Hans, South of Hamburg Autumn 1944
Did I tell you that by now I knew Solo’s secret… the “I’ll tell you sometime, but not now” secret?
It happened on the road south out of Hamburg about ten days into the trip. By this time Solo and I were getting on really well. He was a quietly funny kid, and was coming out of his shell. Now he would joke with me and we chatted about our hobbies and sport and… well that was it really. Each night we found a stream to wash in and a hayrick or barn to sleep in.
At first we simply cuddled to get warm, and then cuddled a bit more to stay warm. I took to playfully kissing him goodnight. He said that if we were brothers we should kiss lightly on the lips… “If someone sees us kissing and we don’t look like brothers they will suspect us!” That was one smart kid!
It was nice to have someone to cuddle with… and to kiss. OK… so I missed my family, and I missed Waldi and the Berghof chef’s son and a whole raft load of people who the war and the enemy had taken from me… but I now had my new Solo… a Solo that I could laugh with and cuddle and kiss. Solo was all I had! I came to love him.
The revelation came about when we passed a large wired enclosure near Neuengamme south of Hamburg. It was guarded by SS so I went to the gatehouse and asked for a drink. This time, for the first time, the guards did not bother to look at our papers. This time we were sent away abruptly.
Further along the road we understood why. We had chanced upon one of the smaller older concentration camps. I was shocked by what I saw, but Solo… he was devastated. He couldn’t bear to look and ran away down the road sobbing.
He was very quiet that afternoon, refused drinks and wouldn’t eat. At bedtime he needed more cuddles than ever to calm him down. I knew something was wrong and tried to reassure him. He told me that he could never tell me, that if he did I would hate him.
I cuddled and shushed him, and said that I loved him like a brother and that there was nothing he could tell me that would make me hate him. He kissed me and then drew back and said very quietly…
“Even if I told you that I was a Jew?”
I was profoundly shocked! It took me a few moments of silence to gather my wits, during which he started to cry. Then I realised how frightened he must now be.
“Solo, Solo… I don’t hate you… I’m just so scared for you. Is that why you were hiding in the attic in Hamburg?”
He sniffed and nodded yes. He had been playing in a ruined cellar when his parents were picked up on the street. A family friend had whisked him up into their attic and he had sat there hidden… he thought it had been for over a year. Then the bombs came.
He said that he had been frightened to be out of the attic, at first. But, now he was so happy to be out in the sunlight, with a new brother… to see the green of the countryside… so happy until Neuengamme. He had seen the large compound entirely filled with waif-like children… over half the camp… just for Jewish children…
Then came the realisation of what waited for him if I ever rejected him. He thought… if I ever discovered the truth about him.
He couldn’t have been more wrong about me. I banged on a lot about the Jugend and the war and how much I hated the enemy, but Solo… Solo was my brother. He was the only friend and family that I now had. Hate him? Nothing could be further from my mind. I knew that, but how was I to persuade him… to show him how much he was now loved by his new big-brother?
Fortunately it had all happened when we were already cuddled up in a barn. I held him to me until he calmed down a little. Then I kissed him…
“You are a circumcised-Aryan too now?” I laughed quietly.
“Circumcised… yes, Aryan? That’s something I’m still getting used to!”
I loved his courage… the way he could smile and joke while absolutely terrified.
After seeing Neuengamme I too now understood how dangerous his situation could be.
I admired the courage of this little kid who had been able to walk with me to beg food from SS guards… I had my uncle to give me confidence… his relatives were in concentration camps.
His renewed confidence was as if a light came on in his face, a face that was dirty and streaked with tears. It really had been one hell of a day. First Neuengamme and then his admission… but I hadn’t rejected him.
I pulled him to me and cuddled him… and suddenly he knew that he was safe, at least as safe as I was.
“Will we make it?” He asked.
“Yes, if we can reach my Uncle Felix we shall be OK.”
“Will he mind that I’m a Jew?”
