Hans, Hamburg Autumn 1944
My new friend and I were in the cellar where we had spent the night, and had stayed hidden all the following day. By now it was beginning to get dark again. The Americans couldn’t see to bomb and the English would not want to cross the coast, into our flak, until it was dark, so they were a few hours away. For just a few hours it would be safe to emerge onto the streets.
“We need food!”
“It will have to be a relief station then. I’ve helped at one with my Jugend friends so I know how they work.”
“What about papers? The card I had is in the rubble.”
I looked at him, he was about the right age, and like mine, Solo and Papa’s his hair was a shade of blond and his eyes were blue. My other brothers were dark and all took after Mama.
“I have my brothers’ papers, You could pretend to be Solon. You are nearly as blond as he is, so if I rub a bit of dirt into the photograph no one will know.” I crossed my fingers.
So, that’s how the adventure started, not that I realised it had started, nor that it was an adventure. He seemed to though… his mood brightened considerably, as if a great weight had been lifted from him. I thought to ask him what his name was… the subject hadn’t come up before. I had been too busy grieving. I felt guilty because I hadn’t even checked that he wasn’t injured. He didn’t seem to be, but that isn’t the same thing as actually asking.
“I never asked. What’s your name? What should I call you?”
He smiled, almost as if I had said something funny.
“I think that you should call me Solon, don’t you?”
“Well, it has the advantage of being easy to remember!”
“You had better tell me my surname as well while you are it!”
“It’s Kersten… K-E-R-S-T-E-N… Kersten.”
“Problem is… Even with the change of name, my parents are still dead!”
This time he laughed, almost to the point of hysteria. His state was obviously very brittle, so I didn’t take offense at his joke. I thought it was more a joke about his parents being dead than about my loss.
So that’s what we did, we went to the relief station. Women in uniform were serving food. They had hot soup and strong ersatz coffee. There was more acorn and chicory than coffee, but we were happy to be fed, and it was free. We showed them our passbooks, and they seemed happy enough. Being mothers themselves they worried about us being out alone between air-raids, I showed them my shopping bags and said we were just out shopping when we had to run from the bombs. Now we had to pick our way back through the rubble, so a quick hot meal was very welcome, we hoped they didn’t mind. I smiled and remarked that even if our home hadn’t been bombed, we had been! The ladies said that it was alright with them, but not to tell, otherwise everyone would be out for a free meal.
I seemed to be getting good at lying. Then I felt sad, Mama would have been sorry to see me telling lies to such nice ladies. The Jugend leaders would not be impressed either if they found out. But, I had bigger worries. We had somewhere to sleep but not much to keep us warm.
We returned to the cellar. On the way we bought a loaf of bread and some ersatz butter. I had been wearing my Jugend uniform so I had my knife with me… we could cut the bread and spread the butter. We would not starve… yet!
I had also bought a bottle of Fanta. It was not exactly Coca Cola… In fact it was nothing like Coca Cola.
Once America had entered the war we could no longer get Coca Cola, Germany’s favourite soft drink. So Dr Goebbels had instructed Herr Speer to find an alternative. He had carrots and other “ingredients” and a brilliant chemicals industry. Our German chemists are the best in the world! They created Fanta… its name is short for fantastische. But only the name is fantastic. Maybe they will one day be able to make it properly and then it may be popular, maybe after the war ends, but now… it’s a joke.
My reason for buying the drink was partly to drink it, but also because we could easily find a fountain or running water, even a broken pipe and with a bottle we could carry a drink with us. We had a long way to go I had decided…
“We must walk to Berlin.” I said.
“But… why Berlin? That’s a huge distance!”
“Because my Uncle Felix is there… not all the time, but a lot of the time.”
“Even if he isn’t, there will be friends of his who can help us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am. I’ve met lots of his friends. Though… getting past the guards may be a problem, but we can get them to pass a message for us.”
“Guards! Who is your Uncle Felix if he needs guards?”
“Oh, the guards aren’t his. He’s Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler’s personal physician.” I said airily.
I nearly dropped the bottle when I had to grab hold of my companion.
He had fainted!
“Liebe Gott!” He said as he opened his eyes… “For the love of God, don’t joke about such things!”
“It’s no joke.” I said “I’ve met the Reichsfuhrer-SS often. He’s nice, we play chess!”
This time he didn’t faint exactly, but he did look very frightened.
