In this podcast Holocaust survivor Dr Martin Stern talks about his story. Martin was born in 1938 and lived in Holland. He survived camps at both Westerbork and Theresienstadt.
You can listen to the interview with Dr Martin Stern MBE below:
So can you tell us a bit about your life before the Holocaust?
I was born in 1938 in Hilversum in the Netherlands. My mum and dad had fled Germany, they were both born in Berlin, and my father lived in a beautiful villa outside Berlin, his mum and dad, my grandparents were wealthy businesspeople, and very loyal Germans. Their older son fought in the First World War, and for all I know might have killed British soldiers, they were thoroughly German, but they were also Jewish. My mother was not Jewish; and decided to marry my father in 1938, and that in Germany was illegal. So they fled in to Holland, and they found that the Dutch, to avoid upsetting the Germans had made it illegal there too. So they got married in Belgium. And I lived with my mum and dad and my father was an architect, and I remember him doing architectural drawings at home, but that became impossible after the Nazi occupation of course.
So what were your experiences of the Nazi regime?
Well I remember just living like any little boy, with my mum and dad – but two years after I was born, the Nazis just invaded the Netherlands, they didn’t care whether they wanted to be neutral – they flattened the centre of Rotterdam with their bomber fleet and told the Dutch that they would flatten other cities if they didn’t surrender. Very soon after they came to power, they prevented Jews from working in Universities, working for the government, working for local authorities; Jews in professions like my father, an architect were only allowed to work for Jews, of course they were only a tiny minority of the Dutch population, and many of them were refugees who wouldn’t be paying for an architect, so a lot of Jewish people were just ruined. Jewish shopkeepers were liable to find uniformed, government paid Nazi thugs bursting into their shop, smashing the place up, beating the people up and dragging the people away to, nobody knew where. So my father was no longer able to earn his living as an architect. He started making wooden toys in the basement of the block of flats where we lived, and I remember at the age of three being very upset with him because I wasn’t allowed to play with these beautiful wooden toys he made. Then my father disappeared. And my mum wouldn’t tell me where he was. And pretty soon after that she stopped me from playing with the other children in the street, because it was too dangerous for it to be known that there was a little boy whose father was a Jew living in that flat. So I lived a rather isolated life, although later on I was sent to a little school. I also remember German soldiers around in Amsterdam, sometimes marching down the street, I remember them laying cables in a big park near the centre of Amsterdam, the Vondelpark, and I knew enough to want to sabotage that so I, at the ripe old age of three, was talking with my mum about doing something to those cables, and she told me very sharply not to make any move that might look like that; that that would be very dangerous. So I do remember a few things about that period.
In 1942, two years after the start of the Second World War, I saw my father for the last time. He came home. It was a November evening, as it was getting dark, and my parents were very agitated; what had happened? My mum had gone into labour. And my dad had come home from his hiding place to help her get to the maternity hospital and to get me off to some friends of my parents; an architect and his wife also. So my baby sister was born. Now somebody in the hospital didn’t wash their hands – my mother got an infection and died; there were no antibiotics of course. So the couple that had taken me in, they were stuck with me. And they looked after me for two years, and I lived in their flat – as a matter of fact around the corner – three blocks from the Anne Frank House. And it covers about the same period, I went to them at about the same time that Anne Frank went into her hiding place, and I was arrested about the same time that Anne Frank was arrested by coincidence. But I wasn’t hidden; they pretended I was their son, and they took me shopping, they took me to the zoo, I remember being taken to a children’s play, and we went for walks in the countryside. But I also remember looking out of the window of the first floor flat on that main road, radial road, radiating out from the centre of Amsterdam, and sometimes there would be brass bands marching, and of course being a little kid I was very enthusiastic about the brass band. And I remember the lady who was looking after me whose name she’s still alive – her name was Katrine Radomachas – she’s remarried, she has a different surname now but, really, with hindsight, I can see the dilemma, because she obviously didn’t want me to admire the Dutch Nazi Party, which is what the brass band belonged to.
