Ch8 Pt3 Escape from Berlin to Haifa

As far as the Rüdigers were concerned, they looked with concern at the future of the little girl in their charge in an increasingly military, racist and anti-Semitic Germany. Irena was also aware of the changes going on about her. Jews were forbidden by notice to sit on public benches, so-called “Aryan” Germans were forbidden to patronise Jewish businesses under threat of severe penalties, and there were always secret police on the lookout for offenders. Julius Streicher’s Der Stűrmer churned out the vilest and crudest of newspaper libels against the Jews. Thanks to unceasing insults and propaganda Hitler’s mania seemed to have communicated itself to the entire nation.

One day Irena came across two boys who were tormenting an old orthodox Jew by pulling his beard. She picked up some stones, threw them at the boys and bluffed them into moving on. It may have been at this time that she finally decided to quit Germany for good and go to Palestine. She always said that she smelt something dangerous and unhealthy in the air. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old when she made this decision.

During the years following the end of the First World War, the interest in Palestine of European Jewry had been greatly stimulated. This revival of interest was due mainly to three factors. In the first place, the vast upheaval of peoples occasioned by the war had brought Western European Jews face to face with their eastern co-religionists who were in closer contact with the Holy Land. Secondly, European Jews began to have forebodings of new pogroms, especially in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The walls of the ghetto were down, but the new freedom did not necessarily spell security for the Jew. Finally, there was the Balfour Declaration, by which Great Britain gave her support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. There had been small Jewish settlements in Palestine since biblical days, but it was at the end of the nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that serious if sometimes unsuccessful attempts were made by communities of Jews to return to Palestine and settle there. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Balfour Declaration coupled with the lifting of the Turkish yoke now gave a basis for the realisation of Herzl’s ideas.

In the Germany of the nineteen twenties, as anti-Jewish feeling increased, a movement known as the Jugend Aliyah came into existence through which Jewish children were to be trained for settlement in Palestine. “Jugend” was the German word for “Youth” and “Aliyah” was the Hebrew word for “migration”. Members of the “Youth Migration” movements were sent for varying periods to farm schools in their native countries. They lived in “kibbutzim” or settlements in conditions that tried to simulate those they would find in Palestine. Here they were taught the elements of Hebrew, a dead language which was being revived and which is today the living, universal language of the people of the State of Israel. These Jewish children were carefully watched during their stay at farm schools, for immigration certificates to Palestine granted by the British authorities were limited. Therefore only the best could qualify for them and the Hebrew title of “Halutzim”, or “Pioneers”. The emphasis was on manual work and all-Hebrew speech. By manual work the Jews would redeem themselves and the soil of Palestine. By the use of Hebrew and the renunciation of bastard Yiddish and Ladino they would be truly recreating the spirit of the biblical ancients.

It was to one of these schools that Irena now went, taking tearful leave of Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti, and of Oma and Opa Rüdiger, who had been almost like real parents to her. Her mother put no obstacle in her way and appears at times to have been almost indifferent as to where this new step might be leading her daughter. Despite this, her final acquiescence, which still seems to be shrouded in a certain mystery, was to save her daughter’s life. 

In the autumn of 1938 Irena, 15 years old, obsessed by the idea of going to Palestine, and studying Hebrew earnestly, learnt that she was to board a train carrying Jewish children out of Germany. She had made her own arrangements to obtain a passport stamped “Palästinawanderer” after wrangling her mother’s consent. Although differences of opinion were opening between them, the mother did not want her young daughter to leave Germany. Irena had been in hospital with a lung infection and told her mother that she was signing a release form. The mother, her mind occupied as usual by business matters, signed without thinking. Irena also tried to persuade her brother Heini to emigrate with her, but he declined and thereby tragically and unwittingly signed his death warrant. The great Berlin railway station was crowded with parents saying tearful goodbyes to children carrying lunch baskets and spare clothes. But Irena’s mother was not there to see her off. It was a disappointment etched into Irena’s mind. Thus she quit the land of her birth. 

She was only just in time.       

Suddenly the embers of racial and religious prejudice and violence, fanned so assiduously by the Nazis, burst into flame. Anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the exodus of Jewish children to Palestine was stopped. By lying propaganda, by offering the traditional Jewish scapegoat as the cause of all Germany’s misfortunes, and by appealing to the basest of human instincts Hitler was propelled to the pinnacle of his power. The long-suffering Jews took the first steps on a seemingly unending path of tears to European concentration camps. And the civilised nations who did not want to know about the butchery beginning in the Third Reich found themselves hurtling towards the most destructive war in the history of mankind.