“I wouldn’t think so! I know that he has persuaded Himmler to release quite a few Jews. I know he thinks the whole Jewish thing is pretty silly. He says it’s just envy and rabble-rousing.”
He rested his head against my shoulder. His whole body seemed to relax.
“I haven’t felt this safe in years!” He whispered.
I cuddled him fiercely and said…
“You’ll be safe as long as I’m with you Solo… you’re my brother now… and…I love you!”
“I love you too. Thank you for being there when I needed you!”
“No, at that moment I needed you more than you needed me.”
That night I realised why, every previous night when our kissing became passionate he had placed his hand over his genitals and said that he had promised his mama.
“What exactly did you promise your mama?” I asked. I thought I now knew the answer.
“She made me promise that I would never let anyone see my… my circumcision… until I was safe… whenever that was. She didn’t say.”
“Ah, the promise wasn’t to keep you pure, it was to keep you safe!”
“Yes, she said I must never reveal it because it would get me taken… wherever they were taken I suppose… somewhere like Neuengamme… Did you see the children?”
Yes, I had seen the children, and now I understood why they had so frightened him. It was a pure accident that he wasn’t one of those pyjama-clad wretches staring out at us through the fence.
“Well you kept your promise, and now you are safe… with me.”
I drew him to me, cuddled him, kissed him and then gathered his genitals in the palm of my hand and squeezed gently. This time he didn’t push me away.
We played together that night. We were both teenage boys who understood the needs of our bodies. Until the bombs I had been able to play sex games with my friends in the bombed out cellar. Solo, in his attic had only himself to play with… but he said it helped him to get to sleep, and… he said, very quietly… he had got into the habit of doing it when there were noises down in the street and he heard soldiers or police shouting.
He associated his sexual pleasure with fear… that was terrible!
I decided to take his mind off it.
He wasn’t Waldi… he was more… and he was different.
Waldi had been love and romance. Solo was love and responsibility, and the need to see him safe and happy… no matter how long it took.
I thought all this through while gently kissing him and fondling him.
Gradually his nervous shaking stopped and he relaxed against me. At the same time he began to rise under my hand. I slipped my hand down the slack front of his trousers… we wore braces in those days. He had no underwear… no doubt all that time in the attic had cured him of the need for spare clothing. So the first thing I met was the warm, soft hardness of his boyhood… eager for my touch.
He told me later that he had been in the attic so long that I was the first person to touch him there. I was pleased that it was me and not some rough policeman or … grocer!
I was also pleased when I wrapped my hand around him… he was circumcised… I felt it immediately. I had known the feel of a circumcised one since I was 10, well 11 really. My own that is! The thing was… I had never had the opportunity to play with one… other than my own.
What I did know was that no one with an intact foreskin had ever seemed to know how to handle one that was without… they were too rough! They were used to the skin running smoothly over the head until the head was wet and their foreskin retracted. Then the natural lubricant protected it. With a cut one you had to be that bit more careful.
My hand folded round him, and I did the things I knew he needed. Not the things I would have done to an intact boy, but… the things I would have done to myself!
I kissed him gently as I stroked him, and I felt the fear and tension melt away. I felt so close to him. I whispered…
“I love you Solo… I needed a brother, and you were there.”
It didn’t make much sense, but I at least knew what I meant.
Solo seemed to think for a while… I was afraid I had shocked him… maybe being loved by another boy was not what he had in mind.
“I love you too… I was so alone in the attic… I needed someone. Being out in the open feels safer… now that you are looking after me… Thank you…”
His voice faded away and I was afraid that he had gone to sleep. He was still aroused in my hand and I was still stroking him, and kissing his hair and neck.
He was silent and unresponsive, but… relaxed in my arms.
Then he seemed to have come to a conclusion… made a decision… He reached behind him, and gently clasped the front of my trousers. The feel of another hand on me, a hand that I loved… was so… right. It just felt right. It felt like I had with Waldi… more right than I had with the Italian boy… much more right than Herr Rohme.