And at the same time she couldn’t tell me too much about how bad things were that the Nazis were because being a little four year old at that stage, I have would soon told somebody else – I was being taken out of the flat as I said. So she had to be rather tight-lipped about that. And in retrospect I can recognise that dilemma being expressed in her trying to tread a fine line. I also remember a lorry load full of German soldiers stopping just below our window, and soldiers jumping out of the back, and running round the corner into one of the side roads, from this main road that we looked out on; and then I heard gun-shots. And I knew that in that little street, there was a black market, everybody knew. And the Germans had decided to control that in their way, and they drew their pistols and they shot people dead, and then I saw men being bundled into the back of the lorry and driven away – the ones that hadn’t been shot dead. And I also remember bombers flying overhead, there was a day... I haven’t read this in any history books but, there was a day when the Germans sent a bomber fleet over Amsterdam to impress the Dutch – the Amsterdam population, they made vapour trails, and the Dutch had a sort of slang term for that ‘selling planks’, it may sound rather silly but it was a sort of trace of humour in a grim, very threatening situation. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but in 1941, nine months after the Germans invaded there was a strike in Amsterdam, dock-workers, factory workers, transport workers and shop workers, and it spread to areas around Amsterdam, now what were they striking for? Free travel, higher pay? No, they were going on strike on behalf of their Jewish fellow citizens, to protest against the way they were being maltreated. The Germans knew how to deal with that – they shot people dead, and injured a lot very seriously. And they went into holding cells and prisons, loaded men into the backs of trucks, drove them into the dunes and shot them. Dead. And they made sure people knew. This rule by terror, it only works if the people you’re trying to terrorise know. So the situation in which the Dutch came up with that slightly silly term ‘selling planks’ for the vapour trails of bombers, you know, it’s humour under very, very frightening circumstances.
Whilst I was living with Johannes and Katrine Radomachas, the architect and his wife – they sent me to a little school nearby – it was a converted house, only very small really, and we didn’t do anything fancy – no reading or writing – folding paper, singing songs, playing games, that sort of thing. And one day the teacher had taken us into the little school hall, and she was sitting behind the table on the little stage, and she’d lined us up ready to play some game, and two young men unexpectedly walked in – civilian clothes – and one of them asked ‘Is Martin Stern here?’ And the teacher immediately shot back ‘No, he hasn’t come in today.’ And there I was. I didn’t understand what was going on. I put my hand up, and I said, ‘But I am here.’ And as these two young men were leading me out of the room, I looked back, and I’ll never forget the ashen face of the young teacher. And they took me outside, they had their bikes leaning against the lamppost, it was a drizzly day, they put me on the back of one of those bikes, the way people do in Holland. And off they cycled through Amsterdam to a big redbrick building, I was marched up some steps into the building, some more steps to the first floor – and very quickly shown into a large office, or led into a large office. Big ornate desk – the building by the way had been a school – the Germans had just booted out the pupils and the teachers, and they’d turned it into the interrogation centre for the Amsterdam district, and it had developed such a terrible reputation that after the war, the Dutch changed the street name because the name – being taken to the ‘such and such street’ it had acquired such a terrifying overtone in the Dutch language that they changed it to the name of a very famous Dutch resistance fighter – a sculptor who did a lot of work against the Nazis. So I know that that large room was the headmaster’s office previously. But that wasn’t the desk of a headmaster – it was very ornate, it was large, it had been stolen off a Jewish family, I’m sure, or a Jewish business. And there was a rather fat man behind the desk in a green military uniform, which means he would have been a member of Sicherheitdienst – the SD, translated as security services, so it was part of the same organisation as the Gestapo, responsible in occupied countries for rounding up and deporting Jews. And he started asking me questions, although by this stage I had a few questions of my own, ‘when can I go back to school? When can I go home?’ And he said his task, it wasn’t his responsibility to answer these questions, and it was almost as though this rather fat, grown man in his uniform was expecting, me, a five year old to be sorry for him. And he must have known exactly what he was part of – in fact I have reason to believe he was the head of the SD in Amsterdam. Soon as he was satisfied that he’d got the right little boy, he ordered a man to take me out into the corridor, of course, a school corridor, lots of doors opening off this corridor, and all closed – except one. And as I was led past this one open door, I looked into a rather small room, a map on the far wall, and a man standing with his back to me, looking at the map, who I recognised! He, with his wife had been looking after me in his flat just round the corner from the Anne Frank House for two years! Of course I knew him! So I called out. I wasn’t allowed to utter another sound, I was dragged away – that’s all they wanted. They tricked me into giving away the fact that I could recognise him instantly even from behind. So he couldn’t say that he hadn’t had me in his house. Because you see they put up posters, they made announcements on the radio, they put display ads in the paper – anybody who helps a Jew to escape arrest will face the same consequences as the Jews. So that couple knew what risks they were taking – remember about the strike and about the bombers and so on. The Germans made no secrets of their brutality.
