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Biographies & Memoirs

From Wolfenbüttel to Curry’s Rest: A Personal and Professional Memoir

By John Carson

Synopsis

This compelling and remarkable life story of family, love, and courage takes the reader from an idyllic childhood to a courageous escape from Nazi Germany to a professional career in economics and urban planning that spanned continents, cultures, and history.

A story of survival and resilience, we begin when John is a young Jewish boy in Germany before the outbreak of WWII. As a teenager, he is forced to flee for England alone. Once there, he hits the ground running and takes on any job he can find, learning what he can before moving on to the next opportunity.

Graduating from the London School of Economics and University College in London, he begins his career as a city planner, quickly finding success and landing projects that take him all over the world – Canada, the United States, Europe, Asia, India, and Israel – throughout the 1950s to the 1970s, all the while enjoying a successful marriage and family life. When he retires, he and his wife buy and restore a former sugar mill in Dominica named Curry’s Rest (a project that becomes much more than what they bargained for!), creating a community of unique and quirky friends there as well.

Childhood

I was born in 1921, three years after the end of the First World War and twelve years before Hitler’s rise to power, in northwest Germany in Wolfenbüttel. Actually, my birth was in a hospital in Braunschweig, a bigger town ten miles away. Wolfenbüttel is about 125 miles west of Berlin and 100 miles south of Hamburg.

           They called me Hans Walfried. “Walfried” is a very Germanic name like Wilfried or Wotan and was chosen in memory of a well-liked family friend.

           Wolfenbüttel, a beautiful town established in the sixteenth century, is famous because of the philosopher and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), who lived there in his later years and was the librarian of the Herzog-August Bibliotek, founded in 1572 – one of the first lending libraries in Europe. In fact, the town is often referred to as Lessingstadt. Fortunately, the town was spared the heavy bombardment of most German cities because it was of no strategic significance.

           With few authentic documents and only the memory of a very young child, it was difficult to come up with a reliable account of the circumstances of our family when I was born.  

        I do not know when my parents arrived in Wolfenbüttel. I do know that my sister, Ruth, was born in the Braunschweig hospital. I do not know where my brother Max, nine years older, was born. And I do know that our family left Wolfenbüttel for Berlin in 1926 where my father became the director of a Jewish school.

       Whenever my parents came to Wolfenbüttel my father taught, and for a time was the director, at the Samson Schule. This Jewish school was established by Philipp Samson in 1786 in the centre of the town. In 1896, a new, large building was erected at the edge of the town.

         At some time, when I became conscious of what was going on in our large house, a number of Polish boys enrolled at the Samson Schule and lived on the top floor of our house. I believe that later some additional Polish boys were taught in a private school by my father. The boys’ quarters were run as a pensione, or a boarding house, and our mother managed it.



The Family


           My father was an intelligent and learned man. He had the greatest influence over me as I grew up. His only brother died in the First World War.

           My father was born in Krakau, Poland, into a very orthodox Jewish family. His father, my grandfather, was a famous cantor because of his exceptionally fine voice. He was no longer alive when I was born, but his wife, my father’s mother and my grandmother, a tiny woman called Otta, lived with us; more about her later.

           My father’s education, especially after he left Poland and moved to Berlin, turned him into a scholar. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in philology. He taught Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, as well as theology. His studies and his work turned him slowly but decisively into a liberal Jew.

           My mother, Anna, nee Engel (Angel), was from Cologne. She was much younger than my father (by thirteen years). Her religious background was less strictly Jewish, though one of her ancestors was a Chief Rabbi of Cologne. My mother was an only child and I never knew her parents.


***


           One interesting fact of the origins of my parents is that they came from the two main divisions of the Jewish people. My father was an Ashkenazi (from Eastern Europe) and my mother was a Sephardi (originally from Spain).

           My father was a quiet and gentle person who left all family affairs to his wife. She dealt with all financial matters: she gave her husband money for his books, clothes, etc., but she managed all the rest. She decided where to go for our summer holidays and made all the arrangements.

