936 in Berlin—the heart of Nazi Germany. When young, he played with friends in the active and robust streets. Short years later, they fled for their lives east and then west along those same streets, trying to avoid the Russian army. His vibrant city, peopled with citizens he perceived as kind and honorable, had been wiped from the Earth. He experienced constant hunger.

Now, in SURVIVING BERLIN: An Oral History (MCP Books; July 2017), von der Heyden tells the story of his unlikely journey from the bomb shelter outside his childhood home, and massive destruction and deprivation, to the top corporate boardrooms in America. The book covers the summer of 1936 until 1963: the first third of his life. During the war, Hitler, ruling Nazi Germany from an office perhaps ten miles from von der Heyden’s home, carried out the mass extermination of six million Jews.

For years after peace came, the consequences of that horrific war continued to define von der Heyden’s everyday existence and a question plagued him: What had his parents known—how much could they have known—about the atrocities that the Nazis had committed? Von der Heyden’s father had been a member of the Nazi Party, and as a son, his guilt was complicated by the fact that his father had spent five harsh years as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp in Siberia. SURVIVING BERLIN is a first-hand account of the tumultuous Nazi and post-war years in Germany, and one man’s poignant search to find and understand the unvarnished truth.

In 1957, attending Duke University on a scholarship, he found his answers in an improbable place, the archives of the southern American institution. He located issues of the Nazi party’s newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter (The People’s Observer), and spent hours piecing together events, slowly filling in the gaps that had developed in the silence of his father and mother’s generation.

Equipped with new insights, von der Heyden was stunned to see a “parallel injustice” between the experiences of the Jews in Nazi Germany and of the blacks in the segregated South—the North Carolina university itself did not admit African-Americans until 1963. Von der Heyden writes, “I found the fact that systematic discrimination against a particular group of citizens could exist in America—a country we Germans viewed as enterprising and modern—incomprehensible.”

He became an American citizen, and served as the CFO of three of America’s largest consumer products companies: H.J. Heinz, PepsiCo, and RJR Nabisco, where he was also CEO. He also served as an independent director on a dozen large publicly held companies, including the New York Stock Exchange, DreamWorks Animations, and Macy’s. On an interim basis, he became president and chief executive officer at financially troubled Metallgesellschaft Corp. and successfully restructured the company in a period of seven months. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, share a commitment to philanthropy and have funded a library, an arts center and numerous fellowships at Duke University, in addition to significant endowments elsewhere. In his foreword to the book, Norman Pearlstein calls von der Heyden, “a legend whose career defies comparison. …that trusted individual who gets results while shunning the limelight.”

Today, von der Heyden remains “part of a generation of Germans plagued by guilt about what the Nazis did” to Jews and other minorities. And he states clearly, “In no way is anything in this memoir meant to compare my family’s travails with the terrible suffering experienced by so many during and after the war. There is no comparison of any kind to be made.”

Affecting and thought provoking, SURVIVING BERLIN is a remarkable story, whose themes are as profound today as they were seventy years ago.



Karl M. von der Heyden served as the Chief Financial Officer of three of America’s largest consumer products companies: H.J. Heinz, PepsiCo, and RJR Nabisco, where he was also CEO. He also served as an independent director on a dozen large publicly held companies, including the New York Stock Exchange, DreamWorks Animations, AstraZeneca, and Macy’s. Recipient of The International Center in New York’s Award of Excellence and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, he served as Co-Chairman of the American Academy in Berlin and as a former trustee of Duke University, the YMCA of Greater New York, and other nonprofit organizations.