Schloss Weissenstein, Schloß-Weißenstein-Straße, 9971 Matrei in Osttirol, Austria
Hermann Thieme (April 9, 1890 - March 3, 1971) was a wealthy, aristocratic Austrian. Sometime in the late '20s or early '30s Sergey Nabokov met and fell in love with Thieme.
Charming, handsome, something of a dilettante, Thieme was the son of an insurance magnate, Carl Wilhelm Rudolf von Thieme and Else Anna Mathilde von Witzleben. His family owned Schloss Weissenstein, a magnificent 12th century castle in the tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck, Austria. During the 1930s Hermann and Sergei often retreated to Schloss Weissenstein. The two of them were well accepted by Thieme's family. When Sergei went to stay with the Ledkovsky's family in Berlin, he kept a picture of Hermann on his night table.
In a letter that Sergei wrote to his mother, he describes the joy his relationship with Hermann gave him. "It's all such a strange story, sometimes even I don't understand how it happened ... I'm just suffocating with happiness. There are people," he wrote, "who would not understand this, to whom such things would be completely incomprehensible. They would rather see me in Paris, barely surviving by giving lessons, and in the end a deeply unhappy creature. There is talk about my 'reputation' and so on. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me."
In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded France, and by May the Germans were bombing Paris. Vladimir Nabokov and his family left for America on the last boat out of St. Nazaire, but Sergei was away in the countryside at the time. He returned to Paris to find their apartment suddenly empty. He chose to stay in Europe with Hermann. The Nazis were already rounding up homosexuals as actively as they were Jews, and to avoid attracting suspicion Sergei and Hermann saw each other only rarely. Sergei took a job as a translator in Berlin, but he had no stomach for war, and the Allied bombings frightened him horribly. The fighting grew more intense, and flight became impossible; Sergei had almost no money, and as a refugee from czarist Russia his only travel document was a flimsy Nansen passport.
In 1941 the Gestapo arrested Sergei on charges of homosexuality. It released him four months later, but he was placed under constant surveillance. He began to speak out vehemently against the injustices of the Third Reich to his friends and colleagues. He was arrested for the second time. After his arrest Sergei was taken to Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg, where he became prisoner No. 28631. Conditions were brutal: The camp was a center for medical experimentation, and the Nazis used the prisoners to conduct research on tuberculosis. Of the approximately 106,000 inmates who passed through Neuengamme, fewer than half survived, and as a rule, the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment.
Sergei's conduct in the camp was nothing less than heroic. Nicolas Nabokov's son Ivan says that after the war, survivors from Neuengamme would telephone his family out of the blue -- they were the only Nabokovs in the book -- just to talk about Sergei. "They said he was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering."
Meanwhile, Hermann had also been arrested, but he was sent to fight on the front lines in Africa. He would survive. He spent his later life at Schloss Weissenstein, without a career, caring for his invalid sister. He died in 1972 and is buried in Matrei. According to camp records, "Sergej Nabokoff" had died on Jan. 9, 1945, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.
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