           Of course, my father was concerned and took a great interest in his children’s education. I know that I was a great disappointment to him after I started school because of my lacklustre educational progress. But he was too good a pedagogue to show anger or to scold me about my lack of progress at school. Rather, he tried to find out why I did not do better. Fortunately, my older sister, Ruth, made up for it. She was a top student and, having inherited our father’s gift for languages, did well in Latin and modern languages.

           My mother was an accomplished hausfrau – she was a great cook, she could sew, and she could generally run all aspects of a large household. In addition, she had managerial skills (probably learned at a special school) which were put to good use in Wolfenbüttel.           

           My brother, Max, was nine years older than me and, because of this great age difference, we had few common interests. Imagine, when I was three years old he was practically a teenager – I was just a baby to him. In my memory of life in Wolfenbüttel, Max is not really there. Later in life, in Berlin, when I was over ten, this changed a bit, but not much. I was never as close to him as I was to my sister who was just three years older.

            Ruth was a wonderful sister. I probably idealize her because she played with me and looked after me when I was very young, at a time when my mother was busy running a large household. I did have a kindermädchen, a nanny who washed, clothed, fed, and put me to bed, and who generally looked after all the chores of bringing up a young child. My sister’s “looking after me” meant something more. Yet, away from me, her life left no memories. For example, I do not remember her going to school or having girlfriends.

           The kindermädchen was a strict disciplinarian, probably under instruction from my mother. She may have had other, additional household duties. Her punishment for me included shutting me in a large dirty linen basket for a while – maybe until I promised to be a good boy. I have a few other memories of her washing, dressing, and feeding me, and when I was a bit bigger, she seemed to enjoy playing with me to give me an erection. I did not tell my mother or anyone else about it. How should I have known, at perhaps two-plus years of age, that this was sexual abuse? It did not hurt.

           Otta, my grandmother, may have lived with us in Wolfenbüttel, but I do not remember her there. Possibly, she still lived in Poland with her husband until he died, at which time she joined us in Berlin. She was a quiet, kind old lady dressed all in black as all older women were in those days. She taught me to write the German script, which is full of letters with straight strokes, and she used to follow my writing efforts carefully, saying “rauf und runter” (up and down) to make sure I made no mistakes. I well remember both my grandmother and how she and I liked eating candy together.

           That was our very small family. I respected my father and admired him. Had life been kinder and he had lived longer, we would have had a rewarding adult relationship. My mother was very competent, and I could always rely on her to give me whatever I needed or desired. Ruth gave me love; we would have been lifelong friends. Max, my brother, the only family member apart from me to survive the Second World War, left little mark in my memory, except that he went off to Buenos Aires with all of the family’s liquid assets and changed them into strips of pure gold. After we left Berlin in 1938, we never saw each other again.

           There was no aunt, no uncle, no nephew, no niece, no cousin twice removed (whatever that is). I grew up lacking all experience of an extended family life, and did not know what this meant until I married Rene. She came from a very large family that was spread out over Europe, North America, and Israel.



Our House and Surroundings and a Wonderful Life


           The Samson Schule faced the main road leading out of town. In fact, it was the last building at the corner of a country lane. Our house was immediately behind a wall that enclosed the school playground. The country lane ran along a forest.

           Our house was very large. Not just in the memory of a small boy. It must have been spacious enough for a family of five plus the pensione that housed about a dozen high school boys as well as the servants’ quarters. The main entrance door opened onto a large hall with a sweeping staircase that led to a balcony on the second floor overlooking the entrance hall. This enormous space left a strong impact on me. In later life I had dreams, repeated over and over again, about frightening scenes in our large hall and staircase. It took me years as an adult to banish the dreams by finally associating the setting of the dreams with our large hall and the sweeping staircase.

           There was also a third floor, I believe, where the schoolboys’ dormitory and bathrooms were located. However, my indoor life was confined to the nursery and the passageway, where the nasty laundry basket was kept, that led to the bathroom. The life I remember best was spent outside the house.


***


           I could not guess the acreage of the grounds belonging to the house. There was an orchard, there were stables for cows and horses, and there were ducks and chickens. Beyond the stables were the fields for vegetables that were of no interest to me. The orchard gardener was my special friend. In season, he always left a ladder propped against any tree that had ripe fruit for me to pick: apples, plums, peaches, cherries, and other nameless but tasty fruit. I was free to roam around the farm and animal shed. The great excitement on one of those days was watching a calf being born.

