Hans, Berlin 1945
Now that we were past the Russians who were encircling Berlin we could ease our way westwards. Each time we encountered Russians I took another detour. I kept the moon to my left and kept going. Some roads were wide but we got detoured off them quickly, others were small and we kept going in the deeper shadows. We headed west.
We were in empty countryside. I supposed the Russian forces were heading eastwards now, encircling Berlin, cutting off the escape routes.
I had already shot through the gap when they closed it.
We reached the American lines on the third day.
I had wondered what sort of reception we would get… I wasn’t disappointed. It was as bad as it could be. There was a burst of gunfire over our heads and then a voice shouted…
“Goddamn krauts! Handies hock!”
It wasn’t good German but in the circumstances it served its purpose. We dropped our weapons and stuck our hands in the air. We kept them there as a couple of GI’s approached cautiously. They patted us down, taking our small armoury from belt and pocket. They found my potato-masher grenade and put it gently on the ground a distance away. I smiled… my brothers and I didn’t need its final protection anymore.
“Who’s in charge?” Their sergeant asked in English.
All those years of boredom in high-school English lessons suddenly clicked into place.
“Goddamn it, it’s a kid. How old are you son?”
“Any men with you?”
“No, Four women, their two children and my four brothers. That’s all”
“You brought your brothers out, kid?”
“Yes, from Hamburg, through Berlin.”
“Shit kid, that’s a good few hundred miles or more! You must love them a lot!”
Then he remembered who he was, and who we were.
We might be kids but we were German kids.
“Guess you wouldn’t have put that much effort into saving a bunch of Jewish kids, would you Adolf?”
“It’s Hans sergeant… and they are Jewish kids!! I adopted them one by one as we travelled.”
“Now they are my brothers, but once they had families… once I had a family. All our old families are dead!”
Then the relief at apparent safety and tiredness from our struggle took over. I started to cry… I tried to look brave and resourceful, but…
I cried and cried… I tried but I couldn’t stop.
“Oh shit!” said the sergeant “That’s all I need, a crying kid with a hand grenade!”
Then he fed us and found us something to sleep on.
The following day a major from US Army Intelligence arrived.
No-one had thought to search us. I still had my SS Sturmbannfuhrer papers, but they were now hidden in my pants. When he asked me for my identity I showed him my Hans Kersten passbook, gave my unit as Hitler Youth, and smiled when he asked my rank and said…
“Yeah, a child with a Schmeisser and a grenade!”
He wanted to debrief me on the situation in Berlin. I refused to answer his questions.
He had a sergeant bring a radio in.
“Do you recognise the voice of General Weidling?” he asked.
“Of course!” I said.
“Then listen to this…”
The radio hummed as it warmed up, squealed as he tuned it to Deutscher Rundfunk and suddenly there was a familiar voice… General Weidling was ordering all German forces to surrender and to cooperate with their captors.
I shrugged. If it was over then it was over.
I started to tell him what I knew of events in the Fuhrerbunker when we left. I told him how we had travelled. I did not mention the fate of Bormann and Stumpfegger. I had killed one by accident but perhaps I had murdered the other… I wasn’t sure how the Americans would react to that. As Uncle Felix said “It’s wrong to lie but there is no reason to tell the truth” so I left them to find the two bodies themselves… or the Russians, or maybe nobody if they left it long enough.
I had enough problems.
I still had four brothers to find a home before I could rest.
The latter ceased to be my problem the moment the army rabbi-chaplain appeared. He had a Star of David on his lapel. The first time I had seen one worn with pride.
He asked to see the Jewish kids. I lined them up for him.
He took their papers and read them. Then he looked up sharply and said in German…
“These say circumcised-Aryan. You said they are Jews”
“They were Jews… they ARE Jews. They’ve been using my brothers’ papers. My brothers are dead! They were Aryan, so circumcisions were dangerous. My uncle had the papers altered to protect us.”
My dead brothers were still getting mixed up with my new ones.
The story was getting too complicated.
“Do something!” I whispered to Solo.
He was brilliant. Almost without thinking, he started to chant… in Hebrew!
It was the passage he had memorised years before, ready for the bar mitzvah that never happened.
As he finished he started to sing and his brothers joined in…I didn’t recognise it but he later told me that it was the Hatikvah, the song of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, a song of hope for Jerusalem.
The rabbi-chaplain sat there stunned… and then burst into tears. As they sang tears ran down his face. I looked at my brothers and they were crying too.
We all cried.
It felt good to cry at last.
The rabbi-chaplain asked who we were. I said Hans Felix Kersten, , the boys gave their real names, and he wrote them all down. He established that they were Jews and I was a gentile.
