Paul, Berlin 1987
After our success at locating Dad in the Yad Vashem archives, and finding that the four kids he had led to safety were Jewish we headed out for lunch, and to phone Ben’s dad with our news.
On our way we passed a synagogue. It was modern so that without the sign outside I might not have recognised it for what it was. I thought, perhaps cynically, that a modern synagogue was hardly a surprise… there couldn’t be many old ones in the modern Germany.
As we passed, a man with locks and a large black hat ran up the steps and entered. On impulse I ran in after him. He looked with annoyance at my bare head. I blushed, apologised and gestured for him to step outside with me.
I explained to him in halting German, aided by Ben’s Hebrew, that I needed to ask how someone could be nominated as a “Righteous among the nations”. He looked puzzled and asked why on earth I was interested in that. I explained, the short version, that my father Hans Felix Kersten seemed to have rescued four Jewish children in the Holocaust, a rescue that had previously been credited to Felix Kersten.
He interrupted… “Felix Kersten I have heard of… but your father was Hans Felix?”
“Yes, I found his Hitler Youth uniform and came to Germany to find out the truth about him… He died two years ago, and I was afraid…”
He sat us down and extracted the long version. Then he sat back…
“My boy, if you can locate one of the boys… two would be better… one of the Righteous he certainly should be!”
By this time I was in tears. Ben had my hands and the rabbi put his hand on my head, clearly uncertain what you did with a seventeen year old English boy in tears on the steps of your synagogue.
He turned to Ben, who while not actually in tears was obviously upset.
“You speak Hebrew? So you are Jewish?”
“Yes, I was here with my Dad. We were looking in the records at Dachau for my relatives… Dad survived the Holocaust. When we’d finished there Dad flew home and I came to join my friend Paul, while he finished up here. We have had quite a shock!”
He turned back to me…
“So this Hitler Youth father that you had feared for… You are happy with what you have found?”
“Good Lord yes!… First I worry that he was a Hitler Youth, now he seems to be the opposite!”
“Well, now you know it, but there is a long way to go to prove it... If you want him added to the list of Righteous.” He smiled… not wanting to get my hopes up too much.
“For the nomination to work you would need to find the boys.”
He asked what we wanted to do. By now it was already four o’clock, so I said we should go back to the hostel, find a phone and tell Ben’s Dad what we had just found and ask him what he thought.”
The rabbi said that first we should eat, as his guests, and then we could come to the rabbi’s office and use his phone. He said he would like to explain to Ben’s father what was involved.
So that was what we did. He seemed as excited as we were. He took us round the corner to a small kosher coffee shop cum delicatessen and fed us for an hour. He seemed to have an unlimited number of friends to introduce us to and we kept re-telling the story of our search.
Eventually we returned to the synagogue and entered by a side door. He handed me a yarmulke, and looked with approval as I slipped it into place…
“You understand a yarmulke?”
“I am Ben’s family’s Shabbos-goy… I attend synagogue with them.”
“My life, my boy… such wonders!”
He took Ben’s home phone number and placed the call. Ben spoke to his father briefly, just to say that we were visiting a synagogue, and that they had been very kind and had fed us. He said that we had some news that had excited the rabbi.
They handed the phone to me, clearly deciding that it was my father and my news.
I told Solomon that we had discovered a connection between my father Hans Felix Kersten and a group of Jewish boys that he appeared to have rescued at the end of the war… that the story came from records at Yad Vashem, and that the name Felix Kersten seemed to have created confusion.
When I told Solomon that the Yad Vashem archives had thrown up the existence of a Hans Felix Kersten… the reaction was almost instant. He asked us to return as soon as possible. He said that what we had found now made sense and that independently he had the missing part of the story for me. He said…
“Return at once. There is nothing left to find in Germany. All the answers are now here in London!”.
He spoke briefly to the rabbi… who looked astonished. I asked him what Solomon had said but he said that he would leave Ben’s father to tell us that. Meanwhile he went with us to the hostel to gather our belongings. He organised air tickets back to London. He rang Solomon to tell him that we were on the late evening flight and drove us to the airport. It was not obvious to me what was going on, but he seemed tremendously involved in getting things sorted out… excited even.
