It was to be an adventure. I was seventeen and Solomon and Mum agreed that was quite old enough for me to look after myself in Germany. Solomon was a bit more nervous about Ben. Partly because he was that much younger, and partly because researching the deaths of their relatives in the Holocaust, in concentration camp archives… well maybe not old enough to be without his dad in his fragile state.
So we organised two separate trips, to join up in Berlin.
I would take advantage of slightly greater self-confidence and the extra year in age to follow my leads alone. I would be starting in Hamburg, beginning with the address on the family passbooks.
Ben and Solomon would go to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany to visit the camps, where some of the best reference documentation was to be found. For reasons that I didn't understand, he had no intention of visiting Israel. It was well known that the best archives were at Yad Vashem, but Solomon went uncharacteristically quiet when Israel was mentioned… So I stopped mentioning it.
Ben felt that the camp visits would be harrowing, as indeed they were, and that the company of his father would make them more bearable. Solomon said that he had a childhood memory of actually seeing a camp, but that his memory said it was from outside. It clearly hadn't been from inside or we wouldn't be having the discussion!
Solomon had come from Germany as a displaced person, an orphaned Jewish child adopted by an English family in 1945. So there was no great mystery there. The question was more a case of documenting the loss of all the other family members. Maybe they would find some survivors. The hopes were not great, but some relatives for an adopted orphan… that would be quite a find. Solomon was excited too, he remembered so little of his early childhood, he had been in hiding for most of the war and then gone feral, as he put it.
It seemed like I had waited forever to join the Jungvolk and enjoy the benefits of being a German boy in the Germany of 1938. At last I had a uniform and could proudly take my place… building a new Germany. A uniform could make you so proud to be German.
By the age of ten I was able to understand things more clearly. There were still things I didn't like, but I understood how important it was to blend in. I knew to keep my thoughts secret.
At school we talked in hushed tones of the kindertransport, the trains that departed from the station in Berlin, heading for ports and borders. They were filled with Jewish children who were travelling alone to safety abroad. I wished that it was possible for all Jewish children to leave the Fatherland so that I could stop feeling badly about them… I know now that the Fuhrer shared that ambition.
In reality, I had two preoccupations that distracted me from worrying about other people's problems… food and the Jungvolk. This was the period just before the war, in 1938-39 when our nation's resources were being directed towards re-armament.
Faced with preparing for war, food and things like soap and toilet paper were not high priorities. If you cannot afford to import both iron-ore and food then you don't import food. The shops were pretty empty and things got worse later in the year when rationing started
The shortages weren't helped by our peoples' fear of the return of hyperinflation. They felt that the safe thing to do was to turn money into "things", and that emptied the shops even faster.
In our family we fared slightly better than most… well actually a lot better than most. My mother would send me to the shop on the corner with our ration books. She said I always got a better deal than she could.
Herr Rohme, the shopkeeper liked me, so he gave us a little extra. Actually he more than liked me. He would say… "Come Hansi, have a little lemonade and sit on my knee while we chat". Then he would sit me on his knee and stroke my hair. He would pat me on the knee and stroke my leg, the top of my leg, just below my short trousers.
Eventually he would make me nervous and I would thank him for the lemonade, and hop down.
Then he would look sad and say, "Maybe Hansi, maybe when you are older."
Being nice to Herr Rohme helped with rations… and I was indeed getting older.
My tenth birthday brought an extra cake from Herr Rohme and a Jungvolk uniform from the shop near the station. Now I was a real German boy. I had a uniform and a rank in the Jungvolk. I was growing fast.
Herr Rohme was ecstatic when he saw me in my uniform. He made me turn round and round so that he could admire me. He had his hands under his apron and they were so warm when he took the opportunity to pat my bottom and stroke my leg. That was the first time he patted my bottom. He said I was getting to be a big boy.
Although joining the Jungvolk was great fun, I was still short of children to play with. Many of the families in our part of Hamburg had been Jewish, and I had played with their children right up until the time of the beginning of the disappearances. Now I was almost alone in our street and I missed my Jewish friends, and… I felt sorry for the kindertransport children.
It embarrassed me when I saw neighbours and friends abusing shopkeepers and old people.
The Jewish neighbours became fewer, and the abuse hurled at them by the propaganda ministry became stale. Somewhere they were suffering I was sure. Our youth-leaders said it was their own fault that they had to work for the state now instead of for their own profit. I believed it when I was told that they were safe in the east… just working hard.