           My constant companion was a dog, an Alsatian called Filax. He was a big, strong dog and rough to play with, but he never hurt me even when he tore my shirts and shorts. At some stage Filax was suspected by neighbours of killing chickens and other small animals. Eventually, Filax was gone and I was a very sad boy – but for a short time only because there were always new things to explore, especially in the forest on the other side of the country lane. This was a natural forest without paths, benches, tables, or other amenities. In fact, in some places you could hardly get through the bushes, weeds, or trees.

           I was warned not to walk alone into the forest or I might get lost. More important: gypsies camped in the forest and gypsies were known to kidnap children and take them away with them. Well, this sounded exciting. Possibly, I was looking for children to play with – there were none at home. I did meet children of my own age to play with occasionally. For example, when I was old enough to join the mountain hikes with the family, we used to go with other families to the nearby Harz Mountains to climb its highest peak known as the Brocken (1,140 m). This was also where I discovered my fear of heights. The path leading to the top of the Brocken was steep in parts but not difficult for me. But near the top, the narrow path ran along a precipice with a sheer drop into a void. I was scared to move. Only the strong arms of some young man we were hiking with rescued me from immobility. But let’s return to my forest.

           The gypsies had lots of children and I played with them without coming to any harm. One trip into the forest led to another. Short excursions went unnoticed. But once I got to know the children I, of course, stayed longer, until one day I was gone so long that I was missed at home and a search party was organized. My parents found me playing happily with the gypsies. I was told again not to go into the forest by myself, but I continued. I believe that my parents, seeing that I was not getting into any serious trouble, let me continue my long walks into the woods.

           Gypsies roamed about in groups all over Europe at the time and were allowed to camp on public land, but they were prohibited to settle. Then one day “My Gypsies,” the gypsy children I had befriended, had gone. They had moved on. Yet I continued to explore the forest by myself and never stopped as long as I lived in Wolfenbüttel. What kept me going into the forest after my playmates had left? I think I went back because there was so much to see; I must have liked what I saw and wanted more. I would explore the different trees, shrubs, ferns, and mosses. I remember trying to climb a tree without a ladder.

           This was the beginning of my interest in forests. Wherever I went during my life, I discovered forests: evergreen forests, tropical forests, and rain forests. As I grew older, the names of the trees did not matter too much: what interested me was the great variety and beauty of trees to be admired. This changed some thirty years later when I was a planning officer in West Ham, in the east end of London of all places and became involved with the new Tree Preservation Regulations under the Town Planning Act. This time, knowing the names of trees did matter. The preservation orders not only asked for the location and the number of trees to be preserved but also asked for the type, age, and life expectancy of every tree in order to justify its preservation. At that time, I both admired the beauty of the trees and I got to know their names pretty well. As a boy in Wolfenbüttel, though, I did not have to worry about these details.

But then, my life in Wolfenbüttel came to an end and my family moved on just like “My Gypsies” had. It was 1926 and I was five years old.

                            


Berlin


           Going to Berlin meant the start of a new life for me: starting school, living in an apartment, and having to get used to a big city. People were everywhere and everything was different from Wolfenbüttel.

           The apartment in the west end of the city near the fashionable Kurfürstendamm was certainly large enough. There were eight rooms, two bathrooms, a front and rear hall, and two balconies – a large one on the street side and a smaller one overlooking the landscaped courtyard. We had a maid named Mia who had her own small room. She was a young, buxom country girl who cleaned the apartment, helped with the cooking, and washed the laundry in the basement of the building. The drying was done in the courtyard, or in the spooky attic when it was raining.

           When I was old enough for a bicycle, there was the problem of where to store it. Outside was not advisable. To carry it up the main staircase was not permitted; this left the winding, spiral back staircase which gave access to the kitchen. This was all right, but where to keep it? My brother came up with an idea: he fixed a pulley on the back hall ceiling so I could then haul the bicycle up to our landing.

