Paul, London 1987
I knew that Dad’s last childhood address was in Hamburg and that the Gauleiter of Hamburg had signed the “refer to the office of the Reichsfuhrer-SS” endorsement. So, Hamburg was where I flew to at the beginning of August.
Hamburg was a very modern city. I suppose it’s easy for a city to be new if the old one has been completely obliterated. I had read the histories of Hamburg and Dresden, so I knew the statistics. It wouldn’t be until Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire-bombing of Tokyo that civilian death would be unleashed on this scale again.
But… before all of them… the camps in Poland and the massacres on the Eastern Front had already out-stripped them for mechanised horror.
The librarians of the Hamburg City Library were very helpful. They were intrigued by the idea of an English boy seeking his father’s history as a Nazi-period teenager and quickly found a record of his father, my grandfather.
He had been a doctor who practised both in the main city hospital before the war and then also as a local doctor during the war. The records suddenly stopped in 1944. His employment at the hospital ended with a card that said “Missing in air-raid, believed dead”. There was a rather sad little note that no-one had claimed his pension after the war. Presumably that meant that not only was he dead but so were the whole of his family.
For a slightly undignified moment I wondered if there was any entitlement for Dad, he had only been fourteen or fifteen when his father died, so perhaps he would have been entitled to some part of the pension, until he was eighteen.
They were a little more guarded when I asked about the Gauleiter of Hamburg and the possibility of tracing his connections with the office of the Reichsfuhrer-SS. Clearly, the war was not an encouraged tourist trail. There were no glossy information boards for the path I was following.
They suggested that the records in the State Records Office in Bonn would be a better place to pursue the Reichsfuhrer-SS and seemed mightily relieved when the strange young Englishman accepted their advice.
They had discovered for me that the day-to-day records of the office of the Gauleiter had been deposited at one of the local university History Department’s archives in Hamburg. So that was where I went next.
They had the Gauleiter’s desk-diary for 1944. Although they were not too encouraging they softened noticeably when I showed them my father’s passbook and I explained the strange “circumcised-Aryan” endorsement.
Fortunately the Gauleiter had dated the endorsement and the diary almost instantly revealed a large part of the story. The diary page for that date recorded that he had endorsed the papers of the Kersten family at the request of a Dr Stumpfegger. The archivists could tell me that Stumpfegger had been Hitler’s personal doctor.
I thought there must be more to it than a random request by Hitler’s doctor. I was getting used to the idea of involvement with senior members of the Hitler–regime, but Hitler’s personal doctor! The archivist suggested that as we knew roughly when the request was made it should be possible, in Berlin, to find the original office-copy of Dr Stumpfegger’s letter.
Having exhausted that trail locally, I asked if there was any chance of finding what had happened to the Kersten family. That was a better question! They turned up the information that the Kersten family home had been in an apartment block that was destroyed by bombing. Death certificates had been issued locally for Dr and Mrs Kersten and their sons. That was a shock. In London I had found certificates for four sons, because I had only looked for his four brothers… but here there were five dead sons; Hans, Solon, David, Martin and Jan.
That stunned me. The first fifteen years of my life had been lived with a man who had died in Hamburg in 1944.
My search was revealing as many mysteries as it answered. Not only was my father a sixteen year old in the SS in Berlin in 1945, but he had also died in Hamburg in1944.
Had someone stolen his papers? If they had, why would they have stolen the papers of a sixteen year old boy and then join the SS in quite a senior rank. I was mystified. Maybe there would be answers in Bonn or Berlin… but first I still had the address of their bombed apartment to investigate.
By this stage I was confident that I knew how to get about without the need for expensive taxis. I walked across central Hamburg heading east around the Alster lake. It was a long walk from there to Stadtpark, but the address was going to be not far from there. Wassmannstrasse would be just a hundred metres east of the park
I entered the park near the Planetarium and athletics stadium. A long walk across the park took me around the lake, the Stadtparksee, and brought me to the eastern gates, and the Hellbrookstrasse. There was a neat chemical factory incongruously squeezed between the park and the residential housing.
One more corner took me into the Wassmannstrasse, and my grandparents’ home.