He was sent to a concentration camp in the Netherlands, where he was not treated too badly, the head of the Phillips company had made an arrangement with the Germans assuring reasonably humane treatment for Dutch prisoners in that concentration camp – it wasn’t as good for Soviet prisoners of war and people like that. But from there he was transported in a cattle truck to Germany. 20 kilometres away from the big port city of Hamburg was a little village, a beautiful little village called Neuengamme – it’s on a bend in the river, weeping willows, little cottages, and the setting sun in the evenings – I went there a few years ago, beautiful. And 500 yards away is the edge of a huge concentration camp, where men were shoved into holes in the ground to dig clay. First thing, on arrival in the camp, they had to strip, throw their shoes on one pile and their clothes on another, on more or less a run. They had to pick clothes off a pile – the first thing that happened, they got clothes that weren’t their own, they were inadequate and they wouldn’t fit. And in all weathers, in inadequate clothing, they would be shovelling clay, which would stick to the shovel, into metal steel trucks above head level, and if they didn’t work fast enough, they were beaten. They were fed a ration such that starvation... people would starve to death. Half the people in Neuengamme died. The bread such as it was – was partly made of sawdust – it would have been inadequate even if it had been made totally of flour. Three tiered-bunks, up to six men to a single bed – dreadful hygiene, there wasn’t enough washing facilities... it was filthy, the food was filthy, so they had diarrhoea and vomiting, six men to a bed, three-tied bunk-beds... you know, they died like flies. And Katrine Radomachas got just his spectacles back. And he was a good man.
What about my sister? She was lying in hospital nobody to look... no mother, father couldn’t look after her, he was hiding. She was taken in by a Dutch family that had done business with my grandparents. My grandparents had got this young lad who’s a butcher’s son in a small, rural Dutch town, employed on a floor above a shop, making mattresses. The sales rep spotted him as a bright lad, got him a ticket to Berlin, and he got trained in my grandfather’s business. Huge success – he became great friends with my grandparents, and it seems that in the First World War, with money from my grandparents he was set up in a business of his own. Probably because the Western powers had a trade block – blockade against Germany as part of their war, for the First World War, and this would be a kind of, way, for a German company to evade the blockade – by selling to a neutral country – Holland, and they could sell on, of course. By the Second World War, this business was prosperous, and it was this man’s own, he was rich in his own right by this stage, and he’d had four sons; his wife was so fed up of having sons that she dressed the fourth one as a girl, and he became the laughing stock of the village. And here was a little girl going begging. But it wasn’t just that – they had a Jewish maid, and a live in maid, and they employed her deliberately in the hope it would protect her against deportation. They were already taking a risk. So they were brave as well. And my sister lived there for two years, until she was also arrested at the age of one year. You see, the Germans owned France, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Balkan countries, Hungary, Austria, allied with Italy; whatever they wanted in all those places they took – they owned the best part of the Soviet Union, and they had tens of thousands of bombers and tanks, and loads of heavy artillery, a huge army and navy and so on – they had everything. Wherever they went they took the best food, the best drink, they’d find paintings; the Germans didn’t live at all badly until quite close to the end of the Second World War. It seems they needed one more thing; they needed my one year old sister, and they needed her dead. And that’s a reflection I think on what at the time seemed a very powerful Third Reich, and the Nazi empire.
