Paul, London 1987
I had just been told astonishing things. Solomon was with Dad when he was given the Iron Cross and he knew how the SS-Sturmbannfuhrer passbook came about. My father had simply been a patriotic kid… he had done nothing wrong to earn them!
He had done nothing wrong, and had rescued not just four Jewish kids but a group of secretaries and their children… My hero!
I paused and then asked the obvious questions all in a rush… after the war… where were the others… all the obvious things.
Solomon told me that he had been adopted by an English Jewish family. The other three boys went to relatives in what would soon be Israel. His new English family had in turn rescued my father from a DP camp in Germany. They educated him in England and set him on the path to becoming a doctor.
Hans and Solomon remained as close as brothers until Solomon moved to Israel in the 1950’s, to live on a kibbutz. He served in the Israeli army during the Six Day War and afterwards became a farmer. He married Ben’s mother, a local Israeli-born village girl. Their son Ben was four years old when Israel was attacked again. In the Yom Kippur War Solomon once again served in the reserve.
Solomon became quieter and quieter as he told us how he had lost Hans.
Solomon was living on a kibbutz when the wars began. His reserve unit always seemed to be fighting where the battles were fiercest. Their tanks on the Golan Heights came out of the battle with the paint stripped down to the metal.
In his letters to Dad, Solomon wrote that Jan had watched his mother shot down like an animal because she was a Jewess. This time, he said, he was not going to stand by and watch it happen again. If the Arab nations defeated Israel they would not be satisfied with a victory… they would push them into the sea!
This time of course the Arab nations were not victorious… this time the roles were reversed!
Hans had tried to persuade Solomon that moderation in victory was needed after each Israeli triumph, but Sol was now living in a settlement in the Occupied West Bank. He viewed it as the spoils of war and land that rightly belonged to his people.
Hans had replied that it was the same argument that had evicted Polish Jews from their villages! That had enraged Solomon beyond reason. He had accused Hans of revealing his German roots.
That was, as they say… that.
The rift widened… things were said that couldn’t be unsaid.
Eventually, having been at war continuously for over thirty years, Solomon became depressed by the fighting. He could see that fighting wasn’t achieving anything.
He had gone to Israel with romantic notions of farming the desert. He found himself instead farming someone else’s olive grove.
Now he had a small son whose future seemed destined to follow his father into battle when he was old enough.
He used his old British passport to move his family to England, to North London.
By this time he understood what my father had been urging. At the approach of each Passover and again at Christmas he would think of looking for him and of sending a card…
Each time something else got in the way.
Each time the shame of the things that had been said stopped him.
Perhaps it wasn’t just the words. Perhaps it meant re-opening the wounds of earlier wars.
By the time he was in a better state of mind… It was too late.
By now he was crying inconsolably. We all were. Finally he calmed down and pulled himself together a bit.
“Now” he said “Now… I couldn’t face your father and tell him how sorry I was for the things I said… But, now I can say it to you… it seems easier… You are so like your father as a boy.”
My mother and Ben were sitting there shocked bystanders, watching while at least three wars took their toll on ones they loved.
That night I was about to say goodnight to Ben at our front door when my mum gave me a gentle push and said…
“Go on. If Ben didn’t need you now his father does. You are the nearest thing to his lost Hansi that he has. Go and love his son for him… show them that their losses are ended. He needs an anchor. Do it for your father.”
Solomon held it together while I drove him home, but started to cry as I parked the car in their drive. Ben and I helped him until he was indoors. Then we sat him on the sofa and we all three sobbed until he was all cried out.
He felt he had abandoned his Hansi to follow his dream to Israel. I said that it was what my father would have wanted for him, to follow his dream.
I stood in my father’s place, giving him some form of absolution.
Eventually he said…
“It’s Shabbos already… go on boys… bed!
“Remember you only get one life and one opportunity to show how much you are in love!”
His last line stuck in my mind as we went up the stairs.
Maybe it struck a chord with Ben too because he stopped when we reached the landing.
He turned to me and said, very quietly and with utter seriousness…
“Please… pick me up… it’s tonight… I’m sure that it’s tonight!”
I took him up in my arms and approached our bedroom door.
Ben leaned down and opened it…
“Take me to bed… and…” I kissed him.
The room had been prepared for us by Solomon before he headed for the airport. The Shabbos candles were on the bedside table, not yet lit. Beside them were a bottle of cold cream and a small towel.