“My uncle is the only doctor who can make the Reichsfuhrer’s stomach cramps go away… he thinks my uncle’s hands are magic!”
He didn’t look very convinced so I cut him some more bread and spread it with fake-butter, shared the Fanta and said…
“Maybe we should try to get some sleep before the English terror-fliers arrive.”
That gave us something to do. Our hiding place had a couple of mattresses we had dragged in from the street months earlier and some sheets, well rags really that we used for… well that we used… let’s leave it at that.
We dragged the mattresses together and spread my coat and all the rags to form a bed.
There were not enough to make two beds so we made one. The bedding was not enough to keep us warm until we snuggled close, hugging each other for warmth.
When we were quiet, the appalling events of the day got to me and I started sobbing quietly. My new friend held me tight and rocked me gently, singing a quiet lullaby.
“My mutter sang it for my little sister in better times.” He said, and then he too cried.
We cuddled and comforted each other until sleep overtook us.
Of course the bombers came, but it wasn’t really our turn this time. Only those who were lost and aimed for the fires left by the Americans aimed for us. They missed. We huddled together, we cried, they went home. Then we slept again till morning.
Paul, Bonn 1987
Although I now thought I understood the passbook, I still had a lot of unanswered questions.
On my return to the archives I asked how extensive the computerisation was. Eyes narrowed. I thought I had stepped on a grave!
“The archives are extensively indexed!” They said a trifle stiffly.
“In that case…” I said.
“Can you please do a wildcard search on both Felix Kersten and Hans Kersten, putting a wild card before Felix and another between Hans and Kersten.”
Being taught how to do it by a schoolboy clearly didn’t sit well. They hadn’t met a geek before!
The results were somewhere between spectacular and exquisitely puzzling
The first thing they found was a couple of urgent requests for assistance from Hans to Felix (at Himmler’s office) during the late autumn of 1944 and then again in the spring of 1945. The autumn ones came from SS bases between Hamburg and the Harzwald and then in spring from between the Harzwald and Berlin. Each time, the SS had requested guidance on assistance for Hans and his brothers. Essentially they were asking whether the boys should be arrested or fed!
The odd thing was that the number of brothers appeared to increase with time. Leaving Hamburg for the Harzwald, Hans referred to himself and Solon needing help. After a while another boy appeared. Finally, in the spring, on leaving the Harzwald and on the way to Berlin, his other two brothers appeared. As I now knew that his whole family had died in the bombing in Hamburg, I wondered what the heck was going on!
At first Hans had directed his requests to Felix via Himmler’s secretary and then more urgently they were direct to Himmler’s adjutant, who he also seemed to know very well. He seemed to be able to depend on the secretary and adjutant for help. He only had to ask and the help happened. I was completely mystified.
Felix appeared to have been absent for much of the time because most requests went unanswered by Felix personally. However, they had been promptly acted upon by the secretary and adjutant. Each time they had instructed the SS base to feed and water the boys and provide any help that they requested. Each record eventually carried a note of thanks from Felix, most were from Sweden or Finland. Some were from Harzwalde and that threw me off course for a while until I discovered that Harzewalde was not in the Harzwald… just to add to the confusion it was the name of his house… in a completely different part of Germany!
No-one had commented on the growing band of brothers. Nor did Felix comment on the reappearance of nephews he must have known were dead. If Hans requested help then the Nazi hierarchy jumped to provide it. They didn’t ask who he was… They simply asked how much help he needed. It really was a puzzle.
By this time he was about fifteen years old and seemed to have lost nothing of his daring since he had rescued his uncle from the hands of Reinhard Heydrich three years earlier. I had always thought my father was a super hero… but this was getting ridiculous.
The archival records all went quiet during the winter of 1944. The boys seemed to disappear into the Harzwald as; Hans, Solon and Jan. Out of the Harzwald three months later came Hans, Solon, David, Jan and Martin, mirroring the Hamburg death-list of the previous year!
By the spring of 1945 things must have been getting pretty desperate in Germany. I knew that the Russians had been advancing fast from the east, while the allies had been pretty bogged down in the west. Initially the allies had struggled through the difficult flat terrain of the Low Countries and then they faced the crossing of a series of wide rivers.
The problem for Germany was that, realistically, it would have been better for Germany if the attack from the west had progressed faster than the one from the east.