It was the Dutch police that came to arrest my sister. In the shouting match that the woman of the family had with these Dutch policemen, the sixteen year old fiancée of her oldest son took my baby sister in her arms and escaped into the garden, and got away. And these policemen made such threats to the woman, that the next day the family put my baby sister on their lap in the car, and drove from their village to Amsterdam, and handed her over to the Amsterdam police, who handed her over to the Nazis. And so she and I ended up in a prison camp in the Netherlands, it was called Westerbork – it was barbed wire, watch-towers, armed soldiers with guns in those watch-towers. First thing I was told on arrival was ‘don’t go anywhere near the barbed wire because you’ll be shot.’ Wooden, creosoted huts, very crowded, terrible food and not much of it, and trains leaving every week. Cattle trucks, goods trucks. And as a five year old, I could stand at the edge of the clearing where the trains were being loaded. People like sardines in those wooden trucks. And the people loading them in – they were railway men, they didn’t look terribly different from the railway men who check my tickets these days – they looked like ordinary people. And there were a few soldiers, a few German soldiers, not many, but I was standing close enough, I could see their faces, they looked like ordinary men inside their uniforms. And stupid and ignorant as I was – I mean, I’d given myself away because I didn’t know what was going on. It was a puzzle to me how one set of human beings, who looked normal, could do just that to another set of human beings. Who were normal! They were the people I’d been living in the camp with! They were normal, decent, ordinary people. And then the doors were shut. And they were sealed shut with steel wire. I’d been on enough train journeys to know that wasn’t normal for a train journey. And then before the train slowly pulled out, a German soldier, with a rifle over his shoulder would step up, on to a little metal step that had been screwed to the end of the truck, and hold on to a handle that had been screwed there for the purpose; and as the train slowly pulled out, there was a soldier with a rifle on the end of each wooden truck. And people were trying to peer out through the little wooden openings in the side of these trucks... and stupid and ignorant as I was... I could figure out what one of those soldiers would do with one of those guns, if one of the unfortunate people inside should manage to escape during the journey. And then my turn came. I was told I would have to be on the next train. It turned out to be a passenger train. Compartments! Padded seats! Very crowded, and nobody would tell me where we were going and the point wasn’t that they wouldn’t tell me, it was because they didn’t know. I ended up in a compartment, and opposite me was a woman who I didn’t know with a baby on her lap. And that, she told me, was my sister! I don’t remember seeing her in the camp at all; it was a funny sort of life there... and I had seen her a few times, but I wouldn’t have recognised her. But I was worried she would get cold with a draft. She was in a beautiful white crocheted baby shawl, and I thought the holes would let the draft through. And the woman tried to reassure me about that, I hadn’t a clue of course what I was going towards. Well, we were unloaded at a huge German railway station, herded into a hall, on a platform; huge glass panel doors – so we could see people catching trains, coming from trains, greeting each other, all those things people do on a railway platform, and they could see us. Huddled on the floor. And then we were crammed into a cattle truck.
One bucket, for people to relieve themselves – men, women, children. No room to sit; we were squashed up against each other, we could only stand. And it wasn’t an express train. Sometimes it went at normal speeds, sometimes it went slowly for long periods, very slowly. And sometimes it stood still for long periods. And the whole journey – I don’t know how long it took – but my guess is three or four days and nights, it for sure wouldn’t have had priority on the German railway system, and towards the end of the journey, I remember asking the adults around me why an old man was lying on the floor of the truck, sleeping with his eyes open. I’d never seen a corpse. How it came that he was able to – that the corpse was able to lie full length on the floor – I mean maybe everybody had squeezed back, I don’t know. Maybe – I know from reading that people did die during such journeys, and it may be that some corpses had been moved out – I do remember the door being opened and the bucket being passed in and out – the door was just lowered slightly. It was a cattle truck – the kind with a door that cattle can walk up and down rather than the sliding doors of a goods truck. And so it may be that corpses had been moved out, I really don’t know, my memory is fragmentary.