Solomon’s message was obvious.
“Dad thinks it’s tonight too.” Ben said.
I smiled and laid him gently on the bed.
Solomon’s preparations struck me as perfect and appropriate.
I lit the candles and held hands with Ben while he sang the song dedicated to his mother. Then he leaned up caught me by the back of my neck and pulled me down onto him…
“Now it’s our turn… please take me… I don’t know quite how this is done, but I want…”
“Shhh” I said
“First… Ben, my love… will you be mine, forever… till death us…?”
“Yes of course!”
What followed was a bit too… well it was… it was special!
We stood up and undressed each other. Then we lay and cuddled until his cheeks were burning and my… well I was obviously ready physically, Ben was ready emotionally and Solomon clearly thought it was time we got on with it…
So we did.
The cold cream was cold… and Ben was hot… the contrast on entering him was sublime. He came before I did, which was perfect.
The first time we went to sleep I was still buried deep in him… too much in love to withdraw.
When we woke, I was still lying across Ben. He must have started to move, probably simply squashed. I smiled down at him and he kissed me gently, and said… with all seriousness…
“We should thank God, for the beauty of our love, and for what it drives us to do. Such love is his gift.” To which I replied with equal sincerity, “Thank you God!”
The next day, we were walking together in the town centre when we came upon a young boy, our age, begging in the street. I said, “Statistically, he’s likely to be a gay kid, thrown out by his folks!” Ben pulled me by the arm towards him, saying, “Do what I do!”
He bent down and put a banknote, not small change but a note, in the boy’s box. Wondering quite why I was doing it, I followed his action. The kid now had more money than he had seen in quite a while. He looked astonished… “Why?” He said.
“Because… God has blessed us!” Ben replied. As we walked away he squeezed my hand.
“I have been talking to our rabbi… So long as we can see that God has blessed us and that each night is a gift for which we should show gratitude, then the Torah’s disapproval is not such a big thing. Our love is more important than words on paper… But, we must never lose sight of where our love comes from.”
‘Don’t I just love these Jews!’ I thought.
The events of the next year followed in slow motion as far as the school year and the Righteous Amongst Nations submission went, but all too fast regarding preparing for exams and getting ready for university.
We, that is, Ben and I, lived half at his home and half at mine.
People at school now knew exactly what was going on. There was no bullying. Ben and I were a team and if we couldn’t fight our own battles then the pair of us fought them together. We hadn’t yet found anyone who could take us both. We had the advantage of seeing no point in getting thumped one on one if we could take them down by working together.
We joked that our German ubermensch heritage saved us from the beatings that an English sense of fair-play might have earned us.
The physical side of our relationship went from strength to strength. I was the Top and Ben the Bottom in our coupling. We tried it the other way round a few times, if only to try to understand why each of us preferred our chosen role.
I admit that there was great emotional pleasure to be got by feeling myself filled with Ben and he said that my bum enclosing him was sublime. But, I preferred the feel of his body under me, rolling on the soft roundness of his bottom, breathing the sweetness of his hair and nipping at his ear. Ben says that I reached all the right places. He orgasmed just from the moves I made in him. If he didn’t I worried for days that he might be unwell or unhappy!
Marrying was a bit of a complication. This was before gay-marriage or even civil-unions. Solomon spoke to the rabbi of the synagogue that we attended. The rabbi was a little startled, but he had been quite taken with the story of our quest across Germany, and was already helping us by sponsoring Dad’s application as a Righteous. So, to show our appreciation we gave him the huge problem of working out how to satisfy our need to marry.
He had no particular problem with the concept… but it wasn’t possible to actually marry… it wasn’t a rite offered by the Torah. In fact there were deep theological and legal reasons why it wasn’t possible. But, that in some ways simplified matters. It allowed him to hold a unique service that simply celebrated our love. He asked God to ensure that we had long lives to enjoy it. What more could we have asked.
Nothing prevented us from making a solemn statement of our love before the scrolls. But it was a bit more complicated than just thinking of a form of words that didn’t offend his faith. There were others to consider. He felt obliged to go to each member of his congregation and explain what he planned to do and obtain their agreement. They were about as Liberal as you could find, and when each had been told the story of Hans and Solomon, and the desire to formalise the love between their sons… each capitulated without much of a struggle.