Hans, 1945 – 85
Uncle Felix? He returned to Sweden and became something of a celebrity. We exchanged addresses and kept in touch, at first via the Red Cross, and later when I was freed, by Christmas and birthday cards. When I travelled to Scandinavia in later life I would visit him and we would laugh about coffee and cakes and circumcisions and of how we both celebrated the death of Reinhard Heydrich.
Solo was as good as his word. He rattled around in Jewish orphanages for six months and then was whisked off to a Jewish family in England. Once there he told his new family of the German boy who had helped him survive. Their father made enquiries and the Red Cross found me for him. I stayed with them a year, recovering my strength and waiting for the nightmares to subside.
By the time I was eighteen I was starting to wonder what came next. By nature I was independent… travelling alone across Germany had given me self-confidence and my losses had made me fearful of depending too much on anyone but myself. I need not have worried. Sol’s new dad could sense my restlessness. One day that spring he called me into his den, sat me down and said…
“Hansi, I reckon you need to start thinking about what you will do with your life. You’ve achieved more already than most men achieve in a lifetime, but I think that just makes you restless. I thought that it would help if I found out what was possible. Your education was broken up by the war but maybe not everything was lost so I used my European and Jewish contacts to make enquiries.”
“Would you believe? The records at your old school have survived. Your examination results still count. I have checked with the authorities here. Your baccalaureate results there count here and with just a couple of extra sixth-form exams here you will be more than qualified for university.”
Then he said…
“Hansi, now it is our turn… You risked everything to look after our boys, now it’s time for Jews to look after you. I planned to do it anyway, but the men of our synagogue insist on sharing.”
“Get the grades and they will put you through university… They ask, what do you want to study?”
“Medicine, Pop! Papa was a doctor. All I ever wanted was to follow him.”
“Oy vey. You could have chosen a cheap course!” He laughed!
“Medicine it shall be, you will make a fine doctor!”
So that was it. I studied. I graduated. I married. We had a son…
We went on holiday to an isolated Greek island.
Paul, London 1987
When we arrived at London Heathrow, Solomon was waiting for us. I was surprised when he grabbed me and hugged me first… Ben looked more than a little startled too.
“Come, boys… Paul’s mother is waiting for us!”
That was all we got out of him…
“Trust me, driving and the rest of the story wouldn’t go well together.”
That worried me. He knew the rest of the story… I had been careful to keep the medal and SS passbook away from all of them… was that what he had discovered. Had Mum found them? I just sat there and worried. My only reassurance was the warmth of his greeting.
I was a little surprised when the car took us to my home rather than his. Solomon had gone quiet, but said that it was my family’s story. Anyway, Mum had prepared supper for us, while he went to the airport.
So, supper it was, attempts to ask questions were met with “First we eat!”
The meal over, Mum cleared the table and we all sat round it. Instinctively it seemed we were holding hands, each parent holding a hand of each of us boys. Then Solomon started.
“I am getting old Paul. My hearing isn’t as good as it should be, maybe too many loud noises when I was young. Anyway, all this would have been simpler for you if I had caught your name when we first met… what I heard was Curzon, like the viceroy of India… Then you made all the arrangements for the trip yourself…
But, when the rabbi in Germany mentioned Hans Felix Kersten… everything dropped into place.”
“I now understand why your search was so important to you...
“When you found the Hitler Youth uniform and the family papers, you found something else, something that profoundly shocked you. Am I correct?”
“You found his membership of the SS?”
He said it gently, with no hint of disapproval. My head snapped up and I looked him in the eyes…
“How did you know?”
“I was there when it happened!” Solomon said with evident satisfaction.
“You were there? How could you have been? It could have been…”
“The death of me? Yes, it should have been, and of my brothers too… but…”
“My boy, the how was easy, the where and when are obvious. But that they all came together in the Chancellery garden in Berlin was simply… unlikely.”
“Your father was the most patriotic and bravest boy I ever met. He was just 16 but he had dragged us across half Germany to get us to his uncle Felix and to defend his Fuhrer to the end. I watched and I’m proud to say I even helped him to destroy nine Russian tanks and at least two field gun crews. The Russians were going to take Berlin over his dead body!”