I had the apartment number. When I got there it was quite strange to look at the building… The apartment was still there. It showed no sign of having been bombed let alone destroyed. The mystery cleared when I crossed the road to take a closer look. The bricks and stonework had been beautifully and skilfully matched, but there was no doubt. Close examination showed that the three apartments, grandfather’s and the one either side had been replaced, restored, rebuilt whatever you like to call it. Presumably the rest of the block had survived intact and German decorum had demanded that all sign of the damage be removed. In England I suspect that we would have thrown up some awful concrete discrepancy in the gap. In Hamburg they had tastefully hidden all sign that there had ever been a gap.
It was almost as if there was a conspiracy… was it my father who died or more probably didn’t die? Had he really died in this building, that to all outward appearances had never been bombed?
I believed that it was simply a German eye for detail and tidiness, but if someone had actually set out to cover the trail… they had done a pretty good job of it!
While I was exploring the locale I came across a small grocer’s shop on the corner of the block opposite. I needed a bottle of still water… it was very hot. There was a lady about my mother’s age behind the counter, and she responded in a very friendly manner to my schoolboy German. We discussed the weather and she asked what I was doing in this part of Hamburg.
I explained my search for news of my father’s family. I said that I believed that his relatives had been killed when the bombs fell on the apartment block opposite. At that she became quite animated… she remembered the night well. Her father had been in the shop working late when it happened. He had been serving one of the boys from the family that were killed.
She said that he had been very shocked, and had always blamed himself for the boy’s death. If the boy had stayed in the cellar with him he would have been safe. The boy had insisted on leaving for home and was never seen again. The others in the family they found, but not the boy. They assumed the bomb blast had obliterated him. I asked if she knew which son that was. She said no, but that her father might remember!
An eyewitness! I was excited… here was someone who was actually there on the night… who had probably met my father! She took me through to the backroom where an elderly man was sitting on an ottoman.
“Sit beside him, on his left. That ear survived… the other was towards the bomb. He lost his hearing in that ear.”
I sat beside him, and she knelt down to speak to him.
“This boy is asking about the family who were killed in the war.”
He straightened up a bit and concentrated…
I said, “Yes, the Kerstens… you knew them?”
“Pretty boys! The oldest boy was nice… he came here often.”
I asked “The younger ones, did you know them too? Did they come here?”
“Younger ones? No… Never!! Too young… their brother kept them safe! Never them.”
“The older one then… You knew him well?”
“Hansi? Little Hansi! Then he was big Hansi… nice when he was little. I liked young Hansi.”
I asked… “The night they died, you saw the bomb? You saw them…?”
“He ran off … we were going to… but he ran off… he didn’t want to… he was getting too old… he ran off… so he died.”
His daughter was becoming worried. Her father was very agitated.
“Papa was badly affected by the boy’s death. After that he very seldom stayed late in the shop.”
I hadn’t a clue what he had been trying to tell me. Clearly he felt responsible for the boy’s death, but exactly why was not clear. Assuming that my father had run into the air-raid just because he wanted to be at home then I didn’t see that the grocer had much to blame himself for.
But… I could see that his hands were busy fumbling in his lap.
He was crying quietly… The death of the boy had obviously affected him deeply.
I tried to get some more news of the family by diverting his attention from Dad.
“The younger brothers… did they ever visit you?”
“No. no… Hansi said they were too young to collect extra rations for his mama. He insisted only he should do that. He said that if I ever…” He stopped abruptly, biting his bottom lip.
“It was always late, only Hansi was old enough to visit after we shut!”
“Did he help you in the shop?”
His eyes seemed to glitter and the fumbling in his lap became more urgent.
“Oh yes… he helped me! And then afterwards I helped his family!”
At last it began to dawn on me what had been happening.
“So, Hansi earned extra rations by helping you… but he refused to let his brothers help?”
“Ja, only Hansi came to me… he kept his brothers away. It was a shame, I liked his brother Solo, a very pretty boy.”
Now I was suddenly quite certain that I understood what Hansi had been doing to feed his family, and… by shouldering the whole of that burden he had protected his younger brothers from it.
I was suddenly immensely proud of my father, but I had an overwhelming need to be somewhere else, anywhere else!
Once in the fresh air I stopped and burst into tears.
The grocer’s daughter came running out of the shop, wringing her hands and obviously as shocked as I was.
“I am so sorry… what can I say? He is my father, but…”
I replied as kindly as I could find in me…
“You are his daughter, but… I think that the wrong person was killed that night!”
When I left her she too was crying… the bombs of 1944 had just claimed another two lives.
Feedback is the only payment our authors get!
Please take a moment to email the author if you enjoyed the story.