The only condition that seemed to strike everyone was that, for any sort of promise to be valid I needed to convert to Judaism. That struck me as very reasonable, though I joked that now we would need a new Shabbos-goy. It was a relief that the family problem that had caused Dad so much trouble now saved me from the discomfort of an adult circumcision. I was happy to not have that particular problem… and it was the subject of much mirth over drinks at the country club on the Sabbath.
The conversion ceremony took place in May. As the day approached the rabbi became increasingly mysterious and uncharacteristically pleased with himself. On the day, as he stood up to begin, he turned to Solomon and said…
“Solomon Weinstein, you have brought Paul, the son of Hans Kersten so that we can witness his acceptance of the Jewish faith. His father did our people a great service when he rescued four Jewish children in Germany in World War Two. You are here today, bearing witness as one of those children.”
His voice was now breaking…
“It would be fitting that his son’s decision to convert to Judaism should be witnessed by not just one but… all four of the children that his father saved! So… please stand… Solomon… Isaac Abrahams, David and Daniel Rottblat!”
Three suntanned men in the back row stood and moved to join Solomon.
After that things became more than a trifle emotional!
Things eventually calmed down. Solomon, his brothers and most of the congregation stopped crying. Our rabbi explained to the congregation that Yad Vashem had located the other three boys, all living in Israel.
When they heard that Hans’s son and Solo had been found they asked to be put in touch, and when they heard of Hans’s son’s conversion they insisted on being present.
It was perfect. My father’s life was mine again. He was and always had been the man I had admired and loved. Everything he had set out to do was back in its correct place… It was just a pity that he had missed the party.
My day was now perfect. I had my love… and his father… and I had Dad too.
You may remember Jan and his mother. Well Solomon had a chance to ask Isaac if the marks on the trees had served their purpose yet. With tears again, Isaac said that indeed they had. That was how he was on the Yad Vashem data-base. They had brokered his request with the West German government when he asked for permission to visit Germany to attempt to recover his mother’s remains. They insisted that it could only be done by a police supervised forensic exhumation… it was after all a genocide crime-scene. But, yes he was present when it happened. He took the police team to identify the tree by the road. The mark was still visible. It took a little longer to find the three further into the forest, but they were there.
The recovery dig was done with respect and care, although the remains were in fact under only a few inches of soil. An arm was missing, wild life in the forest! The spine and skull were terribly damaged by the assault-rifle rounds. Her dress was still there with its yellow star… now a prized family possession. The remains went for forensic pathology, and then were cremated, so that he could take her ashes back to Israel. They now rested on the Mount of Olives.
He also asked David and Daniel if there was any news of Gramma. They said not. They believed that she had gone to relatives after they left… He said nothing, it didn’t seem right to speculate. She had said she was ready to go, and she was gone. It was best left like that. He just hugged each and said how much he had loved and respected her.
We were “married” in August. It was a wonderful occasion with flowers in synagogue and broken wineglasses at the country club. The whole thing was wonderfully Jewish.
As we stood together I thought of my father. He couldn’t have guessed what he had started when he gathered his little band of brothers for their journey across Germany.
I heard the rabbi say quietly to Solomon…
“They really are quite remarkable boys! But, so were their fathers… remarkable boys!”
There seemed to be an echo.
This story skirts unusually close to both historical figures and Judaism. It seems appropriate to provide a little background to both, and some explanation of why they inspired a story of love, both altruistic and sexual.
A story written by a gentile.
After Ben and Paul finally consummate their love, Ben thanks God and next day gives alms to a beggar, in celebration. This recognises the guidance given by Rabbi Simchah Roth in his responsum on homosexuality entitled Dear David . In it he examines a twentieth century view of homosexuality and how it relates to Torah inspired prohibitions. Essentially he argues that God is a fair and just God. If He has made some men homosexual then it would be unfair of Him to punish them for it. Therefore, the sin is not homosexuality but homophobia… it is sinful to hate something that God has created. Perhaps I paraphrase too creatively…
Go and read Dear David for yourself.
He explores the thought that perhaps stoning is no longer an appropriate response to anal sex. Nor should lovers expect the soul’s extinction at death, as punishment for mishkav zakhur (anal sex), even as a sin which the Torah definitely does forbid. His enlightened and gentle response is to accept that it is a sin, but a sin that reflects the deep love between two men. In a carefully argued addendum he concludes that if they fall from grace occasionally, then they should…
Thank God for the deep love that prompted the act and for the deep emotional sense of togetherness and the ecstatic union of souls that in its turn the act generated. Go out of your way to relate to others with a shadow of that outpouring of love that you have been privileged to experience. Go and give charity to the needy or to a worthy cause as an expression of a deep gratitude to Heaven and a desire that others share a modicum of the happiness you have been vouchsafed
That is why Ben thanked God and gave alms.
