I was born in Berlin Spandau, and had a sister five years younger than myself. Mother and Father came from Hungary. Father came to Berlin for better job opportunities. He was a scientist in physics. My mother was a mum and a wife. My father was half Jewish - his father was Jewish. Well I started school about 1938. I saw very little of my father. I knew that he worked for the Air Ministry. I knew that we had Jewish relations. I know two aunts, what we called aunts, definitely went away. I knew exactly what was going on. I saw it in the streets almost every day. I didn't have to wear the yellow star. There were Jewish shops with windows smashed, and great big writings all over the shops, horrible writings like "Jewish Pigs", that sort of thing. It was very unpleasant. It used to make my stomach almost hit my knees because you used to think "I wonder when it will be our turn". But our turn never came. Those jack boots, when you heard them marching, we had those funny streets with cobbles still and it made a specific noise when those boots came over. And then we used to hear the rattling of the door, the hammering of the door... and there was some poor devil being taken away.... No, that was not a nice time.
School changed some... because we had sort of drummed into us - I suppose it was politics. No! It was more than that, it was propaganda. I remember having to sit in this park. Every detail of Hitler's life, all his doings from the time for the first world war were sort of drummed into us. We used to sit up in the trees and try to learn this tripe.
I knew about the concentration camps. They called them labour camps, but they weren't. They had to work I know, but they were terrible. They used to starve them. The labour camp we could see on the way to school. I don't think it was a very important one. Not like Auschwitz or anything like that. It just had Strasse camp. That's all it was called. I don't think that was a concentration camp, that probably, literally was a labour camp, but they starved those people, and towards the end of the war, the end of 1944, my mother took a job. Because we never saw my father after that time, he was working away, we never ever saw him and she took a job. There was a factory near our school, and she worked as a sort of doctor's helper, where anybody hurt a finger, something like this, and this is when she saw these people. And she found one of the young men, he was only a kid, and he was rummaging around in a waste bin and she saw him pick out, like a herring bone and wolf this down. Oh she couldn't stick that. And they only had rags wrapped wound their feet, they had no shoes. So when she came home she packed up a few things and she threw it over the big wire fence, hoping that nobody saw her - but they did. That's when she nearly collared it. And if she had been Jewish in any way, if only a part, they would have taken her without a doubt. They sent the police. It was Friday evening. It was frightening for the simple reason that she had told us what she had done, and they came to interview her. The following day my mother was taken, to the police station I presume, I don't know but she came back! I don't know what she said to them, she never told us. All she said was "It's all over, I got away with it this time, but if I do it again it won't be so easy." That's all.
You see when she worked in this little doctor's office where these people came, the people who worked in the factory, to have their injuries attended to. The doctor was the doctor for all, the factory and the labour camp, the labour camp belonged to the factory, they worked in the factory. Already before that they had people coming in, these Russians, whatever they were. Ukrainians they were, I'm sure they were. Because of the diet or the non-existent diet they used to come up in big boils everywhere. And she told me a story which I remember very distinctly, that they gave one of these young boys a tube of something to put on his boil, some paste... I will remember it to day I die, because he ate it. He did! He ate it! It makes my inside go all funny at the moment, to be honest, to think about it. Because, today, to look back, I'm more afraid today than I was at the time. Because now I feel what could have happened. To all of us.
In Berlin, the German army was being pushed back. Oh, that was a peculiar time, because one minute we had the Germans on our front doorstep and half an hour later there were Russians there, and it was reversed again. They were in and out... We were on the front. We spent 17 days in the cellar, and there were 29 people, I think there were, in the cellar. It was an apartment house. Now, the story I am telling you now is absolutely and totally true and I must have had a guardian angel all my life. Food ran out because when we were all herded into the cellars, the Russians started bombarding the streets, and the Germans bombarded us and, oh God, it was dreadful... we were shut away in the cellar. We shut ourselves away - the grownups shut us away. We actually hid together down there. Slept together for 17 days. Everyone took as much food down as they had. Well, when the occupation kept changing, one minute you had the Germans, the next minute you had the Russians, then the Germans were back. Well, what the Russian soldiers did, any food that was in the stores, in the shops were either taken away or destroyed - scattered all over the ground, horses went through it, what they couldn't use they destroyed, So, when the Germans came in again, and we thought we could go to the shop and buy what we didn't have or get what we didn't have, there was nothing to be had. Consequently a time came during those 17 days when we were very, very hungry. I was about 14 then. So there was a young boy, about a year older than myself and he said to me, "Would you be game, if we went out of that front door and went across to the barracks and see what's in the cellars?" Of course we weren't allowed to go, we had to do this secretly. So I said, "Yes, I'll come." So, we went. In the meantime, mind you, there was firing going on all the time, we were being shelled. It was about - well, we lived like here (indicating out of the window) and the barracks were there, about 80 metres. So, we went across. We got there without being hurt, under shellfire, and we got into the cellars.