At a later date gentle Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti were to find death in one of those concentration camps so aptly called by the Nazis “Vernichtungslager” – “Vernichtung” meaning quite literally “reduction to nothingness. 

After Irena had left Germany the Nazis one night smashed their way into the house where her brother lived and sent him to a concentration camp. Heini, a sixteen years old boy, must have wondered why he was so ill treated, for he had broken no law and harmed nobody. His mother, awake at last to the danger, fled to England, where she frantically canvassed a number of her relatives who had settled there to raise enough money to ransom her son. But she was unsuccessful. And then, with a finality which put paid to all her efforts, Germany invaded Poland. Within twenty four hours England had declared war on Germany and all avenues of communication were cut.

Heini Schreiber disappeared from the face of the earth. He became one of the six million victims of the Holocaust and one of the forty million dead from all sides in World War Two.

Irena had escaped to Palestine on one of the last refugee trains to leave Germany. She travelled by way of Italy, where she took ship across the Mediterranean. The crew was Italian and there were many adult passengers aboard. But the youthful refugees formed a large proportion of the travellers.

Although they were little more than children the young emigrants were unnaturally subdued. Only a few weeks before, they had been looked after by parents and relatives. Now, very suddenly, they had to look after themselves and, perhaps, after each other. Without being able to put their feelings into words they knew that they would be without family for a very long time. They knew also that their parents and loved ones in Germany were in great peril. As if this was not enough they were going to a strange country of which they knew nothing. And all the time they were trying to cope with a new and difficult language. This was Hebrew, whose Semitic words, grammar and writing had nothing in common with their native German. 

After ploughing through the blue and mostly calm Mediterranean the ship berthed at Haifa. Irena felt little joy and some trepidation when she first set eyes on the continental-style cafés along busy Kingsway, the picturesque but run-down Arab quarter, and the white, flat-roofed houses climbing up Mount Carmel. In any event, her stay in Haifa was brief. Almost immediately she was whisked away to the long-established kibbutz of Ashtoth Yakov, some miles out of the city. Here the only language spoken was Hebrew. Even though it was understood German was met with a stony stare, so the newcomers had no option but to learn the language. Older kibbutzniks were intermixed with them to teach them agriculture and accustom their ears to the new tongue. 

The trickle of mail from Germany stopped with the advent of the war. The new arrivals felt like total orphans. This was what most of them were shortly to become.

CH8 Pt1 Meeting Irena

After I had been back in London four days, I took the tube train across the city to Willesden to look up Iris’ friend, Miss Irena S. I did it from a sense of duty without any great enthusiasm. I was back in civvy street, still on leave, trying to find my bearings. But I felt like a fish out of water and I was very unsettled and unhappy. Much as I had detested the army, I could not see how I would ever settle down to a civilian job in London. The very paving stones shrieked to me of the days I had spent walking them when I was a poverty-stricken boy. The aftermath of war did not promise any greater prosperity. Taxes were high, everything was enormously expensive, while wages were low. I began to see more years of dismal struggle ahead. Had we all been through the war for nothing beyond this? How was I to find some avenue of progress?

I came to Willesden at lunchtime, and knocked at the door of a suburban house. It was opened by a spectacled, middle-aged woman.

“Irena?”

“Certainly.”

“Irena!” she screams up the stairs, and in a few moments Irena comes clattering down. She is in her early twenties, straight-haired and long, fine features in which I can somehow sense her Polish ancestry. I notice that she has a very good figure. She addresses me in excellent English with a faint accent that I found difficult to place.

“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”

“I’m from Iris. I’ve just returned from Palestine.”

“Oh, yes. I received a letter from her a short time ago. How is she?”

“She’s in good health, and sends her best regards.”

And so on and so on, until Miss Irena suddenly says, “I have to go to work now. This is my lunch hour. Couldn’t we meet tonight and talk?”

Meet and talk? The whole night long? Oh, but I can’t. I am absolutely browned off and fed up, and the last thing I want to do is make polite conversation with Iris’s friend. Anyway, the girl is Jewish. So it’ll be a platonic emotionless exercise from the start, because Jewish girls don’t go for goyim. I just couldn’t stand up to such frigidly polite protracted make-believe in my present poisonous mood.

“You can’t make it?” Miss Irena is saying. “Why? Have you got a date?”

