Hans, Germany 1940
Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuhrer may have disappeared to England, and the Reichsfuhrer-SS may have forgiven Uncle Felix for not alerting him to Hess’s erratic behaviour, but all was not yet well with our world! Reinhard Heydrich was still around!
Before he left Bad Godesberg, Heydrich invited Uncle Felix to dinner at his hotel, I was included in the invitation… it didn’t seem sensible to refuse!
The meal, which was quite friendly considering the circumstances, ended with a piece of advice from Heydrich…
“I understand that young Hans here is that unusual thing… a circumcised-Aryan. It would be wise to be very careful and avoid trouble. If picked up by a patrol at night… well he might have some explaining to do… Nacht und Nebel arrests can happen so quickly and discreetly that you and I may not hear about it in time to act before it is too late. It is best to be careful when there is such a clear risk of being taken to be Jewish.”
He said it quietly, and with a smile, but the threat was clear. He had obviously guessed who had wrecked his plan to deprive his master of his interfering doctor… and he was not a forgiving man. When the Fuhrer had nicknamed him ‘the man with the iron heart’ he had been right. I would not be going out at night until Uncle Felix had a solution.
Uncle Felix always had a solution. When we were back in Hamburg he gathered up my passbook and those of my brothers (we had all been ‘fixed’ at some time or other). He told us not to go out until his return and went off whistling to himself. Clearly he was up to something.
When he returned each passbook had been endorsed circumcised-Aryan and signed by the Gauleiter of Hamburg’s SS doctor, complete with his SS number for reference. The Gauleiter had also had a note stapled to mine, saying “Refer all enquiries regarding this person to the office of the Reichsfuhrer-SS, without delay”. With those on my passbook, Heydrich and his Nacht und Nebel would be running a huge risk if they touched me.
It would be nearly two years before I could really relax. In fact I had to wait until May 1942 when the Czech resistance finally acted and in a unique assassination (leaders avoid assassination of other leaders, it could become a habit!) Churchill authorised the death of Heydrich. Even in Germany it was whispered that Heydrich was known as the Butcher of Prague, but… in Germany I was one of only a small number who secretly rejoiced at his death.
That there was trouble in Czechoslovakia was not a surprise to me. Even as a fourteen year old schoolboy it seemed to me that the Reichsfuhrer-SS and Heydrich had gone out of their way to stir up trouble. Perhaps you cannot suppress trouble with an iron hand unless you stir it up in the first place. Heydrich’s decree that Czech schools must substitute German history in place of Czech, and that the latter must simply disappear from their culture was bound to be resented. It came on top of an earlier decision by Himmler that the only education that a non-German Czech required was the ability to write their name and to do simple arithmetic with numbers not exceeding 500. I ask you… was it surprising that they killed him!
Now, the one leader that had never tried to hide the darkness at the centre of my world was no longer a worry. In fact, I went to his funeral!
No, not just to make sure it was true! I went as a sort of honorary baby-sitter… honestly.
His two small sons Klaus and Heider, a pair of delightful little blond boys, aged 9 and 8 as I recall, were going to attend their father’s funeral. He had already had one in Prague, but his coffin had then been brought to Berlin by train. Now there was to be a state funeral in the Reich Chancellery followed by burial in Berlin’s Invalidenfriedhof, a military cemetery where heroes were always buried.
Oh yes… babysitter… well it was clearly a risk to include two such small boys in such a huge state affair. After all, it was their father’s funeral! What if they became inconsolable… or just plain naughty?
I found myself summoned to the office of the Reichsfuhrer-SS, alone this time!
The Reichsfuhrer-SS was in a towering rage. I could hear him shouting that every partisan in Czech custody should be shot… pause… no, take them out into their town square and shoot them there… “Examples! I want examples!… burn a few villages!”
You get the idea… this was not a happy man that wanted me in his office… I was not a happy boy to be wanted there either!
As I entered, ushered in by a very nervous secretary, he seemed to pull himself together and calmed visibly. He smiled grimly…
“After today is over I shall need your uncle to get me unknotted!”
“Now… Hansi, you can help me with a problem… and take part in one of the biggest ceremonies the Reich has ever seen. Come in, sit down and listen.”
He told me that there was to be an immensely significant funeral for Heydrich. He was a Teutonic martyr of the first importance and his funeral would reflect that. It would take place in the Mosaic Room of the New Reich Chancellery Building. The world would be watching.
He said that he needed the Heydrich boys at their father’s funeral. The foreign press coverage of the Fuhrer comforting them could be worth a couple of divisions to Germany. But… he couldn’t have them running about or making a scene. Therefore… he had the idea to place me in the row behind them in the ceremony. In the event that their presence became undignified I was to move quickly, their nanny would be with me and we would quickly remove them to an ante-room where it would be my task to keep them occupied and quiet.