This was how it had been going to be in Naples and Taormina. I felt that I now had someone to fight for… I felt complete again.
When we came it felt as if we had completed a stage in our journey.
We found the boy who replaced my brother Jan hiding at the side of the road as we walked through a forest.
He had discovered that lorry drivers who were eating and drinking just before a sharp turn in the road would throw their sandwich or bottle out of the window so that they had both hands to steer their heavy vehicle. If he waited there he had a continual supply of food and drink. He had been living off their cast-offs for over a week when we met him.
Jan was a tough little guy, four years younger than I and a couple of years younger than Solo. The story we got from him was terrifying… particularly for Solo because it was really what he had been hiding from for the last couple of years.
Jan had been picked up by the police during a snap house-search. They had all been wearing the stars so there was no hope of being missed. It was a short trip by lorry and then a long trip by train. There was no food or water and many died. His mother kept him warm, while she shivered.
Then they were loaded onto another lorry. By this time it was clear what awaited them.
Suddenly they slowed for a bend in the road. His mother had grabbed him, without warning, shouted “Run in the trees!!” at him and threw him over the tailgate of the lorry into the ditch. Then she followed him out of the lorry, but instead of following him into the trees she ran in the opposite direction across the road, waving her arms hysterically.
Jan had done as she had told him. He ran into the trees and then hid.
He saw what happened next.
The soldiers’ attention was concentrated on the screaming women… a few shots and then silence. The soldiers didn’t bother to collect the body. They just made a note in the sergeant’s notebook, climbed back into the lorry and the convoy moved off…
Jan’s absence hadn’t been noticed. His mother had achieved what she had wanted for him. They had been so busy chasing her… No-one had noticed her son had escaped!
When he gathered his wits, the lorries were long gone. There was silence in the woods… he was alone.
He scrambled across the road to the body of his mother. It was terribly mangled by the bursts of automatic weapon fire. His mother was very dead. There was nothing that he could do for her, but he did what he could. He found a sharp stick and used it to scrape a shallow grave. He couldn’t manage more than a thin covering of earth over her, but he added a layer of stones and then lots and lots of leaves and branches… to keep her safe and warm he thought.
He was about to depart on his long journey to… wherever… but then he stopped and went back. He chose the three trees that formed a triangle about the grave-site and using a sharp stone he marked the trunks as deeply as he could, on the side away from the grave… to confuse anyone who wondered what the marks meant. Then he went directly to the roadside and did the same to the tree there that was nearest to the other three. He had to hide a number of times when lorries went past.
Now he was satisfied that one day he would be able to return and collect his mother…
One day he would come back.
He had cried of course… of course he cried.
Then he found a stream and drank. He found berries and ate. He wondered how long he would survive on berries. It was when he saw a driver throw food out of the window at the bend that he got his first real meal. He was sure that the sandwich had sausage in it. He offered a small prayer for forgiveness and ate the first pig meat of his life. It was absolutely delicious, but his stomach objected. Then he thought, ‘It will save my life.’ and that was all that he needed to justify eating pig. The next driver threw cheese and pickle and the one after that half a bottle of beer. Soon Jan was better fed than he had been for years in the ghetto!
It was a week before we stopped and offered him some of our bread. He had nearly run when he saw us… but we looked harmless… We had no guns or weapons and he could always run if we turned nasty, But… at that moment he had few choices, and we looked like his best option.
Solo, looked at him and silently took his jacket with the yellow star on it, and threw it in the bushes. Then he gave him a spare woolly from his pack.
We told Jan (his real name was Isaac) that he was now my brother Jan. Their ages didn’t match quite. He was a little older than Jan had been but was hungry and thin and looked younger than he really was. Jan’s passbook would do for him too!
For just those few moments after the bomb I had been alone in the world.
Now… now I had two brothers again.
Someone somewhere was looking after us, all of us.
Jan asked where we were going. I said to Berlin. He asked me why Berlin.