Well, we arrived at our destination, the door was lowered, there was a blue sky, a few white clouds, and we were in a town. Not wooden huts and mud but proper buildings, a street, pavements, even a grassy square. And I wanted to run in there to see if there was a gap in the fence. And I was immediately barked at via the inmates, ‘don’t do that you’ll be shot!’ And I was herded into a group of little boys, don’t ask me where my sister was, I was way beyond thinking about that. And I landed in a building which they called an orphanage – it was for children who were there without their parents. Pleading for food and being told there wasn’t any. And there was an 18 year old inmate, a prisoner who was looking after this bunch of little boys – and he eventually relented, and asked a boy a few years older than myself, perhaps eight – to take me into another room to where there was this iron stove in the middle of the room which was lit. That was unusual for a concentration camp. And he got a little aluminium pan, and about a teaspoon full of rolled oats, and he went to the tap and a little trickle of water came out, and on that stove he made me a little bit of porridge. And that is the most memorable meal I’ve had in my entire life.
I don’t know how long I was there. I think it was the same day that I was removed from there by a Dutch woman who I didn’t know. And she took me to the place where she slept. It had been a shop – everything had been stripped out, so we had ceiling, floor, walls, doors each side opening onto different streets with shop windows onto the two streets. And on the floor, sleeping places for women, shoulder to shoulder. We were in a place called Theresienstadt. That was the name the Germans used, it’s now called Terezin, that’s the Czech name, it was in the Czech Republic, and it still looks very similar to the way it did. It was a walled town, a garrison town, full of buildings with dormitories for soldiers, and so the Germans used it as a prison for Jews who for some reason they wanted to keep alive for a while. And this lady, her name was Mrs. De Jong – the Dutch version of Young, if you like – and she’d been imprisoned there for marrying a Jewish market trader. She wasn’t Jewish. But that was enough of a crime in the eyes of the Nazis to get her imprisoned.
She had no children, and that troubled her a great deal, and she wanted to look after children, she asked Jews who were forced to do office work in this prison town, and once somebody said to her there’s a train coming through from Holland tomorrow, there are two children on that train whose father killed two German soldiers, why don’t you look after them. And so she got me out of one building and my baby sister out of a different building, and there she was, on that bare floor of the shop next to her sleeping place. Extraordinary. How the man in Theresienstadt knew, I’ll never know, he is no doubt long dead, and no doubt died during the war. But she looked after us for the remainder of our time, we were moved from dormitory to dormitory, she worked in the kitchens, and she stole food for us, whilst others were dying from starvation. A combination of starvation and terrible hygiene, especially the older people. And she brought cooked food to us in the dormitory. This in a place where the SS would climb through a window of a dormitory, tell everybody to stand to attention, do it quickly and unexpectedly, [and] a man found with one cigarette in his pocket would be shot. And she was stealing food, when other people were dying. An inmate might have thought it was their good deed for the day to report her to the authorities. She was risking her life. And we never starved. I was darned hungry, but there’s a big difference between being darned hungry and being a pot-bellied skeleton. Huge difference. I never starved – and my baby sister neither. Theresienstadt was disgustingly crowded. The streets, the dormitories, everything – had about seven or eight times the number of people the town was built for. Any the sewerage and the water supply, as well as the food were totally inadequate. And of course we just wore the same clothes that we’d been arrested in, and there wasn’t much opportunity to wash them. So the place stank, I don’t actually remember that; I’m telling you know what Mrs. De Jong told me after the war, but I certainly remember bed bugs, and fleas vividly, and there were also lice, I don’t actually remember they were there, because towards the end there was an outbreak of the disease called Typhus – which is lethal – and that’s spread by lice, you don’t get it unless there are lice. And all the time, again trains, the goods trucks and cattle trucks were coming into the camp, because again, the Germans had used slave labour to build a railway spur into the town, and men were crammed into that, and then postcards came back for the women remaining behind saying don’t worry, we’re working hard but we’re all right, and no more was heard from that man. So Theresienstadt was emptied out a little bit. And then it was announced that women who wished to join their men could do so. And would you believe it? A nice passenger train turned up – green, clean, padded seats and all that. And the ladies were invited to join this nice looking train. I know from what Mrs. De Jong told me after the war there was a fierce argument, she was trying to persuade people not to board that train, she said ‘forget those postcards, those men are dead.’ She was married to a market trader, she was not married to a professor, she’d had primary schooling only, she wasn’t [a] sophisticated person, but she was not stupid, she was a sharp cookie in all sorts of ways. And most of the women went. And so Theresienstadt became even less crowded.