I can see that she is prepared to argue the toss, but before I can stop the words, I have admitted that I haven’t got a date.”

“I haven’t got a date either,” says Miss Irena. “So I’ll meet you outside the underground station at six.”

She gets ready for work, and I take a train back to the west end. Miss Irena is apparently a forceful character with a way of handling things. Oh, well, I suppose if I’m with somebody else it’ll leave less time for introspection.

At six o’clock a train from the west end redeposits me at Willesden where Miss Irena, with her hair newly set and her nose daintily powdered is waiting for me. Where shall we go? Back to the west end, of course, decides Miss S, and I agree with that, because that’s where the magic of London resides. So back we go, and I begin to think that maybe it’s not so bad. I’ve been out of the army four days, and it looks as if I’ve already got myself a girl friend. We spend the evening arm in arm walking through the cool London night, listening to the never ceasing rumble of the traffic, and talking interminably.

Near Victoria Station, on the way to Westminster, Miss Irena suddenly discovers that her high-heeled shoe is pinching, and stands on one leg to adjust it. By God, what lovely slim ankles and shapely calves she’s got. I really like that in a woman! As she adjusts her shoe, she leans on me for support. Hmm! A figure as slender as a reed, but as feminine as the Venus de Milo. I like that too!

The cool breeze lightly touches our faces. It is October, and the northern winter will soon be with us. The traffic rumbles. The twinkling lights of the great city are echoed by the twinkling stars in the cloudless night sky above. Later, as we approach the Houses of Parliament, Miss Irena feels tired, so we sit on a bench near the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Later still, Miss S remarks that it is turning rather cold, and moves closer to me for warmth. I put an arm around her, in a fatherly, protective fashion. But somehow this seems inadequate. And finally, beneath the yellow, illuminated moon face of Big Ben, I find myself kissing Miss Irena with unrestrained and very unfatherly enthusiasm. She is wearing a ruby red lipstick that tastes as sweet as sugared strawberries. By gee, I like that in a woman!

All good things come to an end. As we rise to go, Irena says, “The very first moment I saw you I knew you were the man I was going to marry.”

I seem suddenly to have jumped six feet in the air. Whoa!! Hold your horses, Sis! We were just having a matey smooch. A simple kiss between friends. Nothing more.

Shut your noise, Foxon, and save your breath. You have just had your first experience of the steel trap Irena mind. You clearly don’t know it yet, but Miss Irena has already crossed her Rubicon, and that means that you’ve also crossed yours.

I capitulated shortly afterwards, and we were married in April, 1947, at the Willesden Registry Office in north London. This was the last day of the income tax year, and I got a taxation rebate for supporting a wife for the whole of the preceding twelve months. Irene and I were equally happy about such a good bit of business. Several years later, when my brother got married, he worked it the same way. Nobody in our family likes paying taxes.

Irena had been in England just over a year when I met her. On arrival in the country, although she had picked up a great deal of English in the Middle East, her grasp of the language was still not perfect. German was her native language, Hebrew was still her second language, and English number three on the list. However, she insisted, as always, on speaking only the language of the country she was in. As a result of this, at the time of our meeting, her English was fluent, apart from minor errors such as saying “mit” for “with”, or ……..”putting a spook in his wheel,” or …….”screaming like a horse on fire…….”

“Like a house on fire, darling, not a horse on fire.”

“But why not? A horse would scream if it was on fire, wouldn’t it?”

How can you beat feminine logic?

Irene was born in Berlin of Russian-Polish parents. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a Polish rabbi from Cracow. He studied Torah and Talmud, preserved the Faith amongst his congregation, and sought with reverence to obey the will of the Master of the Universe. Later the family moved to Berlin where Irene’s brother Heini was born, followed soon after by Irena. Her father was a fine-featured man whose face clearly showed sensitivity and intelligence. He had been an officer in the Russian army during the war. He adored his small daughter, and lavished kindness and affection on her. He liked to go to boxing matches, and whenever he did so, took Irena with him. She loved her father above every other person in the world. On Irena’s birth certificate, her father’s profession is shown as “Kaufmann” – buyer.” The whole family was engaged in the garment trade, mostly in the sale of dresses in shops. They seem to have led a reasonably prosperous and happy life in Berlin, where they apparently had relatives, until the sudden death of Adolf S when his daughter Irena was seven years old. He had seen the rise of Hitler’s Brownshirts and survived the ruinous period of monetary inflation after the First World War. Mercifully he did not see Hitler’s final accession to power in 1932; neither did he have to suffer the terror, heartbreak and foul murder of the holocaust.

