Abraham M. Muhlbaum, a research physicist for the U.S. Navy and a Holocaust survivor active with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Washington-area remembrance groups, died Feb. 19 in Falls Church, of complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Muhlbaum, who was born in Berlin in 1922, fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands in 1938. After the Germans invaded that country, the Muhlbaums’ situation became perilous again. When police arrived at their Amsterdam apartment in 1943 to deport the family to a concentration camp, Mr. Muhlbaum fled by escaping over the rooftops.
Over the next few months, while working as part of the Dutch resistance, Mr. Muhlbaum was able to help his family reach safety. By forging a telegram, he was able to have his family, interned in camps in the Netherlands and then Germany, travel by train to British Palestine as part of an unusual prisoner exchange. German pilgrims known as Templars, imprisoned by the British, returned to Germany in exchange for a number of European Jews.
He himself remained on the run, using false identity papers. After escaping arrest once in the Netherlands, he began to make his way through France with the intention of reaching the United Kingdom via Spain. He was arrested near the Spanish border in 1944, and though he managed to conceal his Jewish identity, his efforts at escape meant he was interned as a political prisoner, with no one told of his disappearance or fate. He was held in several camps, including the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp on French soil, near Strasburg, and then on to Dachau, in Bavaria, from which he was liberated in 1945.
Mr. Muhlbaum, then 23, was able to return to the Netherlands and restart his education. Building on his pre-war interest in radio, he found work for Philips N.V. in Eindhoven while studying for a degree as a radio technician, as well as sitting for exams to earn a high-school diploma. He continued his studies at the University of Technology at Delft, from which he earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in physics in 1958.
That degree in science caught the attention of an American consular official when Mr. Muhlbaum sought a tourist visa in 1959. With the space race with the Soviet Union picking up speed, the U.S. was seeking scientific talent, and so Mr. Muhlbaum was encouraged to extend his visit, which culminated in his employment with the electronics giant Westinghouse in Baltimore, and then, for several years, as research associate at Johns Hopkins University, where his research included studying the behavior of electronics in simulated outer space environments.
Extending his field to oceanography with further study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s’ program in Woods Hole, Mass, Mr. Muhlbaum went on to work for many years as a physicist for the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1968 at the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office, then located in Suitland, Md., and later at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in White Oak, Md. His work for the Navy included designing, developing and testing sonobuoys — sturdy hydrophones that can be dropped from airplanes or ships to detect sounds underwater, such as those emitted by submarines. The research frequently took him out on the Atlantic on Navy vessels and aircraft to test the systems.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Muhlbaum was recognized for his wartime efforts as part of the resistance in several ways: In 1980, he was awarded the Resistance Memorial Cross (Verzetsherdenkingskruis) by the Dutch government, as well as a special pension, which allowed him to resign his job with the Navy and take a series of tutoring and teaching positions for institutions such as the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
Concurrently, he began speaking to a variety of organizations about his Holocaust experience, and served as the chairman of the Speakers Bureau of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of the Washington Area, a group that is today administered by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As a volunteer, he worked for the museum for many years as well, drawing on his knowledge of German, Dutch, Yiddish and French to help translate documents for the museum’s archives.
He is survived by his wife, the former Henriette Cnopius, of Falls Church, and a son, David Muhlbaum (Elizabeth), of Bethesda, as well as two granddaughters, Sarah Holland and Lily Sabine. His brother and sister, who reached safety during World War II thanks to his efforts, live in Israel.