At this point, the Germans turned up with pots of paint, and lots of other things, and the shelves of shops were kitted out to look as if they were in business. A counter, a window display, a tinkly bell on the door, an inmate told to pretend to be a shopkeeper, you go in... and this actually happened because Mrs. De Jong, there was camp money printed, because the inmates had to work, and the Germans had the idea they would pay them camp money, so you couldn’t use it for escape of course, or for bribing the guards to communicate with the outside, which is something they very much feared, the Germans very much feared. So she thought that maybe with this camp money, she might be able to buy something and the prison actor who was meant to be the shopkeeper just laughed at her and said ‘don’t you realise this is all a sham?’ And then the Red Cross was invited in, and they saw an orchestra, and there was loads of fine musicians imprisoned there, and the Germans had got lots of fine musical instruments from all the Jews they’d killed, and there was a classical orchestra playing for the Red Cross inspection team. A playground had been equipped for the children – the children were seen munching thick sandwiches, and a cart loaded with vegetables crossed from one side of the road to the other side of the street in front of their very eyes – and of course it drove straight out of Theresienstadt because a prisoner had been told to run ahead of these inspectors and warn the cart driver to just drive it past the Red Cross inspectors. And the Red Cross reported that conditions for Jews in the concentration camps weren’t too bad, and then the people who were involved in prettying up the town were all shoved on a train and gassed in Auschwitz. There were actually two Red Cross inspections. The first one occurred before I went there, the second one was whilst I was there and the second time apparently they weren’t fooled quite so much. But it’s not a glorious episode in the history of the Red Cross, I’m sorry to say. We did however, via the Red Cross get some food parcels, and under those circumstances, I mean there wasn’t a vast amount of food in each parcel, but it made a terrific difference, so we were very grateful for that.
So then there was an announcement that children had to be on the next train. Mrs De Jong – I wasn’t aware of it at the time – but she told me afterwards was in a great dilemma. She couldn’t avoid putting us on the train because we weren’t hidden, everybody knew we were there, but she believed we would be going to our deaths. The question was, would she come with us? She decided to come with us. And I remember going with her, and my little baby sister to a children’s dormitory; most of the children in Theresienstadt were in special buildings, I don’t know of any other children who were kept like us, by a stranger, an adult stranger in an adult dormitory. So full of children, this dormitory, and a man with a clipboard comes in, reads out a list of names... those children follow, gradually the rooms empty, in the end the three of us were left in this now otherwise empty dormitory. And I have quite a vivid memory of Mrs. De Jong being in a great state of agitation. You see, if she had failed to hear our names, she was for it. If she left the room without an order, she was also for it. We stayed for hours. Eventually she very cautiously opened the door and crept out, and she came back maybe ten minutes later – the train had gone.