But to Irena the death of her beloved father was a terrible blow, which all but broke her heart.

Irena’s mother, Berta, was a strong-minded, attractive woman, who came originally from Cracow in Poland. She spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish and German. When she came to London in her early forties, she added English to her list of linguistic accomplishments. She might never have passed a degree in a University, but she never failed to know what was going on in any of her several languages, neither did she ever fail to make her point of view known to other people, no matter how fractured her grammar might be. She was a strongly built woman, but was always carefully corseted. If one applied the description “handsome” to her, it would be appropriate. She had very fine features, not a bit like the “Jewish” features of popular imagination. She dyed her dark hair blonde, and piled it artistically on top of her head. She looked exactly like one of Hitler’s fantasy “Aryan” maidens. The notices forbidding Jews to sit on certain seats or to enter certain public places never bothered her. She treated them with the contempt she so rightly thought they deserved. Her own mother, Esther, continued to live in Cracow in Poland, and Irena’s mother never failed to visit the old lady regularly and to look after her, even though, with the approach of the second world war she began to risk her life in so doing.

On September 1st, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and on September 3rd Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. With the German forces nearing Warsaw, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland. On September 28th, with most Polish resistance suppressed, Hitler and Stalin signed an agreement dividing Poland between them. Germany took the western and central part of the country, including Warsaw and Cracow. The Germans treated Poland with the utmost brutality, exterminating the educated class and more than 3 million Jews. Bearing this in mind one can only make the most pessimistic assumptions regarding the fate of “Grandma Esther” 

Ch5 Pt3 Paddy, cruelty, Freedom.

Paddy and I were loading a clay-tub at the quarry one day when he suddenly took off the old felt hat which he was wearing, flung it in a puddle, and with an unprintable expletive, uttered in a rich Irish brogue, announced that he wasn’t going to work anymore.

“But you must,” I said. “Otherwise they’ll clobber you.”

“Be Jaysers I won’t,” said Paddy, and threw himself full length upon the clayey earth. 

The Maestro saw us from afar and came hurrying over to our section of the quarry.

“Mensch! What’s the matter?”

“Ich bin krank,” said Paddy, holding his hand to his stomach. “I’m sick. Fetch a doctor.”

The Maestro was at a loss.

“You had better come with me to the hut.”

There was a hut at the end of the quarry, where we always ate our lunch. The Maestro helped Paddy there, and subsequently Wingy, looking more like the villain of the piece than ever with his slouch hat and evil smile, came hurrying towards the quarry to find out what the trouble was. Paddy complained of vomiting and pains in the abdomen, and suggested that he might have appendicitis. Wingy was sceptical. But after he had unsuccessfully tried to cure Paddy by kicking him several times in the ribs and other parts of the anatomy with the toe of his jackboot, he had to accept that a cut in his work force was inevitable.

Paddy was sent into Halle. There a South African doctor, himself a prisoner, who ran a clinic for POW’s, diagnosed appendicitis. Paddy went into hospital, and a fierce discussion raged for some days between learned English, German and Polish doctors as to whether his appendix was inflamed or not. Finally he was given a local anaesthetic, and he was able to watch with interest as the offending organ was removed. Of course, there was nothing wrong with it. But the operation was rather more extensive in those days than it is today. So Paddy now had a good rest in hospital until the incision healed.

In spite of everything, however, his plan miscarried. He had hoped that the war would be over in three months and that he would never see Wingy or the quarry again. Unfortunately the war was to last much longer, and Paddy returned to the quarry as a very reluctant labourer in Wingy’s workforce. 

“Flaming one armed penguin,” said Paddy, vengefully. “But I still conned the bastard, didn’t I?”

Our chief pastime when work at the brick factory was done was discussing rumours of the allied invasion of Germany. Thanks to my knowledge of French and some limited German, I became the chief purveyor of rumours. In the quarry were several forced labourers who, having given their promise not to escape, were allowed to go about more or less as they pleased. One of these was Stefan the Pole, who had not seen his wife and son in Warsaw for five years. He had access to a wireless set whose owners tuned in to London, and every morning he gave me news which he, in his wishful thinking, probably garbled somewhat, and which I, not always fully understanding, undoubtedly garbled even more. After each recital of Anglo-American and Russian successes on their respective fronts, I would ask:

“Stefan, are you sure this is true?”

And Stefan would answer: “Yes, it is true. Every word.” Then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “English radio. English radio speak.”