I hoped it was true…
I remembered my friends and hoped they were safe. I was ten, what else should I have thought?
Besides, I was proud of what our Fuhrer and Party had achieved. The Ruhr was ours once more. The Sudeten-German people in Czechoslovakia had been rescued and reunited with us. The Fuhrer had faced down opposition from Britain and France to achieve that!
We had an air-force now and our navy had its new pocket battleships. When they appeared on the screen in the cinema my chest was bursting with pride. I would wear my Jungvolk uniform to the cinema, just so that I could feel part of our Fatherland's proudest moments.
Best of all, the English had been humbled. That silly man Chamberlain, a leader with no uniform to take pride in, with his ridiculous umbrella, had accepted the terms our Fuhrer offered him. We had even made him travel to Munich to do it.
Times were good for Germans. Food was in short supply but steel was not. Blood and Iron… was our country's motto. We had the iron and steel… and the blood? That would come soon enough. I hoped that I would graduate from the Jungvolk in time to be part of it.
Beware what you wish for!
The Jungvolk was a revelation. It wasn't just a play thing… it was serious. Our leaders encouraged us to take it more seriously than even school and church. Parents all over Germany accepted that the Jungvolk and the more senior Hitler Youth, the Jugend, were different. They were not just play, not like the Boy Scouts or a church youth group. They were a direct extension of the Fuhrer and Party. The Party was growing a new generation of Germans in the image of heroes of a previous age… the Teutonic Knights.
Teutonic Knights answer to the future, not to their mama or teacher.
Any teacher that didn't ignore our absences when we went to rehearse for a parade, or when we went for weeks at a time to help with the harvest… well he didn't remain a teacher for long!
Parading with flags and drums was fun. There was so much noise, and the attention we got… old men in uniforms from the Great War were in tears as we marched past, our red, black and white flags flying in the wind… it was a wonderful time to be young.
Youth organised youth. We were taught to be honest and clean and brave… particularly brave. Honest? Well, it turned out that Mama had been right. We were taught about the nearly three thousand correctional reformatories throughout the Fatherland where children who hung around on street corners could be sent for "correction".
Kids spoke in whispers of Breitenau, the strictest of them, from which children did not return.
That was for the ones who didn't fit into the new Germany. But we were the clean, fit, blond, the Aryan Germany of the Fuhrer's vision. If you had a smart uniform, enjoyed parades and worked hard… then you had nothing to worry about.
We, the ones who fitted in, could go camping, cycling, swimming, build model aircraft, practise field-craft and play soldiers… what boy wouldn't want to… What sort of idiot would he have to be to prefer the street corners, to risk the Youth Court and being sent to a reformatory?
Heads down! Chins up, Back straight… and enjoy yourself.
What wasn't there to enjoy? Heil Hitler!
We slid slowly into 1939… my eleventh year, puberty and the Second World War…
The summer of 1939 was very serious.
We suffered severe shortages. Young people collected all sorts of things. Hamburg school-children collected two tonnes of bones. We had no clear idea what for, but… if the Party needed bones then bones they should have. Young people can become over-enthusiastic and there was a bit of a panic when it was realised that good artwork, bronze sculptures were going into the scrap.
Our leaders told us that it was all the fault of the British. They had stolen our overseas colonies during the Great War, so we had few places from which to obtain natural resources, other than our own countryside.
Medicines in particular were in short supply, so we Jungvolk went into the countryside to gather herbs for folk medicine, especially camomile and nettle. We called it hamstering, gathering herbs and hedgerow fruits.
My Uncle Felix said that Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler was very enthusiastic about folk medicine. Himmler said that it was the sort of medicine that the people trusted.
That's what Uncle Felix said, and he should know.
Have I told you about my Uncle Felix?
Dr Felix Kersten… he was personal physician to Heinrich Himmler… the Reichsfuhrer-SS. He spent a lot of time with him because the Reichsfuhrer suffered from severe stomach cramps. Uncle Felix was the only one who could relieve them.
His massage techniques were famous and popular in senior party circles. He was even respected abroad, the Italian Count Ciano trusted him.
I liked him, he brought me sweets and toys and stories of the people he has met. I liked him and we were great friends!
So anyway, we Jungvolk went into the countryside for herbs. We took tents and camped in clearings among the trees. We picked all day, and then we took everything we had gathered to the edge of the wood where old women supervised the girls and women who sorted them.