           I do not remember being unhappy about all the changes in my new life. It was all new and therefore exciting. Just one small example: I enjoyed going with my mother to the Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West) in Berlin. This huge, multi-storey department store was nicknamed KaDeWe (pronounced Kah-Day-Vay) and sold everything imaginable, including food. On the food floor there were large glass-sided water tanks full of live fish. Once, an eel escaped the fishmonger’s net and slithered along the tiled floor. I tried to pick up the eel but it was too slippery.

           The year of our move to Berlin was 1927: six years before Hitler came to power. You will note my memory’s fixation on Hitler and what he stood for in my Berlin life. By the time he became the Chancellor of Germany I was a student (not for long) at the Fichte Gymnasium, a boys’ grammar school. Out in the streets around the school, noisy gangs of the extreme right and left parties marched, often leading to fights.

           At school the Jewish boys discussed “the situation” in the streets and the rising tension between us and the boys who belonged to the Hitler Youth. We also talked about what we heard at home when our parents discussed political events in Germany with their dinner guests. We, the school boys, seemed to be more worried about the situation than our parents were.

           One day at school, during recess in the yard, a big Hitler Youth boy attacked a little Jewish boy, a friend of mine. I rushed over to try and stop the fight. The big guy hit me in the face with a hard object. This made me really mad and I wrestled him to the ground, sitting on top of him with blood from my face trickling all over him. The hard object turned out to be an illegal weapon – a knuckle-duster – which was a brass gadget worn with four fingers through four holes as a grip in the palm of the hand. By the time a crowd had formed to watch the fight, the duty-teacher was alerted and came to separate us.


***


           I was reminded of this time in Berlin when reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a remarkable and well-researched book about William Dodd’s (U.S. ambassador) failure to persuade the State Department of the seriousness of Hitler’s aims. Ambassador Dodd’s views were influenced by Konstantin von Neurath, Germany’s minister for foreign affairs, who believed that others in the government could control Hitler. Dodd said: “Hitler will fall into line with these wiser men and ease up on a tense situation.” That was also the initial view of Germany’s middle and upper classes. It is important to remember that Hitler had admirers elsewhere, in England and the United States. He was praised for being a strong leader who “got things done,” unlike the officials of the Weimar Republic.

           The Jewish middle class was just the same at first – they were unconcerned about their future in Germany. They were Germans first, they had fought for Germany in the last war and they were among the leaders in science and the arts, and in commerce and industry. And like the rest of the educated Germans and Austrians the Jews felt safe – until it was too late, and Hitler was unstoppable. This attitude was well expressed, perhaps in its extreme form, by Sigmund Freud: “My language is German. My culture, my achievements are German. I consider myself intellectually to be a German, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitic prejudices in Germany and German Austria. Since then, I prefer to call myself a Jew.”

           We, the school boys, however, having a “front seat” so to speak, seemed to have had a better sense about what was to come. Had our elders been less blasé they could have left Germany in time before it was too late – as some of them did – like Rene’s uncle Fritz Neuburg. He left with a substantial part of his fortune. Freud left Vienna rather late in 1938 when he and his family escaped to England with the help of Ernest Jones, president of the International Psychoanalytic Association.

           These thoughts may show my hesitant hindsight as well as the grown-ups’ failed foresight. But I think it is an issue well worth further re-examination (by someone else), considering the inconceivable number of people killed. The criticism of the allies for not bombing the railway lines leading to the concentration camps during the critical years of 1943 to 1945 is a different issue. After all, Hitler’s Mein Kampf explicitly described his aims well before he took power.  

           This may be a suitable point at which to consider my belief – my Judaism. I never denied my Jewish ancestry. I mentioned my father’s orthodox background and how he became a liberal Jew. There was also a rabbi somewhere in my mother’s ancestry. When I was growing up in Berlin I went to the synagogue on Saturdays and during the holidays. I learned to read Hebrew and had my bar mitzvah, at which I not only recited the Torah blessing but I also read the weekly portion from the Torah. But none of these Jewish practices had any meaning for me. I now rationalize that I followed tradition out of respect for my father.

