I was born in Berlin on December 18, 1932. Less than three years later, my parents divorced. After this, I stayed with my mother; I have no early memory of my father.
On August 22, 1939, along with some other refugee children,
my mother shipped me off to England, promising that she would follow in October. A Catholic Committee for Refugees from Germany paid for our meager upkeep and I attended several low-class boarding schools in succession.
In the late 1930's, the Nazis allowed a few thousand children to go to England for a price.
Parents sent their children away in order to save the children's
lives. In many cases, the children never saw their parents again
The first stop was a convent housing about 60 refugees, all boys as I remember. We were taught English and elementary subjects. The four nuns who ran this institution were kind and helpful and harmed no one.
In June 1940, I was sent to a convent near Manchester in Northern England. What a difference! On my second evening, I was beaten for no offense at all. A nun approached me with a stick, and I had no idea what the thing was for. She told me to give her a hand, and I stretched one out. Then she hit me with all her strength and, grabbing my other hand, she did the same.
After this incident, I was paralyzed for nearly a month. Why? I had been severely hurt in mind more than in body. To give someone a hand had been until then an expression of trust.
For some time -- probably months -- I was in a dormitory where some boys were much more viciously beaten: up to 30 times for trivial "offenses" like bed-wetting. However, this torture was not perpetrated by a nun but by a teen-age girl. I can sometimes still hear the ghastly screams of those children. This place was so miserable that even some of the English children called it "our concentration camp."
Besides the beatings, there was hunger, cold and disease -- a lot of the latter. Boys without skin sores were kept in a small building; the large one was for all the others. And there were roll calls. I remember one in an icy wind where one or two dozen boys were publicly caned for some minor mischief. When it was over, I went back to the dormitory nursing my hands. One boy asked me whether I had been caned. I answered, "No, it's only the cold."
After having known the worst there was in this institution, I pulled together all my willpower and swore to myself that I would never do such things to children. I reasoned: grownups can only hurt us if they have forgotten how it feels to be a child; I will never forget and I will therefore avoid becoming that way. I have kept that promise.
In April 1942, after suffering a breakdown that lasted for months, I was sent to convent number three. There, conditions were better: adequate food and clothing, and medical treatment when necessary. They cured my skin sores in a month or two and I began to grow again. The cane was also used here but not so excessively. They called this "discipline." Slowly, the sense of fear I was used to wore off.
After three years and five months, in September 1945, they sent me to a high school run by Augustine monks. Two years later, at the age of 14, I passed the School Certificate exam. Usually, this happens at the age of 16. A few months later, in 1948, I was repatriated to Hamburg to live with my father who had survived the death camps.
For reasons I still do not know, my mother never made it to England. Although she was Jewish, she engaged in Resistance activities and was arrested in 1943. She went through three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and according to the Red Cross, she "disappeared" in the third one,
I had not seen my father since 1935. After the divorce, he had immigrated to Prague where he met his second wife. In 1941, both were arrested and taken to
Theresienstadt. Later, they were sent to Auschwitz where his wife was murdered. After two infernal days in that detestable hell hole, my father was sent to a third camp where he had to do the very hardest work to avoid death by starvation. The Russians freed him in 1945 and, after two months in hospital, he went to his relatives in Hamburg where he worked in the film industry as he had before.
When I was flown from England to Hamburg, I was reunited with two strangers my father had married again. The reception was cordial, but trouble arose soon. Father insisted that we act as a "normal family," a demand we could not possibly meet. The pretense, aggravated by our all being cooped up in one room, made for a worsening human climate. Also, I wanted very much to know about my mother who was missing and had been declared dead without my knowing it. As I sensed that my father was strangely sensitive on this subject, I had to pretend that I was not interested.
Once, I rejected some soup, declaring that I wanted "something solid," and was beaten for my "ingratitude." I can now imagine how my father felt. Compared to the near lethal starvation he had gone through in that third camp, he must have felt rejected.
Relations between Father and me were strained for some years after the soup incident, but improved later on. Father died in 1958 of a camp-induced heart condition.
Today, I am in poor health a "chronic depression" the doctors call it, which appears to have originated in that miserable convent of my childhood. In England there had been the confusion about being a German (hated!), a Jew (hated even more) and becoming a Catholic. Even now, I feel uneasy about being half-Jewish and half-Christian. Sometimes, I hardly know what to believe.
My father and his third wife gave me my brothers, who were born as twins in 1949. They have been a source of happiness and comfort for me ever since. And "Grandma," now in her 80s, and I are good
Andreas Jaffe, Ph.D., is a retired meteorologist living in