Afterwards we went swimming, sometimes in ponds (muddy). It was better in a river (not muddy but cold) and best of all in lakes where the water was clean and a bit warmer in the sun.
Our leaders encouraged us to leave our bathing suits in the tent. Naturism was popular in Germany in the 1930s.
"Why would you want to wear something wet, woollen and clumsy? Your skin is smooth and sleek and built for swimming… come boys… show us what you are made of!"
So we did… and they seemed to enjoy it. They particularly approved of well-built blond boys who held themselves up straight.
"Such perfection… You will make excellent members of the SS."
"Show me how tall you are… ah yes perfection… well done young Hans… let me feel your muscles."
Yes, we smooth blue eyed blond boys were particularly favoured!
There was one small problem…
"What is wrong with your member Hans? Why are you like a Jew?"
My Uncle Felix had "fixed" my tight foreskin when I was little. It was a family thing we all needed circumcision, and it was rare amongst Germans. This was particularly true in the 1930s. So, beside the lake I looked most unusual. Fortunately, my snow white blond good looks normally saved me from more dangerous interpretation.
If their comments persisted I had the ultimate smart reply… and I used it.
"Leader, it was tight when I was young and my Uncle Felix had it fixed for me. He is personal physician to Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler. I will tell him of your interest, I am sure he will be happy to explain why it was necessary."
That always silenced them… always the quiet hand on shoulder and …
"No need to discuss it with the Reichsfuhrer's doctor young Hans…he's a busy man and anyway, you are a fine young Aryan… one day you will make the Fuhrer proud."
How right he was!
My explanation would quickly deter the weirder youth leaders. No one wanted the Reichsfuhrer-SS's attention drawn to their interest in my tender parts.
That didn't apply to my friends of course. To them it was just the way I was and the difference simply interested them. Once they were able, they would roll their foreskin back and go round saying that now they looked like me. Boys are fascinated by little things, and as yet, our things were certainly little.
We could satisfy our curiosity about such things in the Jungvolk, especially at night when we were alone in our four-man tents.
Heinz started it… we all heard him doing it. The others had no idea what he was doing, and then he sighed, rolled over and went to sleep. We were left wondering what we had missed!
On the third night Rolf got exasperated…
"Scheiss Heinz what are up to? It's hard enough getting to sleep on these straw mattresses without all your noise!"
"Just getting to sleep myself, you should try it… its more fun than hot milk!"
Then he made a funny noise, rolled over and went to sleep.
Actually I had a shrewd idea what he was doing. In one of Papa's books I had come across a reference to sub-human races indulging in self-abuse… with a pretty graphic description of what that meant. It left me worried. I couldn't ask Mama or Papa, so next time I saw him I asked Uncle Felix… he was a doctor.
His answer surprised me. He explained that there were some pretty silly opinions in books on race. He said that I shouldn't take all of it too seriously. I should do what he did, nod wisely and think for myself.
"Just never express an opinion, on anything… Always repeat back what the person in authority has said… that way you will stay out of trouble, and please them. I can keep you out of Breitenau, but I'd prefer to not need to!" and he smiled.
"Anyway, why are you worried?"
"I sometimes wake up playing like they describe… Are you saying it doesn't matter? I'm not becoming sub-human, am I?"
"Well… I wouldn't go around boasting about it, but… what you have found yourself doing sounds pretty normal to me." He replied.
"Look young Hans, I will tell you a doctor's secret."
I looked interested!
"It's important for a doctor to be able to know which patient tells the truth and which tells lies… You can't diagnose someone who is telling lies."
"But what does that have to do with it?"
"Patience young man… If you are successfully playing with yourself, then you are now a young man… little boys can't do it." He smiled at his joke, and I sat up a little taller.
"Ah yes, so when I need to check the patient's honesty… I ask them when they last played with themselves. We doctors call it masturbation by the way."
"If they say never, or when he was a boy… then…"
"They tell lies!" I finished for him, and we both burst out laughing.
"Absolutely correct young man."
"There are two kinds of men… those who masturbate… and…
"Liars!" We chorused, and laughed.
Then he said seriously. "Remember… there is no need to lie, but there is even less reason to tell the truth. Just keep quiet… and enjoy yourself."
He wandered off, whistling quietly to himself, with the satisfied look that said he had lit a fuse, and would be amused to see where it exploded.
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