           I do remember on my bar mitzvah day being upset that the ceremony interfered with a rehearsal at school. I was clearly more interested in activities with my school friends than in my religious duties. It is hard now for me to pin down my passage or my drift to agnosticism – a kind of continuation of my father’s religious passage. But I clearly recall my, perhaps immature, reasoning at the time: if the Jews were God’s “chosen people” how could I believe in Him when He had abandoned us or failed to protect us, not only now but throughout history.

           I had to grow up, read more, and above all get some education before I could sort out my disturbed and young mind. I found that chance after the war at the London School of Economics (LSE).

***


           Though the 1930s were uncertain times that affected all of us, young and old, our Berlin days were not all bad. We had lots of good times, too. For the summer holidays we usually went to the mountains in Austria, mainly because my father was under his doctor’s orders to spend as much time at higher altitudes for the benefit of his heart. Our favourite places were in the region of Tyrol in northern Austria where we usually stayed on large farms in the foothills, not in hotels in the towns. The food was good and we could start hiking from the front door of any farmhouse we might be staying in. We did visit towns like Innsbruck where I had another fright one afternoon as I crossed the Inn River on a rickety footbridge. The gaps between the boards were so wide I feared that I might fall through them and drown: it seems that I had an instinct for my safety.

           On one of the farms in Tyrol, the family produced honey. One day, the son responsible for looking after the operation took me along on his motorbike to help him collect the honey. At each station, with up to a dozen hives, the routine consisted of spinning the honey combs to separate the honey from the wax, putting the honey through a sieve to catch bits of wax and other impurities, and finally – the best part of the job – tasting the honey. Small amounts of honey were poured into a paper cup for tasting. It was like a wine tasting, except you didn’t spit out the honey. I concentrated on “quality control,” often tasting the honey from the same hive several times to make sure that the honey conformed to my standard.

           At home, throughout the year, we used to go on day trips either sightseeing to places like the Schloss in Potsdam southwest of Berlin or to lakes on the outskirts of the city, where Max and Ruth liked to row. Visits to the Berlin Zoo were frequent as it was within walking distance of our home. Curiously, in addition to the zoo’s large number of animals, there were exhibits of humans, too. These were families from different African tribes or from Asia. The zoo built replicas of their villages and brought groups of “natives” to show how they lived in their home countries: what they ate, how they dressed, how they danced, and so on. This, I believe, was an early manifestation of Nazi propaganda used to draw attention to the inferiority of the coloured races.

           Another enjoyable activity we shared was acrobatics. Max, Ruth, and I loved sports and gymnastics and we developed an acrobatic performance. Max was strong and tall like my father (about 6 feet) and he was the prop of the team. By prop I mean that he lay on the ground and Ruth and I balanced in different positions on top of him. He was also the prop for our grand finale in which Ruth stood on Max’s shoulders and I on hers. We were so popular that we gave performances at parties and festivities.

           Mentioning that both my father and brother were tall reminds me of my parents’ attempts to “make me grow.” I was always called der Kleine (the little one), not because I was the youngest in the family but because I was the shortest. The family doctor suggested I should “run a lot.” I already belonged to a sports club, so I started to concentrate on running medium distances and cross-country. I got good at it and made the team to compete against other clubs. But I did not grow any taller, though my chest expanded and I am certain that my good health is mainly due to my many years of running regularly during my younger years.

           Looking back on the peaceful times in Berlin, I have but one regret: my parents suggested I take music lessons to learn to play the piano or violin. I showed little interest; I was probably too busy with my friends. I wished my parents had been more persistent or had asked again a bit later.


***


           My father occasionally gave private lessons to foreign university students in need of help in their philosophy or history studies. One Indian student seemed to need a lot of help; he was around for a long time. He liked my father’s library and used it all the time, almost becoming a part of the family. It was unusual for a student in those days, but he had a car – a leather-upholstered Mercedes, no less. I believe now that he may have been a Maharaja’s son who had come to Berlin to study Western culture. In return he told us about exotic India. To seal the friendship, he took us in his car to the more inaccessible places on weekends – giving me my first ride in a private car.

           When there was less time on the weekends for long trips, the family went for walks in one of the nearby parks. My father might talk about his early teaching experiences and my mother about growing up in the Rhineland.