There were a lot of historical characters… where did fiction begin? All the truly historical characters, locations and events are as correct as I could make them. When Heydrich arrested Kersten in Bad Godesberg, Himmler received a phone call to rescue him. I just added a plausible explanation.
Hans and all the characters in Paul’s story are fictional. In particular I must stress that there was no Herr Rolfe, or a grocer in that street in Hamburg. The street exists, but only as a location, all else is fiction. The various archives and their responses are fictional but I hope plausible.
The idea for this story began with the discovery of the memoirs of Dr Felix Kersten. Improbable as he may seem. He did actually exist. He was Himmler’s physician, a scientific-masseur, a slightly peculiar medical specialisation… perhaps like our era’s osteopaths.
He was the only one who could ease Himmler’s crippling stomach cramps and is credited with using the influence that gave him to achieve a series of remarkable interventions. His role as a humanitarian seems to have been over-shadowed by the alternative view of him as the man who kept Himmler going.
He is known to have intervened on a number of occasions, to save individuals and groups from execution. The Dutch credited him with major interventions on behalf of the Netherlands. He may well have, as he claimed, talked Himmler out of ordering the destruction of The Hague during the German retreat. The Dutch proposed him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, although later they, as did others, felt that his role had been exaggerated.
Himmler himself is quoted as saying of Kersten… “(he) massages a life out of me with every rub”. Dr Langbehn, an anti Nazi predicted of seven Swedish men held as spies in Germany that, “Kersten would probably contrive to massage the men out”, as indeed he did.
Perhaps the problem is that his achievements were on such a huge scale… the Dutch intervention involved three million Dutchmen due to be shipped east, and the White buses and camp interventions totalled about one hundred thousand prisoners saved. Such numbers simply seem incredible as the work of just one man.
But, the white buses incident really did happen, and he was certainly present at the meeting near Ravensbruck, when Himmler was persuaded not to complete the slaughter of the last camp-survivors of the Holocaust. He almost certainly initiated both events, and was instrumental in their successful outcome.
After the war, the Swedish government preferred to credit the white buses to their Count Bernadotte. A Swedish count versus Himmler’s masseur? Kersten didn’t stand a chance in that competition!
His attitude towards homosexuals was as given here. On at least one occasion he persuaded Himmler to over-rule Heydrich’s wish to see a homosexual SS officer killed. He persuaded Himmler that, as the officer had already proved his courage and loyalty in battle, he should be posted to Norway instead.
So… did he have a nephew? I have no idea… I don’t even know if he had a brother. But, if he did, and if he had a chance to influence the boy and encourage an alternative acceptable behaviour in the face of Nazism… then maybe… hopefully, the boy would have turned out as I have described him… fiercely patriotic, protective of his brothers, affectionate and when challenged, capable of altruism and courage.
So… take the time to do an internet search for Dr. Felix Kersten… You will see why I chose to weave a story about him. In doing so I have taken his story and the Kersten Memoirs at face value… There any number of revisionist historians out there… Revisionist views of his achievements are of no interest to me… My story is simply a work of fiction that uses his memoirs as a starting point.
I would still prefer the Kersten-myth even if it were only a myth. It would still be uplifting. I suspect Kersten basically told the truth… he just didn’t understate his role…
In his place, which of us would?
The Kersten Memoirs, 1940-45
Fritz Kersten, with a foreword by Hugh Trevor Roper, historian and senior member of MI6
Macmillan , New York 1957. Library of Congress card number 57-7888
There are many histories of the period, the most relevant proved to be;
Witnesses of War, Children’s Lives Under the Nazis
Jonathan Cape. London 2005. ISBN 0-224-06479-7
Hitler’s Hangman, The Life of Heydrich
Yale U.P. 2012. ISBN 978-0-300-11575-8
Berlin, The Downfall 1945
Penguin. London 2003.
The internet proved a good source for detail and for chronology of events, such as SS ranks and the bombing of Hamburg. Ultimately though, this is a work of fiction. I have attempted to weave a story around fictional characters set among real events.