Now, we now know that that train went to Auschwitz. Those children were kept alive for a bit, and then loaded on a truck and taken to the gas chambers and were not seen again. Why our names were not called, I have no idea. Maybe the list was made up in the buildings where the children were, and we were highly untypical, I mean if the Germans had had time, they would have caught up with us. There was a pit being dug for our bodies; they were attempting to create a gas chamber, but the Soviet army was approaching – Germany was collapsing. Towards the end, the Red Cross took over the management of the camp, even before the Germans could desecrate it. And there weren’t the number of German personnel left to finish us off. And when I meet a British soldier now, as I sometimes do on events like Holocaust Memorial Day, I pat them on the back and I say ‘if it wasn’t for you, fighting on the Western Front, the war might have taken a little longer and I wouldn’t be here.’ Because that’s the truth. On the 8 May, the night of 8-9 May ’45, the Soviet army entered Theresienstadt, following the surrender of the Nazi empire, and promptly disappeared again because there was a big outbreak of typhus in the town, and the last thing you want in an army is Typhus. Also I’m sure that the transport means weren’t available to take us away. So we stayed there somewhat longer, I guess a couple of weeks is my guess, maybe two or three weeks probably until the epidemic was under control, and until lorries were available for transporting civilians. And a long and eventful journey started, during which Mrs De Jong, because she had my by now, two year old sister with her, was allowed to sit in the cab next to the driver, whilst I sat with all the adults in the back of the lorry, high army lorry. And this convoy of lorries went day and night, and Mrs De Jong fell asleep during the night against the door and the door flew open, and my sister fell off her lap. From this high lorry cab, I mean, a military lorry, so huge ground clearance, whilst it was moving during the night. I only heard about it the following morning when Mrs De Jong told me, and I didn’t know I was going to be a doctor, but I examined my baby sister from head to toe, and she had only a few scratches. Quite amazing, but she could have died on the way home. There was an incident, it’s crazy, there were all sorts of things that happened during that journey, we were... spent the night in all sorts of different places, railway station, a sort of chateaux, and I’m sure what had been a prison camp, that’s what it looked like. Except the gate was open, we could wander out. And I did. And so exploring outside the barbed wire, I found this round, black object, just outside the barbed wire, and I was about to pick it up when I heard screaming behind me, and three or four little boys, running towards me like I’ve never seen anybody run before or since, and they got to me and they explained what a landmine was. So I mean, incredible!
And we eventually arrived in the Netherlands, on one of these barges that you see on the Rhine, I mean like a slave ship, it was a horrible stench, we were allowed to go and take a breath of fresh air through the one tiny opening, but there was so many people there, the opportunity was very limited. And it was hot – it was June by this time. And we arrived in the Netherlands; the family that had taken my sister in was waiting for us, they’d been warned by the Red Cross. And we were immediately taken away from Mrs De Jong. It broke her heart, and it broke mine. They took my sister in again, spoilt her rotten, and she loved it and I was sent to the lady who looked after me before, and to cut a long story short, I went from family to family to family, very disrupted by school to school, and then ended up with the family who had taken my sister in, and they treated me very badly, all the members of the family were fine, but the woman of the family really didn’t want another boy and she made it very obvious. And I used to lie crying in my bed at night, with good reason. But she unexpectedly died one night. And her husband tried valiantly to look after us; they were quite an elderly couple by this stage; by the standard of those days. And he got some housekeepers, who were disastrous, fortune hunters actually. And meanwhile, my family in Manchester was clamouring to have us, and we were transferred to my father’s sister and her family in Didsbury, Manchester. And I arrived really not being able to speak any English, sent to a school where I couldn’t tell when there was a French lesson when they were speaking French, because the French was so bad, and I couldn’t understand the English either. Or not much of it, and it was quite hard, but in the school of hard knocks, I learnt English well enough in two terms that when I moved to another school the boys in the class didn’t realise I was born anywhere but England. And it took me three months to cotton on to the fact that they didn’t know, I just took it for granted they would. It never occurred to us, until we had a conversation about it three months later. It was a hard and unpleasant way of learning English but I did. And I ended up having the good fortune to go to a wonderful school, Manchester grammar school, which really saved me. No words of praise can be great enough. From there I got to Greys College, Oxford, got a medical degree, I mean my university days were the happiest days of my life, and I’m so grateful for that. And I got British nationality, and I had to report at the Manchester central police station in Bootle Street. And we couldn’t find the right office, and nobody could tell us; there weren’t so many people being naturalised in those days. But we found it and there was a door with frosted glass panels like in American detective films, you know, where the name of the detective is on the door, and we saw the inscription on the door, it said ‘firearms, explosives, dangerous drugs and aliens.’ So we knew were in the right place. That was at the age of 16. But I qualified in medicine and got absolutely wonderful training, went from one wonderful teaching hospital after another – trained by a succession of the most wonderful doctors, and then of course a wonderful career as a doctor; at least the work was wonderful, working with patients, you know, solving problems, and I’ve got three children and five beautiful grandchildren, four granddaughters and a little grandson, and we’re expecting further grandchild, and of course I have a wife in Leicester, and very grateful to have been given British nationality, to be a British citizen. Because I never had Dutch nationality, they called me stateless, so it’s the British; it’s Britain that’s given me a real home.