Ernst Helms - the man whom Lasker saved

Dec 20, 2013, 7:51 AM |

Ernst Helms (Эрнст Брунович Гельмс in Russian) was a German-Soviet artist, decorator and cartoonist. In a little-known chapter of his early life, he was literally saved by Emanuel Lasker's advice. Here's the episode, recounted by Yakov Damsky.

"Ernst Helms then worked in Tupolev's design office; the famous ANT planes were setting many records, the workers were awarded with various Soviet decorations and, what's even more important, access to the closed food distribution centers that the ordinary folks were barred from. Lasker had no own sources of information about the Soviet life (and couldn't have), but his world-class analytical mind allowed him to see so much between the pompous newspaper lines that he once gave Helms an advice; for this advice, Ernie always considered Lasker his second father.

That's what Lasker told him: leave Tupolev's company and quit aviation altogether, get far from Moscow and get a profession where his German name didn't stick out in any way. And that was in the end of 1935, when everything in USSR still seemed totally quiet! Lasker himself had been in Moscow for half a year at the time.

The funny thing was that Ernst took the advice. He went to the provincial (despite the good university) Kazan, took a job in the Russian Dramatic Theater as a stage worker, started to make scenery elements himself, became an artist, then the theater's head artist, the People's Artist of the Tatar Autonomous SSR, Distinguished Artist of the RSFSR, one of the best cartoonists there were. He would pray every day for his elder friend, and then, for decades - in his memory (Helms died in 1992). Because, as Lasker seemed to predict, in 1937, a year and half later, the entire Tupolev's design office was jailed. Tupolev's genius (he could look at the plane's model and immediately tell if this plane would fly at all) was used in the sharashka (design office staffed by prisoners) which, ironically, was too based in Kazan, but many of his subordinates wouldn't survive the gulag. Helms wouldn't have survived it for sure, but he was never sought after during the arrest."

Ernst Helms' official site (in Russian):