Two other informants of mine were Piccolo and Mario, former Italian soldiers, now pressed into the unwilling service of the Reich. Piccolo and Mario both spoke good French, albeit with a strong Italian accent, and under the jealous eye of Wingy, who understood only German, they would pass on to me all the news they had picked up in the town.

Sometimes, too, they would bring me cooked sugar beets to eat. Sugar beets, indeed, threatened to become the staple diet of all of us.

At this time the sugar beet harvest in Germany was in full swing. Often Polish ex-soldiers used to drive ox carts loaded with it past our billet towards the railway. Then we would rush to the barred windows.

“Psst! Kamerad!”

Quickly the Pole would dismount, grab an armful of sugar beets and thrust them through the bars to us before the guard in the adjoining annexe had seen him. These sugar beets we used to bake in the barrack stove. A black crust would form on the outside which, when chipped off, disclosed a soft, sweet core. Unfortunately, too many sugar beets gave one a distended stomach and excruciating pains, for which reason Wingy had strongly forbidden their consumption. Thus our guards were always on the alert for the sound of an ox cart on the cobbles outside.

One day in the quarry I got a piece of grit in my right hand. The hand turned septic, and the inflammation spread up my arm. I was in considerable pain, but Wingy would not let me go to the doctor, telling me when we met in the factory one day, that I would shortly know, as he did, what it was like to lose an arm. As luck would have it, there was a new Feldwebel in charge of the Arbeits-kommando. I was finally sent to the sick bay in town with Pop. A grey haired old guard who was friendly with us all, although I never entirely forgot that he had joined in with everybody else in beating us up after the four of us had escaped from the lager. From the sick bay, I was sent immediately to hospital, with the message that I could possibly lose a finger. However, the German doctor who operated did a good job, and today the only souvenir I bear is a small scar joining the third finger and the palm of my right hand. The result of this operation, however, was that I spent several weeks with my arm in a sling unable to work. 

Soon after my return, a skipful of clay came off the overhead rail in the quarry and fell on my right hand, crushing my thumb and obliging me to spend several more unproductive weeks in the billet. Wingy, who heartily detested me, and whose feelings I reciprocated in full, therefore took the opportunity of transferring me and one or two other unsatisfactory characters, including Paddy to another brick factory on the other side of Halle. I guess it makes sense, if you have rotten staff, to transfer them to the opposition.

I never saw Wingy again, but later, when I was free, I passed through the town in an American truck. The Polish flag floated lazily over my former prison, and I wondered whether some foreign worker, ill treated for years by Wingy, had seized his opportunity and taken just vengeance.

The new brick factory to which I had been sent stood on a main road leading out of Halle, and differed very little from the one I had left. One morning, shortly after I had been transferred there, the town received its first serious air raid. The sirens wailed, we heard the spluttering of guns in the distance, and then the attacking aircraft came roaring in. They were American, and they flew over continuously for about ten minutes, never breaking formation. Bombs began to fall from their silver bodies just as they passed over the factory, and we could see little trails of vapour as they hurtled diagonally down to the centre of the town. There were many French forced labourers working beside us whose first sight this was of allied revenge, and they went wild with delight. After several minutes, the last bomb sped shrieking to earth, and the last aeroplane disappeared into the blue sky. But an immense pall of grey smoke was rising from the centre of Halle and spreading over the town.

That night, and on subsequent days, we were marched into town in a quite hopeless attempt to repair some of the damage which had been caused. For instance, they gave us shovels to fill in bomb craters that would accommodate a small house. Evidently the railway station had been the central target, for overhead electric cables had been ripped down, and the steel tracks were twisted fantastically above gaping bomb craters. But other parts of town had been hit also, and in one street we saw the mutilated corpses of men, women and children laid out by the civil defence authorities in neat rows along the pavement. Many years later I paid my first and only visit to the killing room of an abattoir, where the bodies of beasts are carried on meat hooks around the work floor while men skin them and then carve up the bloody carcases in transit. Only then did it occur to me that the expressions “charnel house” or “slaughter house” are the only terms to describe accurately the scene of bloody murder we saw that night by naphtha flares in the town of Halle.

Such is the nature of modern warfare.

A few days later, when we were working some way away, in the quarry, another alert sounded, and we retired with our guards to the little hut where the men ate their lunch until the all clear should go. Grimly I recollected London’s baptism of fire. Then I remembered how the inhabitants of Halle who had previously ignored the sirens now scuttled like bevies of startled farmyard hens for the nearest cellar marked “Luftschutzraum.” 