           Then there was Uschi, my first girlfriend at thirteen. By common consent, beautiful and mysterious Uschi was the most desirable girl at school and, unbelievably, she was mine – for a time – in an innocent way. It made me deliriously happy and boosted my ego. This happened at a Jewish school in Berlin because, after my first two years at the Fichte Gymnasium, Jews were no longer allowed to attend the public school system.

           My parents became increasingly concerned about our education. Max seemed all right by this time. He would have liked to become a dentist, but this was no longer possible for a Jew; he became a dental mechanic making crowns and bridges for the patients of dentists. Ruth was looking forward to becoming a teacher. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up.

           I was sent to an occupational institute for tests to determine what I might be good at. Apart from the expected tests in math and language skills, there were different manual tests like bending wires, building odd constructions, sketching, and copying given scenes. The verdict was that I would likely do well in engineering.

           My parents first attempted to send me to Palestine, as it then was known, to the Technion – Israel Institute in Technology – in Haifa, later to become as prestigious as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I was accepted, but the monetary restrictions on the transfer of funds on a regular basis from Germany to Palestine made it impossible for me to go there. The next attempt worked: a private technical school in Bodenbach in the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. I was admitted for a three-year course in electrical and mechanical engineering.

           When I went to Bodenbach I was fourteen. I was living away from home for the first time in a house with other lodgers. There was no bathroom; one had to go to the public bathhouse for a shower or, at a higher price, to use a bathtub. The house was none too clean. When I got some itchy, red marks on my body I showed them to Frau Goldberg, the landlady. Her instant response was “I don’t have any bedbugs.” I had never heard of bedbugs or any other biting creatures that lived in one’s bed. It was then that I realized that I had been living a very sheltered life at home.

           Curiously enough, Rene, my future wife lived a mere thirty miles from Bodenbach in Leitmeritz. We might have met then but had to wait a few years for fate to bring us together in Northampton, England. After the war, Rene and her older sister, Dorli, found refuge there and worked for a doctor’s household as the cook and maid.

           In 1936, after my first year at the technical school, my father and my mother died within a few months of each other. My father’s cause of death at sixty was angina pectoris. It seems that spending vacations “in the mountains” was an inadequate cure for his heart condition. My mother took an overdose of sleeping tablets and our family doctor was unable to save her.


***


           I accepted my mother’s decision to end her life at forty-eight without speculating why she had done so. I assumed she was unable to face life without her husband, especially during such uncertain times in Berlin. She probably thought that her children were old enough to look after themselves. This was certainly true about my brother, and my sister had a steady boyfriend whom she married shortly afterwards. And I, after all, was living by myself.

           My mother, Anna, chose a better way to end her life than the death she would have faced like my sister, Ruth, did in Auschwitz in 1942. I like to think that my mother sensed, as I did, that the situation in Germany was more dangerous than her adult friends imagined. Anna was a loving mother who gave me all I needed or desired and she would not have abandoned me indifferently.

           I felt no bitterness or anger, then or since, about my mother leaving me on my own. Though, I had grown used of living by myself, the realization of actually being on my own sunk in more slowly. While my mother’s suicide was not traumatic at the time, it may have affected my psyche – but this would be for others to say. The long-term effect on me, I believe, was to make me independent – I became an adult at an early age and made decisions readily if not always wisely.

           I continued my studies and, when I could, visited my sister in Berlin. During one of these visits I got into serious trouble. I had previously taken photos in Berlin of interest to the media outside Germany. For example, I took a photo of a sign in a public park reading Hunde und Juden VERBOTEN (Dogs and Jews strictly prohibited). On this visit an even better opportunity presented itself. The Luftwaffe staged a mock air attack on Berlin to test the city’s defences and air-raid precautions. When the sirens went off everyone had to go into a shelter. I lingered on the balcony of our apartment when the first waves of planes appeared in the sky and – surprise – all the planes had British or French insignia on their wings. I got my Kodak box camera and took pictures, using up the whole film.

           The air-raid wardens in the street spotted me and shouted for me to go to the shelter. After the exercise was over, I received a call at the apartment from the police telling me to report to the police station with my camera. I had enough sense to seek advice before going to the police. As my father had been a respected member of the Jewish community, I called the community organization. A lawyer directed me to remove the film from the camera, destroy the film, and take pictures on a new film of the empty sky.