He also wanted me to look after them later, during the interment. The windswept cemetery would not be suitable for such small boys. When the funeral party returned to the Chancellery I could return them to their mother.
As it turned out they were a delightful pair. They behaved impeccably during the ceremony and it was a pleasure to play with them afterwards. I had taken some of my younger brothers’ books and toys and their nanny and I kept them happy until their mother returned.
I returned them to their mother later that evening. I had never liked Frau Lina Heydrich, she was an unpleasantly waspish woman with ideas even more extreme than her husband’s. I had met her a few times at the Berghof and at the Himmler residence at Waltrudering in Bavaria, when he gave parties… I had been trusted with fetching drinks for him and Hermann Goering, and … well it would be boasting if I went on. I was sorry for the boys, but I wasn’t sorry for her and I thought a lot of people would be better off now that she wasn’t in a position to encourage her husband.
As I say, Herr Heydrich’s funeral was an altogether happy if not overtly joyous occasion.
During the ceremony the Fuhrer was clearly moved by the boys’ loss and stopped to talk to them. They straight-arm saluted him and he patted their cheeks. He pinched Heider’s face gently while he talked to him, fixing him with his hypnotic eyes. In better times, at the Berghof, they had been favorites of his, as were the Goebbels children. Although not a family man, the Fuhrer loved children, just not Jewish children… or gypsy or Sinti… or Russian… or Slav…oh well, nobody’s perfect!
When he had spoken to the boys, the Fuhrer looked around at the rest of us. When he saw me, a young boy sitting immediately behind the Heydrich family he looked puzzled and spoke quietly to Himmler. When Himmler replied, the Fuhrer looked up sharply, fixed me with those hypnotic eyes, and raised his arm in salute, and I assumed approval. My heart nearly burst in me, the most important public ceremony… and the Fuhrer… my Fuhrer had noted my presence and more… he had saluted it. I was the proudest boy in Germany!
So, for me the funeral was an ecstatically happy occasion. I was happy… happy to be able to help on such a big occasion… happy to have been asked by the Reichsfuhrer-SS himself…happy that my Fuhrer recognised my presence and happy that I was being useful to my country at a difficult time, and most of all…
I was happy that my potential nemesis was dead… very dead!
Paul, Hamburg and Bonn 1987
After talking to the grocer and his daughter, and while feeling guilty about having been so cruel to her, I went back to the Stadtpark and sat by the lake, to think about what I now knew about my father.
Far from being shocked that he had sold his body to feed his family… I felt very proud of him. Proud that he had the courage to do what was necessary to keep them fed. Proud that he went on doing it, to protect his younger brothers from harm at the grocer’s hands. I was profoundly sad that he must have been only yards from the bomb that killed them and must have witnessed the terror of their end. How he managed to go on after that I had no idea.
Then I stood up. My time in Hamburg was up. It was time to start my journey to the State Archives… maybe they could tell me what happened next.
I had to decide whether Bonn or Berlin was my better bet for further news. In Berlin I would get to see some historic sights, but I wasn’t sure how much in the way of records would have been left there, so close to the Russians. So I went to Bonn. I did the trip by long distance coach… you get to see more of the country that way.
Bonn turned out to be a good choice. A lot of the politically delicate records of the Hitler-Period had been brought to the Federal German government archives. I was amused that modern Germans never called it the Third Reich, but always the Hitler-Period, as if to modern Germans it was only Hitler that bore responsibility. Everyone else was apparently an innocent bystander!
I hoped that the bystander who became my father had been innocent!
Fortunately the day to day records of a number of the more senior Nazis were in the process of being computerised, so with a few gaps the search would be faster than I had feared.
The archivist suggested that the obvious place to start was with the desk diaries and correspondence copies of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer-SS. That seemed to me to be an excellent start. At the very least Himmler seemed to have had some unexplained desire to keep my father out of trouble.
We plugged in a date a few days before the date of the passbook endorsements.
The result was interesting.
Himmler was seen to reply to a request from a Dr Felix Kersten. He said that he had passed the request to Dr Stumpfegger to arrange matters with the Gauleiter of Hamburg. He went on in the friendliest of terms to say how much he was looking forward to Felix’s next visit. The times were stressful and he needed Felix to bring his healing hands to give him relief.
I immediately had a mental picture of my healing hands and young Ben… the picture jarred badly!
The archivist explained that Dr Felix Kersten was Himmler’s medical masseur and had been responsible for keeping Himmler’s stomach cramps at bay. I said that could hardly reflect well on my family and she immediately said that I was quite wrong.