“Because I have an Uncle Felix in Berlin… He has a lot of clout and can look after us if we can just get to him.”
“But… will he help me too? It’s alright for you but I’m a Jew!”
“No you aren’t… not any more. Your papers say you are my younger brother and you are a circumcised-Aryan. All my brothers were, it’s a family medical thing! So you don’t have to worry about that catching you out anymore either.”
“But what if people…”
“They won’t, the papers are signed by the Gauleiter of Hamburg… no-one will touch us… we have SS protection!”
He looked stunned…
“Honestly… I told you my uncle has clout… and he’s a nice man… he’ll look after us. Now you are Jan Heinz Kersten… remember that. I’ll tell you the other things you need, your birthday, family birthdays, where we lived, Mama and Papa’s names and things as we go.”
“Let’s get away from here. We have a long way to go, and we need to make camp before dark.”
That night we found a clearing in the woods, made a huge pile of brushwood and leaves, and buried ourselves in the middle. With three of us snuggled together we were surprisingly warm.
In the morning we had breakfast using the last of the food that we had gathered from the roadside at Jan’s corner. We had the bottle of water to drink and a stream to wash in.
It was Saturday and Jan was reluctant to travel. He had been brought up as a strict Orthodox Jew and wasn’t happy to travel on the Sabbath. Solo and I sat him down and gave him a good talking to. We put it to him that his mother had sacrificed herself for him, and this was not the time to risk wasting that.
Solo knew a lot more than I. He had been preparing for his bar mitzvah when his parents were taken. So, he took the lead in arguing with Jan that it was perfectly alright to travel, work or even eat pork sausage on the Sabbath if it would save his life, and if it would help to not get us killed while helping him.
I offered a small contribution to his spiritual comfort. I said that I wasn’t a Jew, so how would it be if I gathered berries for his portion, and carried his little bundle of clothes… at least until tomorrow. He could carry mine one day when I got tired.
He said that so long as I shared the berries and ate half of them then that would be the right thing to do. I heard him say to Solo that he would never understand goyim… the rest of Germany wanted to kill him, and here was this pure-blond Aryan boy trying to save his life… even volunteering to Shabbos-goy for him!
Then he said something in a language that I didn’t understand. I asked him what he said…
“I said a small Hebrew prayer of thanks to God, for sending you.”
That was when I really lost it… I told him that it was the last Hebrew I wanted to hear from him. His papers, papers that I had provided and that would get me killed if we were caught… those papers said he was my brother, an Aryan… a circumcised-Aryan for that matter. Aryans circumcised or not do NOT speak Hebrew. I threatened to give him a good thumping if I ever caught him doing something as dangerous and stupid as praying or even speaking in Hebrew. Until we were safe he was a gentile, a loyal Hitler-loving German boy whose only desire is to serve his Fuhrer… Did he understand?
He understood! He didn’t like it but he understood.
To reinforce matters… as we walked along I taught them the Horst Wessel song and the old soldier’s song “Ich Hatt Ein Kameraden”. If we were caught they could maybe sing songs to prove their loyalty to the Fuhrer. One day it might save them. As indeed one day a song did. The lesson worked, but not in any way that I could have anticipated.
Meanwhile, I needed to cement his new identity as my brother and a gentile! That night I felt that I needed to ensure that he felt safe and that he knew that he was now my adopted brother. I waited until Solo was asleep and then I threw my arm around Jan and started to cuddle him. It was the first time we had been this close and at first he seemed to resist.
Then he relaxed into my arms, took my hand and placed it over his genitals. I was quite surprised and kissed him to show my approval and pleasure. He clearly read that as signifying that he had guessed right… He reached over and gently rubbed mine in exchange.
I basked in his acceptance of my approach. When he became aroused I kissed him beside his ear… I wanted him to know that I cared, that it wasn’t just sex that I wanted.
Then he said in a small voice…
“You can if you want to…”
“Mama said I should always say you can… if you want to…”
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