Suddenly Paddy’s voice broke into my thoughts, saying, “D’you mind moving away from the stove?”

He was speaking to a thin, irregular-toothed Czech, a volunteer worker who was regarded by everyone as something of a collaborator. The Czech had planted himself directly in front of the iron stove so that nobody else could see the fire.

“D’you mind moving, please?” asked Paddy a second time.

The Czech affected not to understand.

“D’you mind moving so that we can get warm as well as you?”

Paddy repeated, and made signs so that the other could not fail to understand, and was obliged to shift very slightly to one side.

“Thanks,” said Paddy, sarcastically. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure.” He had never liked the Czech, who was a great tale-teller to his German masters, and I could see that his Irish temper was rising.

Suddenly the Czech said: “Ah, this terrible war. So many people are dead in Halle. Men, women and children.” 

“That’s the way war is,” said Paddy. “Dies ist Krieg, Verstanden? War is bad. Men, women and children – no difference in war. Impossible to make any difference – verstehen? The Germans have bombed us. Now we are bombing the Germans. It cannot be helped. Krieg – War.” 

The Czech looked at him through half closed eyes. Paddy was a small man, not physically imposing. The Czech spoke in clear, good German, thinking perhaps that Paddy with his mere smattering of the language would not understand him.

“What terrible destruction.” A sneer revealed his ugly teeth. “But then, what can you expect? Alle Englische Leute sind Schweinerei! All English people are swine!”

The last words, hissed spitefully, brought a sudden stillness throughout the hut. Everybody had understood perfectly. But while the rest of us were letting it sink in, Paddy was on his feet, his face chalk white with anger.

“What’s that? What’s that?”

The Czech was uncertain of himself. He continued to sneer, but looked towards the German workers and the guard for support. Suddenly Paddy punched him wickedly in the face. Crack! Like a cricket ball meeting the bat.

“What’s that you say?” Again he hit him. The Czech stumbled against a table.

“What’s that you say?”

Beside himself with rage, Paddy smashed his clenched fist again and again into the other’s face. Blood was trickling from the side of the Czech’s mouth.

Then the guard interposed himself and we were pulling Paddy away. 

“OK, Paddy. Leave the lousy collaborator alone. You’ll kill him.”

“Kill him? Too true I’ll kill the bastard if he doesn’t stay away from me.”

The unfortunate Czech was not at that moment in a position to stay away from anyone, having collapsed in a daze against the table.

A second guard came bustling across, opened a tin and offered it to Paddy.

“Eine Zigarette?”

Paddy looked at him, composed himself, then carefully took a cigarette, rather as if he were selecting a choice Havana cigar.

“Thank you kindly. I’m obliged to you. Dankeschön, Posten.”

“Bitte,” said the guard, politely. “Don’t mention it.”

He took a cigarette himself, produced matches, and with assiduous attention gave Paddy a light.                

The Czech had picked himself up and slunk to the back of the barrack. The guard proceeded to address all and sundry.

“This man,” said the guard, placing an affectionate arm around Paddy’s shoulders, “is a good soldier. He did well to strike that other person. He was defending his Fatherland. In his position, I would also have defended my Fatherland. Everybody must defend his Fatherland.”

We English looked at each other in amazement. We might almost have been transported to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, or to the Theatre of the Absurd, although that had not yet been invented. Here were the Americans belting the tripe out of the Germans in Halle, an Irishman belting the tripe out of a Czech for insulting the English over the Americans, and the Germans praising the Irishman for supporting the English……..Une drôle de guerre……A bloody funny war………

It must have been a fortnight later that we heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. It continued for two or three days, growing rapidly louder. Then, one night, we were roused from our beds in the barrack, lined up outside, marched through the factory grounds and out into the main road. All the French prisoners had been paraded as well, and our two columns merged into one as we poured into the street.

“Bon soir, camarade.” 

“Ca va?”

“Ca boume. Et toi?” 

“Il paraft que les Boche vont trinquer.”

At the gate stands a Russian forced labourer. It appears that only prisoners of war are being evacuated.

“Cheerio, Russky.”

“Sheeri-o, Kamerad.”

I look around for some Italian friends of mine – black marketeers who have connections among the farmers in the country, and whose billet is normally stuffed with food of the kind to make the average German worker’s mouth water. They are not to be seen, and the word is that they have sneaked away into the countryside to await the advancing American troops.