           At the police station my camera was confiscated and I was locked in a cell to await the arrival of the Gestapo (Secret Police or Geheime Staats Polizei). The Gestapo arrived in style in an open Mercedes and took me to their headquarters near the Potsdamer Platz where I was interrogated at length. By the time the lawyer from the Jewish community organization arrived, I had been locked up in the dreaded Gestapo prison, but the lawyer was allowed to see me briefly. His strategy was to plead my youth and inexperience in photographing fast-flying aircraft. He knew that the film would show the blank sky. Of course, there was no way I could have missed the planes because they flew in tight formation and covered the whole sky.

           The Gestapo kept me in their prison overnight because they had more questions about me and my friends at the school in Bodenbach. I spent a sleepless night in my cell listening to the bells of St. Lucas Church chiming every quarter hour. In the morning, after further questions, they let me go and I hastily returned to Bodenbach.


  

Escape


           Soon after the beginning of my final year at school, on the first of October 1938, the German army marched into the Sudetenland “to protect” their countrymen living there. I left ahead of them for Prague where, as a German citizen, I was not welcome. What really mattered was that I could not speak Czech. In any case I soon ran out of money. Having had a steady monthly cheque for so long, I had gotten used to spending it.

           The only solution for my predicament was to return to Berlin, but the borders were closed. Even worse, the road, rail, and air transportation systems were not operating. I learned to sleep on park benches, stuffing newspapers into my jacket to keep warm. Sometimes I slept on the floor at friends’ apartments. They were in the same position as me, wanting to get back to Germany. Through these friends I also began to earn money. They introduced me to the risky black market in British 5-pound notes. English money was the only trusted currency in Prague at the time and it was in great demand. After a frightened start, because I had never seen a British 5-pound note before – it was just a large white piece of paper with black printing on one side only – I began to earn money.

           Rumour had it that one could walk into Germany at Hrádek, the three-country border town between Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. My two friends and I decided to make a try for the Czech border, and the three of us set off by train to Hrádek. The normal trip of a few hours took all night because military transport had priority. On arrival we were surprised to hear loud gunfire. Poland was trying to take advantage of the German-Czech dispute to gain some land as well and was attacking the town. This mini-war was never reported in any history of that time. We decided to retreat and made our long trip back to Prague.

           Eventually, flights between Prague and Berlin resumed and I experienced my first trip by airplane. When I arrived at the Templehof airport in Berlin, my passport was confiscated and I was told to report to my local police station. This I did the next day and was informed that I had to leave Germany within a month and that I had to report to the police before leaving. Yet they kept my passport, which I would need in order to leave the country. So, one way or another, my future arrest was predictable.

           I paid a return visit to my helpful lawyer friend who had gotten me out of the hands of the Gestapo over the camera incident. He organized my escape. Agreement had been reached at that time between the British and German governments and the British Jewish community organization for the Kindertransporte of children (without their parents) under the age of 15 from Germany and Austria to England. No passports were needed; the children were listed by age. Although I was seventeen, I was entered as fifteen. Further, the lawyer instructed me not to report to the police before my departure; he would inform the police after I had left.


***


While waiting for the Kindertransporte, “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass) took place in Berlin and across Germany. It was November 10, 1938. This was the first organized, countrywide operation of violence against the Jews in Germany; synagogues were set on fire, Jewish shops were destroyed, and in the following days some 30,000 Jewish men were indiscriminately arrested. Once again, the Jewish organization looked after me. I was moved around almost daily from safe house to safe house all over Berlin, and especially its suburbs, until the day of my departure on the first train that left on December 1, 1938. Each child was allowed to bring a small suitcase and 10 Reichsmark – the equivalent of about $50 Canadian today.

About the author

John is a German-born WWII survivor who escaped via the Kindertransport. He has led a fascinating life travelling around the world as a city planner, at a time when urban planning was undergoing major shifts resulting from the rapid growth of cities and urban centres. He lives in Toronto. view profile

Published on March 31, 2019

Published by

80000 words

Genre: Biographies & memoirs

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