“But you were Jewish!”
“Yes, but I was also German. Even for a Jewish boy, it was terrible to see my country being destroyed street by street, and by Russians! The Russians have never been nice to my people… Helping your father to kill Russians quite appealed to me, I got a few myself.”
He smiled at the memory, a rather serious smile.”
Then he grinned, a little wolfishly I thought
“I had gone through much of the early part of the war frustrated by being Jewish. Jewish meant that I couldn’t wear a uniform… I couldn’t fight for my country… I couldn’t try to kill the flyers who were trying to kill me!”
“Then I came to understand just how dangerous it was to be a Jew… that my family hadn’t been re-located to the east to work on farms… They were dead. It was pure luck that I wasn’t dead too… Being out to play in the ruins saved me that day… when the SS came with lorries.”
“Your father declared that the only place he knew to find help for us was in Berlin… If he could reach his mysterious uncle then we would be in safe hands… Best of all… we would have a chance to fight for our motherland against the Russians… I was elated!”
“Not only could I at last fight, go down fighting even… but, best of all I could do it against Russians… the Cossacks that had forced my family out of Russia in the first place!”
“So, don’t blame your dad for being patriotic… I was just as bad, and I was Jewish… A Jewish boy was fighting to protect Berlin and the Reich Chancellery!”
I had this image in my head of my dad, a mild-mannered gentle doctor, who had cuddled me when I came out to him… I asked…
“Russians… How many did he…?”
“Kill? I kept count for him… we had a killing zone, their tanks came round the same corner, day after day, we held that last street before the Chancellery. It was so easy, we had Panzerfausts and we had the exact range… He killed at least forty three Russians… and two Germans.”
He paused. “I killed another eight… It was funny. Both times, they came when he was having a pee! Otherwise they would have been his. The Kersten-Wandervogel sturmbann killed fifty one Cossacks… even Jan was satisfied!”
“So, anyway… the medal and the SS?” I asked.
”We’d been forced back close to the Chancellery. Hitler was desperate. His troops, even the SS were deserting him. He sent for some of the real heroes, the old men and boys like your father, to present medals, to shake hands and pat cheeks! They were his last hope.”
“But, as he made his way down the line he had a surprise. When he got to your father, he suddenly recognised the boy in front of him… It was the boy who had visited the Berghof with your great-uncle Felix. The boy who had played with his dog Blondi, who had played hide and seek with the Goebbels children, even babysat the Heydrich boys for their father’s funeral. He asked your dad how he came to be in Berlin at this time and was astounded when this boy said that he had travelled halfway across Germany to find his uncle and to defend his Fuhrer!”
That and the desertion of his real SS were what made Hitler do it… He made a field-appointment on the spot… He made your father… a 16 year old boy in Jugend uniform, a Sturmbannfuhrer in the SS, not just the SS, but his personal bodyguard!”
“Of course Hitler didn’t realise that the next three boys in line were actually Jewish… nor did the SS-colonel with him! But he did understand that they were your father’s brothers and had made the journey with him… so each got a pat on the cheek and the Fuhrer’s hand on their shoulder. Each managed a very convincing salute to the man who had ordered the murder of their families.”
“It was all done very seriously, papers were issued by the SS, and for a couple of days we ate well, at the SS field kitchen. The colonel said that he had received personal orders from Hitler to look after us.”
“At the end, again obeying Hitler’s personal order, on the night that Berlin fell to the Russians, the colonel ordered your father to lead a group of secretaries and children in a break-out to safety in the west.”
“It was a better choice than he knew. Your dad had better survival instincts than the adults and he got all of us, brothers, secretaries and children safely to the American lines. He even…” he paused.
“He kept a final secret…Even he didn’t know that I knew. I only knew because I followed him in the dark to make sure he was safe… “
“The two German’s that he killed?” I asked.
“There was a lot of noise behind us, so he went back to investigate. He came across Martin Bormann and Dr Stumpfegger. They were following us and Bormann was making enough noise to attract attention. He was endangering us… so your father…”
Again he paused and then rushed on…
“So your father killed him… it was your father who killed Martin Bormann!”
I sat there stunned… shocked… and relieved…
At the end of our search, there had been nothing terrible to find.