He was kind and asked if I wanted to come with them, but the Intelligence Major was having none of that… I was 16 and had been armed. I was not a Jew and as far as the US Army was concerned I was now a prisoner of war.
Solo promised to make contact as soon as they were settled. I hoped he would but I knew war was a pretty chaotic place, and I suspected that the peace would not be much better.
We all hugged and then… Solo and Jan handed me their false papers… “These are yours… remember us!”
Then they went with the rabbi and I went with the sergeant.
So… there you are. That is my story, of how I lost my family and gained my brothers, of how I loved Hitler and an SS colonel and how I killed Martin Bormann.
When the time came I would leave Germany and never go back.
Paul, Berlin 1987
The city archive in Berlin had some very interesting possibilities. For a start they had the records of the refugees who were gathered up in and around the city immediately after the surrender. The easiest to search was the American record, and also the most logical. We knew that Hans at least had survived and the probability of that in the American sector was greater than in the Russian. We knew that he had ended up in the west. If they had been taken by Russians then it was most unlikely that my father would have ended up in London.
When we searched for Hans Kersten he turned up recorded as a Hitler Youth prisoner of war. He was listed as released approaching a year later having spent part of the period a prisoner and then as a displaced-person. He was listed as departing for England.
Of the brothers Kersten there was no trace whatever. Had they died during the final days of Berlin? Maybe we would never know… it seemed a sad end to our search.
I soon realised that looking for the brothers Kersten was a waste of time. They had travelled across Germany on false papers, but once in American custody they would have reverted to their original names… and those we did not know.
That was when I had my clever idea… “Let’s search for them. They were kids… there won’t have been that many turning up with the Americans… that close to the battle.”
“What will that achieve?” asked the archivist, but I was ready!
“Well, they clearly weren’t my real uncles, so their real names weren’t Kersten. Once safe they had no reason to call themselves Kersten. But… If any of them were actual brothers… of each other… then they will have stayed together and any pair of boys with the same surname will be ours. So if we search for young boys we shall eventually find them.”
Then I thought a moment…
“Wait… we also have their ages. Try for the youngest two first, the ages of David and Martin. We know that Solon and Jan joined singly on the way to the Harzwald but David and Martin joined him together, so they were probably brothers.”
So, that’s how we found them… at the first attempt. The names leapt off the screen…
David and Daniel Rottblat.
That gave us the name of the Red Cross children’s camp they were in. Now we searched the records of that camp for the day of their arrival… and that turned out to be the same day that two other unaccompanied boys, a Solomon Wittstein and an Isaac Abrahams also appeared on their rolls, almost the same ages as Solon and Jan. We now had the “brothers” all together again and in western hands… the Russians hadn’t got them.
Then it struck me, looking at their surnames; Rottblat, Wittstein and Abrahams. The four weren’t just boys, they were Jewish boys. I wondered at Dad’s daring… The SS must have provided his Jewish boys with unwitting and unquestioning assistance during their rescue!
Dad had clearly continued to telephone Himmler’s office for assistance. Right up to the end he had used the Reichsfuhrer-SS’s name to obtain help for himself and his Jewish brothers. Risky, but… who was going to look closely at the boys when the Reichsfuhrer’s office was vouching for them? Talk about living dangerously!
The problem we found now was that the only place Hans’s name now occurred was in the Reichsfuhrer’s office records and then in the prisoner of war camp. The record regarding his final journey into Berlin with the boys was silent.
I was still keen to find what my father had been doing in Berlin.
The city records showed nothing nor did the army records. The SS records were patchy at best… too busy defending their Fuhrer and covering their tracks I suspected.
The boys may have been in Berlin, but the uncle who could have assisted them most definitely was not. The libraries and archives knew of the activities of Felix Kersten at that period. He had been a busy man at the end of the war, performing shuttle-diplomacy between the governments of Sweden and Denmark, World-Jewry and… Himmler! He orchestrated a number of last minute rescues and decisions to not liquidate. He appeared, at least by his own account and that of Jewry at the time, to have saved tens of thousands that Hitler had wanted liquidated when the camps were about to fall into Allied hands.
He had set up a meeting on 21 April a few miles from the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp. It had resulted in Himmler agreeing that the remaining prisoners would not, as Hitler had instructed, be murdered rather than released. Himmler had also agreed to the white-buses operation in which Scandinavia’s concentration camp prisoners, their Jews and resistance fighters, were transported out of Germany, away from the fighting in a fleet of white painted buses.
Altogether 20,000 were rescued by bus, and 60,000 saved from execution.
It was quite a thing for Hans’s Uncle Felix to have organised, but the history books seemed to support the idea that he really had. We were told that the World Jewish Congress had later presented him with a letter of appreciation for what he had done.