We got into the cellar and do you know, it was just like an Aladdin's cave. We found bread, sausages, oh, all sorts of food there, even sweets! And we had nothing to carry it in. So he said, "I'll tell you what. You stay, and I'll pop back and get a washing basket and we'll fill that up." Well, he did. He came back with this empty washing basket. They didn't know we'd gone, in the house, because the cellars under our apartment house are like a maze. So, he came back with this basket, and we filled it with these things. Black bread which keeps for a long time. Rye bread, all wrapped in silver foil. So, we packed the basket full of all this and on the top we put a few, you know, nice bits which weren't really necessary. And we had just finished packing.... when the door opened and a Russian came in.... MY God! Well, believe you me if I had a weak heart, I would have had a heart attack! He was the biggest bloke I'd ever seen in all my life. And he had one of those horrible moustaches like a walrus! He looked so fierce. Well, he must have seen how scared we were....but he was ever so kind.... he explained to us that he had children at home as well, so would we scoot - because in a minute a lot of others would be along and they might not be so understanding. So, between us, a handle each of this basket we go back to the house under shellfire. My mother nearly died of fright when she saw us. But we fed the whole household until we were let out of the cellars. Then they turned the water off, we didn't have any water. We had to walk 2 miles with a bucket, all under sniper fire, because by that time they were shooting from behind chimneys... because the last Nazis, well you couldn't call them an army. They were just children, some of them were only 15 years old. They hid behind the chimney pots and shot at anything moving in the street.
I did that mostly because there wasn't anybody else really for us, for my family. From each family one person would go. My father wasn't there, I don't think my mother could do it. My sister was too little, so I did it. And I'll tell you what else I did in those days, I walked, when we came out of those cellars food was still very short, and potatoes were almost non existent, and I walked 37 miles to a farmhouse of some friends we had in Strausberg and they filled a rucksack full of potatoes for me and 2 duck eggs on the top as a bonus, and I walked 37 miles back. Oh God! It took me days. But there were lots of people doing it. I wasn't on my own. They were all strangers to me, I didn't know them, but we sort of grouped together. And by the time I got back home I had blisters the size of a fist underneath my feet. But it was worth every bit of it, because we had something to eat for a few days. You see it tided us over for a period of time which was the worst. Then gradually things got better. They got adjusted.
I had my hair shorn off when we had to move out of our house. Well, you had to go to wherever you could find anybody would take you in, because they took your house over you see. My mum had a little handcart, and she filled it with the most necessary belongings. Then she cut my hair right off like a boys and I had to wear leather trousers which she borrowed from somebody who had a son. Because the raping was terrible, they raped anything from 8 - 80, and that is a fact. My sister looked much younger than she was, we were both dressed as boys, just in case.
I moved to Exeter in 1952. I raised my family in Exeter. They went to local schools, so they are native. You know, I have never felt strange in this country, ever. From the day I got here I've never felt strange. It is extraordinary, believe you me, because for a start I've never met anybody that has been nasty because I was a foreigner. I was friendly with a newscaster, he used to say things like, "When you were brought up did you hate the English?" and I used to say, "No. Why?" It seemed such an idiotic thing. He said, "Well, weren't you taught to hate them?" I said, "No." "Oh!" he said, "We were taught to hate the Germans." I said, "Well, surely that depends on the family you are brought up in?" During the war I had no idea about concentration camps until my mother had this close shave, so I didn't really know anything about that..
You know, people say, "Have you been in Berlin during the bombing? Oh, my poor child!" and I couldn't think what they meant. I loved it - it was exciting... We made amusement out of things that probably other people would call tragic. Like collecting shrapnel. Shrapnel pieces, we had a beautiful collection and we used to swap them. You find it exciting when things go smoothly until it stands on your doorstep. For example, you see somebody beating up an old man simply because he is wearing a yellow star - now that is on your doorstep, because you are actually seeing it. It didn't concern my family, he wasn't part of my family, but he was another human being, he was somebody's father and grandfather - do you see? And that is when it makes you feel sick. So, you don't glorify the war, believe you me - you might collect all sorts of paraphernalia but you do that possibly, because what else can you do as a child?
Well, at first I just wouldn't believe it, and then I went to an exhibition about the concentration camps in Berlin. I went there with the school. That shattered me....That was just after 1945, just after the war finished. I can't really say much for others, what they felt and thought...but it totally and utterly stunned me - to see lampshades made of human skin .....and that sort of thing. I couldn't understand that human beings could be capable of this. I couldn't, honestly. I couldn't understand.
It was Gypsies too - very much so. Why? What had they ever done to anybody, I don't know. What had the Jews ever done to them? Every community, every country has always been grateful to their Jewish community economy wise... they needed them! And so did Germany! But you know, reading through the history books, it was no different in other countries, I mean they didn't do the same thing, but they were never liked. But why? This is what I can't understand. I know that Hitler had this bee in his bonnet about a totally Aryan race, right? A super race. Well that was idiotic. I reckon he was afraid of the Jews.
After seeing that exhibition of the concentration camps in Berlin in 1945 I felt bitterly ashamed. People that I had hidden amongst could have done that - that feeling persists. When you see it on the television I still feel guilty. You see, when you think of all those millions of children...
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