Apparently Felix was well known to have been responsible for saving many lives. He had been able to use his position to influence Himmler to leniency. The World Jewish Congress had praised him after the war for a number of dramatic rescues (by fleets of white painted buses to Sweden and Denmark!). She said that he had also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the Dutch for deflecting the Nazi’s ambition to deport the whole Dutch nation east to make room for ethnic Germans, and for getting Himmler to block Hitler’s scorched earth policy when the Nazis withdrew from the Netherlands.
To say I was astonished puts it mildly.
So Felix had influence! That explained how he had obtained the endorsements… or did it? I was still curious as to why they were needed in the first place and asked if it was possible to find Felix’s letter requesting the endorsements. That took a day to find, but German efficient filing, even in wartime, came to our aid. There it was…
Felix explained that following the unfortunate events at Bad Godesberg in June (this was later in 1940), his family in Hamburg had received unfortunate attention from the security services. He diplomatically put it that he felt sure it was happening at a junior level. He said that junior officers were trying to curry favour with Heydrich, without realising how their unfortunate activities would be viewed at the most senior levels (presumably a reference to Himmler himself).
He went on to say that a particularly unpleasant aspect was the attempt to use the family’s medical need for circumcision to make them vulnerable to arrest as Jews.
He requested that the Reichsfuhrer-SS should instruct Karl Wolff, his adjutant, to arrange for protective measures to be taken. Perhaps Dr Stumpfegger could organise to view the family’s medical records and then instruct the Hamburg Gauleiter to see to matters. That, he said, would also ensure that the authorities in Hamburg would understand that the family was under protection by the SS and not under threat from them!
He seemed to address Himmler very affably but quite sternly, it seemed a most odd relationship!
I asked them if they knew what happened at Bad Godesberg in June. That took them another day, but the answer turned up that Heydrich had arrested Felix Kersten, suspecting him of plotting something with Rudolf Hess. They had found that a phone call from a Hans Kersten to Himmler’s secretary resulted in his immediate freedom. They seemed surprised that it was a Hans rather than Felix that made the call.
The archivists seemed intrigued. They asked if I knew who Hans Kersten was. They thought he must be important if he could contact Himmler and obtain a prisoner’s release from Gestapo and SS custody. I said that he was my father and that he would have been about twelve years old at the time… They just shook their heads in amazement!
They could tell me that the phone call had come from the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg. They said, with some enthusiasm, that it was in a suburb of Bonn. Perhaps they hoped that if I could be distracted into chasing up the hotel then it would give them a few days peace and they could get some work done.. They got their wish.
I found the hotel easily enough. It had not changed since the war, so I was told. I asked to see the hotel-manager, and he in turn, after hearing my story, took me to meet an elderly gentleman who was the very much retired concierge.
The old man became animated… it was evidently the most exciting thing that had happened to him during a long career. He remembered my father clearly, as a strikingly beautiful youngster. He remembered them ringing Himmler’s office to thwart Reinhard Heydrich’s plans for Felix. He told of how, for many months he lived in terror of reprisal by Heydrich and the Gestapo, and of his relief when the Butcher of Prague was murdered. If he was that frightened as an un-named bystander then his story fully explained the need for the endorsement in the boys’ passbooks.
Presumably everyone in that story had lived in fear until the grenade exploded in Prague.
Hans, Hamburg 1940
Our army had entered Paris on 14 June 1940. My friends and I were excited to fever pitch.
Hess was right, that was the moment to have stopped. At that moment no military leader in history had achieved what our Fuhrer had.
Less than thirty thousand men (26,500 if you are being pedantic) had died in the campaign to take France. That’s less than died in a single day in the Great War. Our leader fought in that war and so he is much more careful of his soldiers than the donkeys who led them last time.
Last time, the generals cost the Fatherland over two million German lives and they didn’t achieve a fraction of what had been achieved this time. They captured hundreds of metres of enemy held territory, while we had just captured hundreds of miles with a hundred times fewer losses.
That’s what our Hitler Youth leader had told us…
He told us that while losing only sixty thousand men, our Fuhrer had delivered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France to the Greater Germany. He said that the number of ethnic Germans that had been rescued from domination by lesser nations was incalculable. He said that now the aim must be to persuade the English to accept that there was no longer any reason to fight. Fighting us was stupid he said when it is already a done deal and we had captured all of England’s allies!
Perhaps it was the spirit of the times… Our trains ran on time and we had rescued both the unemployed and our fellow Aryans in Europe. Our currency was stable and our armies successful. If occasionally I had to go the long way home to avoid the unpleasantness in the tailoring and jewellery quarter, well that was regrettable, but I could accept that it was bearable.
If the party considered it necessary who was I to question them, but I didn’t need to join in if it left a bad taste, so I walked the long way home, it avoided the broken glass and ugly slogans painted on shop-fronts.