Suddenly, in time with our marching feet, a song begins. The Frenchmen who for years have suffered bullying, hardship and separation from their families are beginning to sing the Marseillaise. The melody starts softly at first, then bursts full throatedly through the German streets. Even the English, who do not know the words, hum the tune.

“Allons, enfants de la Patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

L’étendard sanglant est levé……….”

It is triumph. Triumph! Who can explain the joy in the hearts of people who have been degraded prisoners, and now suddenly smell freedom. Democracy and decency have triumphed in spite of everything. Soon the English will return to their foggy island and the French to beautiful, incomparable France.

Tramp, tramp, tramp. We march right through Halle, which, with its bombed buildings and derelict trams, now looks very much like Arnhem after the battle there, and into the countryside beyond. Presently the first joy of approaching liberation disappears. We have all been slowly starving for several months, and we are thin and weak. Conversation flags, the column loses step and begins to straggle. On either side the guards, themselves tired and dispirited, shout at us to get a move on.

“Los! Schneller! Schneller!”

At five o’clock in the morning we are only too pleased when a halt is called and we are all of us able to throw ourselves down on the frost covered ground, just as we are, and sleep. At sun-up, cold and stiff, we are roused, and the stumbling, staggering column makes its way forward again. There is no food. From now onwards we must fend for ourselves as best we can. Some of us have an odd tin of cocoa or coffee saved from the occasional Red Cross parcel which got through to us. These will be exchanged at farmhouses on the way for a loaf of bread. If we come across a potato field, we will plunder it. Sometimes, when we pass through villages, the German inhabitants will appear at their doors and offer us slices of bread.

In one village, as our column straggles through the main street, a German woman calls me into the back and gives me a glass of milk and a sandwich.

“I am very grateful to you,” I tell her, knowing how desperate the food situation is becoming for everybody. “Danke vielmals.”

“Bitte,” she says. “You are welcome. My son is also a soldier – in the German army.”

At another village, where I beg a glass of water from a grizzled old woman, I receive a shock.

“President Roosevelt ist tot.”

President Roosevelt is dead.

“What?” It is unbelievable. It cannot be. How will the world go on without this great American, the one true statesman who wanted to bring peace to mankind.

“……Are you sure?”

“Ja. The English radio. It is terrible. He was a very good man.” 

This is a tribute indeed from a German.

I tell my friends. The French prisoners, seeing their expressions of stunned surprise, ask me what is wrong. I tell them, and they, too, are shocked.

“Non. C’est pas possible. Pas possible.” One cannot believe it. 

The news spreads along the column and gloom grips all of us. The German guards shake their heads when we tell them about it.

“It is bad…bad.”

In later years history dealt harshly with Roosevelt’s judgment at Yalta. The occupation of much of Eastern Europe by the Russians was laid largely at his door. But I think that the respect in which he was held by so many diverse people, was a tribute to his honesty of purpose. If honesty has no place in international politics, well, that is another thing.

As we marched slowly through the flat fields of Middle Germany, we became less capable of effort. Soon we were stopping every twenty minutes or so for a ten minute rest. Then the guards would rouse themselves and us also, and we would struggle on for perhaps another mile. Sometimes we heard the sound of guns behind us. Once, in the evening, when we were camped in a large potato field, we saw the glow of a big fire somewhere on our flank. Presently allied aircraft appeared in the sky and began to shadow our column. They aroused a faint flame of hope in our hearts, but really we were becoming too exhausted to care much about anything except the next hundred yards or so of road and how it was to be covered. Many of us as the day wore on, would collapse on the road as it became too much of an effort to continue. This happened to me on two or three occasions. I remember a German officer coming up and standing over me for a few moments, perhaps giving me time to recover, then making a show of unbuttoning his pistol holster and saying, ”Na, los!” Would he have used his pistol on me had I been unable to move? I have no idea. Somehow I always struggled to my feet and struggled on.

Finally, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Leipzig, we came to a huge half completed camp. Here, in a forest encircled by barbed wire, English, French, Polish, Yugoslav and Sikh prisoners of war gathered together to await they knew not what.

Fires were forbidden, but we all began cutting down bushes and making fires just the same. The camp was so huge and the guards so few that they could do nothing about it.

In any case, from the frequent appearance of English and American aeroplanes overhead it was obvious that the allies were aware of our position, that they had complete control of the skies without any opposition, and that the German Reich was in its death throes. All that we had to try and do now was survive just a little bit longer.