That said… wherever he was, he was with Himmler, and Himmler had already left Berlin for the last time, to Hitler’s well-recorded annoyance. So he certainly wasn’t in Berlin trailing a small posse of kids to safety. In any case, any that he might have saved with the buses would have ended up in Sweden or Denmark… We now knew that the kids in Hans’s party had ended up with the Americans near the Rhine in Germany… in totally the opposite direction to Felix in the north east.
Most of the Chancellery records had been destroyed, but that was where we found a note from Hitler to an SS Oberst telling him to arrange for Kersten to be ordered to take the secretaries to safety. The archivist said “Well there is Uncle Felix at least!”
I didn’t agree…
“That can’t be right! We know that on 21 April Felix was near Ravensbruck in north east Germany. He was with Himmler, negotiating the release of concentration camp prisoners. He certainly wasn’t trailing about Berlin with a party of secretaries and children!
One mystery had been answered with another mystery.
By the time my dad was getting appointed to the SS and presumably escaping to the west, Himmler was long gone, and Uncle Felix with him. The boys had reached safety independently of Felix Kersten. So what did Hitler’s note mean? Was there any way of tying Hans to the boys who turned up with the Red Cross?
I asked if the fact that the four boys appeared to be Jewish now opened any searchable records.
The archivist was as intrigued as I was. She suggested that I contact the central records people at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Archives in Israel. That seemed both ambitious and risky. I certainly didn’t fancy being in Israel when my father’s membership of the SS got explained… They might well be in the middle of a mood of religious reasonableness about me being gay…I knew where they stood on my sins… but I wasn’t sure where they stood on my “sins of the father”!
However, when I voiced the thought that Yad Vashem was a long way to go on an off-chance… she smiled.
She smiled and turned her computer monitor towards me. On a screen that showed a Torah scroll were words in Hebrew. I looked up puzzled. She thought a moment and hit a key. The screen reloaded… “Yad Vashem Archives”.
We were in… but what would we find, and did I want to find it?
“We shall need an on-line archivist to help us… I can pay for a short while, but then you may need to take over, or Yad Vashem may do it free, if it seems of interest to them.”
“That’s fine,” I said… “I’ll pay, it’s important to me!”
“Right, on we go then!”
She typed in “Greetings, we are searching for a connection between Hans Felix Kersten, Isaac Abrahams, David and Daniel Rottblat and Solomon Wittstein in 1945, Germany”
There was a pause, and then Israel replied…
“The record says that IA and SW credited their evasion from arrest and escape from Berlin to one Felix Kersten.”
I asked her to say that it was not possible because Felix Kersten was not in Berlin at that time, He was at Ravensbruck. Whoever rescued them, it was someone else.
There was a long pause. The German archivist suggested that we thank Israel and give up because the cost was rising by the minute. I put my hand on hers to stop her from typing. She looked up startled and I think annoyed.
“A moment, give them a moment… they are thinking and I will pay!”
The moment dragged on… and then…
“We have a hit… but we don’t understand it. There is an “Anomalies” function in our search program. It’s designed to search for errors and inconsistencies. It just responded!”
There was another pause.
“It says that the testimony of those boys was corrected manually in 1952. The name of their rescuer was corrected to Felix Kersten, a known gentile Jew-rescuer active in Germany at that time. The original name given by the boys was credited with being a pet-name. They called him Hansi Felix Kersten. Perhaps they meant to say Hans Felix Kersten.”
“Does that make more sense? Is the original version of their testimony more likely to be correct?”
The archivist looked stunned…
“He was my father! He was 16 and he saved four… four Jewish children!”
That is what she typed in reply…
“Yes, that makes sense. He was 16 and rescued four Jewish children. He was the enquirer’s father, now deceased.”
“He was a gentile?”
The archivist looked up and I nodded… I couldn’t trust myself to speak.
She typed in my answer.
There was a very long pause, and then the screen responded.
“God bless him. Please tell him that our answer comes with blessings. We hope that he has found what he was seeking.”
The archivist asked them to confirm that there was no charge.
“No… There is no charge. Please explain to the boy that he should ask at a synagogue for advice on how to file a nomination for the list of Righteous!”
“Righteous?” I said.
“Righteous?” she typed.
Righteous Among the Nations is a list of people nominated for their service to Jewish people in World War Two… gentiles who rescued Jews from the Nazis.
I was so relieved by what we had found. The archivists too were happy to have come up with good news. Perhaps World War Two records held remarkably little good news for a German archivist.
There didn’t seem to be much left to do. We had found what we had come for. I was still not prepared to tell Ben about the SS connection. I decided to call it a day. Maybe someday I would return alone to try to track down the SS record.
After thanking the archivists profusely, promising to keep them up to date on anything more that we found, we left the archives and went in search of a meal.
Suddenly I was very hungry.
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