I just wished that the Fuhrer would become aware of the things his men did in his name. He had corrected the excesses of the SA so why couldn’t he stop the slogans and the broken glass… and Herr Rohme, while he was at it!
Perhaps when he had moved our problems into the new eastern provinces that he was clearing for us things then would become more orderly at home. Certainly he had his hands full.
My experiences with the Jugend in camp, the boy in Bad Godesberg and explorations with my friends in our hideout in the cellar of the bombed out shop had made Herr Rohme’s interests much more understandable. They made them no more attractive, but at least I understood why he had looked disappointed when I hopped off his knee.
During those first six months of the war we were cut-off from supplies. Even though our armies of occupation would later strip the occupied nations of all their luxury goods and food, for redistribution in Germany, the very best items would still remain under the counter and in the gift of the shopkeeper… for him to sell or not as his mood took him. The thing was to keep him in a good mood.
Mother still sent me for much of her shopping. That “nice” Herr Rohme would sit me on his knee, and what I took home depended on how long I sat there. The first time he… well… lets say that was the night I was putty in his hands and mama was delighted by the Brussels Pate. The night we dined on a whole Camembert? Well that night left a nasty taste in my mouth!
Having said which… and that is about as much as I wish to say on the subject, I am not proud of it… well, yes, actually I am quite proud of it! Maybe I’m not quite as proud as I am ashamed and embarrassed to recall it. But… proud, yes.
I am proud that I could bring myself to willingly do what was necessary for my family to eat well in the better times and to eat at all during the truly bad times. Times when our neighbours went hungry because they didn’t have a son with beautiful blue eyes and blond hair who was prepared to do what was necessary.
Were my family grateful? You ask.
They were grateful to Herr Rohme, but there was no reason for them to be grateful to me, I simply went to the shop for them. There was no need to tell lies but every reason to not tell them the truth.
The pate was Herr Rohme’s gift not mine, it was enough for me that they enjoyed it.
Personally I said that pate did not appeal to me, that I didn’t like the taste.
Eventually, as I got older Herr Rohme took less interest in my visits to his shop.
Fortunately by that stage food was in ample supply again (in Germany if not in France and Belgium, but they started the war not us). Also, Herr Rohme had sufficient invested in what he had done in the lean years that he could not afford to have me accuse him. So, the luxuries continued if at a slower rate, and my “gifts” to Herr Rohme also happened less often now, when his need was great… but we had some sort of truce.
When the Fuhrer had launched Operation Barbarossa against Russia life became a bit difficult at home in Germany. Even though things went spectacularly well on the eastern front and huge areas of Russia fell to our troops, they were unable to live off the land. They needed regular rations so that they could keep moving. The people at home needed to tighten their belts and in April 1942, for five months rationing was returned.
Herr Rohme’s interest in me could now afford to be more insistent than during the better times. I on the other hand was a great deal more experienced and for that matter a bit older and fitter and stronger, so I was in a position to barter. I could also make sure that we only went as far as I wanted, and for that matter that I came away equally satisfied. I was older and had my own appetites and needs.
All in all Herr Rohme and I had a good deal, although… I would still have preferred if our Fuhrer had left Russia until the Fatherland was better prepared… Not that I would criticise our Fuhrer’s decision, I am sure that he was aware of things that a schoolboy wouldn’t know. Uncle Felix would know on the other hand… I remember deciding to discuss it with him when I next saw him.
The situation could easily have been a lot worse… on the home-front and on the Rohme-front things were well under control. Sorry, I shouldn’t joke about such matters.
There had been scare stories that Russian prisoners would need to be fed at our expense, but the news put out by Dr Goebbels was quite clear, the Russian prisoners, millions and millions of them were not being fed on good German rations… they were simply not being fed at all. After the terrible things we had been told about the atrocities they had committed… I wasn’t clear exactly when and where, they had shot prisoners. I am sure we were told that but I had forgotten. Anyway, after all that, the people at home were generally pleased to hear that the Russian prisoners were not being fed!
We had also been terribly shocked that the Russian army contained many women. To us Germans that was an incredible and appalling thing. There were near riots in cinemas when the women prisoners of war were shown on the silver screen. It was just like the scenes when we saw film of the black soldiers that the French army had used against us at the beginning. The fine boys and men of our German army were not supposed to find themselves fighting; Negroes, untermenschen and women. They were too good for that, it was a disgrace and the German people were vociferous that they should be treated as partisans, irregulars, that such people were not real soldiers and that they should be shot on sight.
I was just as shocked as anyone else, but I was not comfortable with the idea of shooting women. If you did that then little stood between civilised men and the shooting of children and old people… little did I know!
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