The USA and British simply wanted the war to be over… While the Russians in the east only wanted revenge. The Americans in the west were handing chocolate and candy to the kids and seducing their mothers with nylon stockings and food. In the east the Russians were ignoring the starving children and raping their mothers. This was not, as far as I could see a good or logical time for Hans to be leading his small band of brothers towards Berlin… towards the east, and towards the Russians.
So, I followed them to Berlin… what I needed now were the last remains of the Chancellery records.
Hans, Harzwald 1944-45
I had thought about the route we should take to find my uncle in Berlin. We could go almost due east to Berlin. But… the north of Germany is a wide flat sandy plain with not a lot of good cover. For two young boys alone there was too great a risk of being caught. The best we could hope for was an orphanage… the worst, for me, was being shot as a deserter because I had no permission to leave my flak post.
As for my new brother, I had told him he was now Solo, short for Solon… I wasn’t sure, but he certainly seemed happy to be out of hiding. I thought perhaps he had fled a reformatory. I was nearly right.
Anyway, our route… what we needed was better cover, forests, valleys, streams for drinking water. So we struck off almost due south… quite the wrong way to Berlin but towards the Harz mountains. Once there we would be able to head due east towards Berlin through more wooded country, with more small villages to obtain food.
I decide that I liked Solo. He was very resilient. The going was tough for him for the first couple of days. Hiding in the attic had meant too little exercise, so it took a while for him to regain his strength.
For the first week we lived on bread and cheese and some cheap sausage that we bought from shops that we found on our way. We spent the first day walking out through the heavily bombed southern suburbs of Hamburg. After that we found ourselves in countryside with maybe half a day’s walk between villages.
The housekeeping money was lasting well. Our needs were few and the shops we stopped at were sympathetic. I was careful to know the name of another village further along the route and told the shopkeeper that we had been separated from our parents in Hamburg but were now nearly home… the village ahead or the one beyond that, always just too far ahead for the shopkeeper to know the people there.
Nearly a week after we started Solo had his first experience of travelling with Kersten brothers’ papers. It worked out well, but I didn’t realise until later just how scared he was… or why!
We came to a river bridge… with a checkpoint manned by SS. Solo wanted to go back, but I said very firmly that running was not an option… “Stick with me, and watch their reaction when they see our papers!”
I walked him straight up to the soldiers. I held out my pass book, open at the page with the endorsement. He read it carefully.
“Circumcised-aryan! That’s a new one on me!”
“It’s a medical thing, we all have it.” I gave him Solo’s papers.
“Please read on… it will explain.” I said
“Refer to Reichsfuhrer-SS’s office!! Why would I want to do that?”
“To receive their thanks, for having treated us kindly.” I said with an ingratiating smile.
“Who are you then?”
“My uncle is Reichsfuhrer Himmler’s personal physician… and I am his chess-partner on wet afternoons!”
“Liebe Gott, whatever next!”
“Well, tell them we didn’t check your circumcised credentials.” He said with a grin.
“How far are you walking?”
“Oh, not far now, we are staying with relatives in the next village. The car ran out of petrol and we got bored and decided to walk. Tell them you saw us when they get sorted out.” I bluffed.
The checkpoint had a field kitchen and it was lunchtime, the smell was delicious.
“May we get some food here?” I asked.
“Sure… anyone who plays chess with the boss is entitled to a free meal here!”
He now seemed to be on our side.
“Hey Franz… feed these two!” He shouted. “They are friends of Reichsfuhrer Himmler!”
Then he roared with laughter at the expression on his colleagues face.
I ate well. Solo’s appetite was not what it could have been. I blamed it on the walk and asked Franz if he could put some cheese in some bread for Solo to eat along the way. That worked well, they were generous and it lasted us most of next day as well.
I thanked them profusely for their help, and assured them that we would tell my uncle of their kindness when he caught up with us.
After that, Solo was more relaxed and more confident. Each time we had the opportunity we invited ourselves to lunch at a field kitchen.
Occasionally the more officious ones took a note of our documents and a few actually contacted SS headquarters for confirmation. To their astonishment, and alarm, they were told bluntly to assist the boys.
A few wanted to offer transport, but we assured them that we were enjoying our walk after the bombing. I said that my uncle, the Reichsfuhrer-SS’s doctor had recommended that we wandervogel in the Harz mountains to recover our spirits after having been a Jugend flakhelfer through the bombing in Hamburg.
I said that the weather was getting colder now and that soon we should need to return home.
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