We were roused early one morning, and in a milling, mixed column, poured out of the main gate. All sorts of rumours were rife. The first one, apparently believed emphatically by the German guards was that the war between Germany and the Anglo-Americans was shortly to be called off, after which we should all become allies and fight the Russians. This was so incredible that we didn’t give it a moment’s serious thought. It was quickly superseded by a more likely rumour that the Russians had begun a push towards Leipzig, and rather than have us all fall into their hands, the Germans had decided to move us westwards in the direction of the American lines.

Before coming into the countryside, we passed through a small village. Every house was being evacuated. Horse carts and oxen carts were loaded with chairs, cupboards, beds and sheets. These were the accumulated possessions of years for which people had worked out their lives. These desperate families were seeing a lifetime of toil destroyed in a matter of hours. Sometimes an old man would be sitting ready to drive the cart away, but mostly it would be the woman of the house who was in charge, her children gathered about her or perched on top of the piled up household goods. The younger men – even at this stage the young teen-age boys – had, of course, been called up for the army. We pitied these people. Who knew what wanderings and miseries lay before them, or if and when they and their menfolk in the military would see each other again. On the other hand, what mercy had the Germans shown to refugees crowding the French roads in 1940. And what mercy had been shown to untold numbers of people murdered in concentration camps because, by an accident of fate, they had been born into Jewish families? Or they had some tenuous connection with Jewish families which, according to Hitler’s mad philosophy, made them less than human.

These were sobering, saddening thoughts, and the dull, cold morning made our mood even more sombre. But as the day wore on, the sun came out. And with the warmth of its rays, a new hope tingled within us.

The wildest rumours now rippled through our ranks, the most unbelievable of them being that a temporary armistice had been declared, and that all prisoners of war in this part of Germany were being marched straight into the American lines. At about mid day we noticed – simultaneously, it seemed, as if by telepathy – that our guards were no longer with us. Suddenly a Frenchman beside me pointed excitedly across the fields.

“Look. The American flag.”

I strained my eyes in the now bright sunlight. In the distance a patch of cloth fluttered above a farmhouse.

“That’s not the American flag. That’s a white flag.”

There was the murmur of an engine in the distance. Then, with a sudden roar, a small artillery observation aircraft passed overhead. No sooner had it disappeared than we heard the stuttering of a motorbike, and a soldier in the uniform of the American army came riding along the column. A few moments later he returned and went pop-popping into the distance.

We were now passing through a village. White flags hung from all the windows, and silent groups of people stood at their doors, staring at us as we went by. Tired as we all were, we stumbled on as fast as we could. There was an indescribable excitement about the column, bordering on hysteria as pent-up emotions were released. Like a troop of thirsty horses smelling water, we were smelling freedom. Nobody can really know what a sweet word that is unless they have experienced imprisonment.

Finally we came into the town of Wűrzen on the River Mulde. White flags hung at all the windows. The column broke into a stumbling run. From the distance came the sound of cheering as men ahead of us realised the incredible fact that they were free and gave vent to their feelings accordingly. On the street corners German soldiers stood in bedraggled grey-green groups, their rifles stacked in neat heaps. American infantrymen, looking like cowboys with their low-slung revolvers joggling at their hips and tin hats pushed to the back of their heads, lounged nonchalantly on guard.

Cloud drifted across the sky and obscured the sun. A faint drizzle began to fall. But we did not heed it. We too began to cheer, hysterically, with breaking voices. We scattered all over the street, stopping every American soldier we saw, shaking hands with them, embracing them, even.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Glad to see you, chum! Glad to see you, mate!”

Freedom, freedom! In two days’ time I shall be twenty three years old. Never in all my life have I received such a marvellous birthday present as this.

Sitting on the kerb is a tough, stocky little man whose tartan shoulder flashes proclaim him to be a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He looks up as I pass. His eyes are filled with tears; and tears of unashamed joy are streaming down his unshaven cheeks.

Ch4 pt1. In His Majesty’s Service.

I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.

I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.

I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.

I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.

But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!

The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.

The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.                                                                                            

“Atten……shun!”  

A scrape of feet.                                                                     

“Right turn!” 

Clumsily the line faced to the right.            

“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”      

This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in. 

“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”                                                           

The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.                                            

“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”                                                                                                

We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King! 

At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.

We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.

Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.                                                                                    

Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.       

At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.                                           

I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.       

In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.

I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.

My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony

“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”                                                                      

Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it. 

We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.

My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.

We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.

At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.

In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met. 

In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.