History lessons from someone who was there

January 26, 2001

In the week that Britain celebrates Holocaust Memorial Day, Denis Herbstein reports on one man's quest for remembrance.

Bernhard Herzberg was in Hanover at an exhibition to mark Kristallnacht , the day in 1938 when Adolf Hitler's SS destroyed half the synagogues in Germany. A man leant over his shoulder peering at the newspaper cuttings, pictures and swastikas. "Dad, what does this all mean?" his young son asked. "It's about the Jews," he said, "a people who came from countries where the Arabs also live." As an afterthought, he added, "Hitler destroyed them all." End of history lesson.

Next Thursday, Herzberg will receive his BA degree in German at a University of London graduation ceremony. At 91, he is one of Britain's oldest graduates. It took eight determined years as an external student. For the past ten years he has been returning to his native Germany, which he fled in 1933, to talk to secondary schoolchildren about his life. Despite not having spoken the language for 60 years, the students marvel at his perfect accent and flawless grammar. They listen raptly to his dispassionate account of how their grandparents treated Jews. He is remedying, in a small way, the gaps in the knowledge of the boy at the exhibition.

Why this Jew from Hanover should want to study the language and literature of a nation that rejected him has as much to do with his background as with the times through which he lived. His family was German through and through. An ancestor was buried in the city's Jewish cemetery in 1744. Indeed, he recalls his father, returning from Flanders in 1918, Iron Cross on his breast, announcing to the family, "I am German first, and a Jew second." Within 25 years, the extended family was gone - gassed, shot, in exile. One great aunt hanged herself with her husband's suspenders as the Gestapo came up the stairs of their apartment. Hanover's 6,000 Jews were reduced to 200.

Ten years ago, Herzberg returned to his old school, Leibniz Gymnasium. The original building was bombed by Britain's Royal Air Force, but it has been rebuilt elsewhere. He told the pupils how, during a literature lesson, his teacher said that the most beautiful poem in the German language was "Lorelei" by Heinrich Heine, "although he was a Jew". The 12-year-old Herzberg stood up and asked, "Why did you use the word although?" "Sit down, you cheeky boy," was the reply. The rift had begun - love for the language, rejection by those who spoke it. The anti-Semitism that had lain dormant in the first world war erupted in 1920 with a monarchist putsch in Munich. Steel-helmeted Leibniz students carrying rifles marched into the school and blacked out the names of the ten Jewish boys from the first world war roll of honour. The school's 40 Jews had their faces shoved into the school toilets.

Herzberg, well-built and reactive, had learnt ju-jitsu from a friend of his father's and was able to look after himself. His problem - and his good luck - was that he was bolshie. At the age of 12, dismayed by the poverty of postwar Germany, he became a socialist. His father, leader of the city's Jewish community, stopped him from going to university. So Herzberg left home and finished his education at a trade school in Hamburg, then spent several years in North America, returning home only because of economic collapse in 1931. His father gave him a job in his leather business, but scoffed at Herzberg when he warned that they should leave Germany, as Nazism represented a more nihilistic form of anti-Semitism than had been known before. His father said he had his Iron Cross to protect him. Herzberg was sacked by his father and locked out of the family home. In 1933, he bought a ticket to South Africa, one of the few countries that were willing to take Jewish refugees. The day after Kristallnacht his father was carted off to Buchenwald concentration camp, released after three months, then held in prison for three years. He lost his home and his business, and two years into the war, he and his wife, with 20 marks between them, left Germany in a sealed truck, en route to Cuba.

In 50 years in South Africa, Herzberg made good in the chemical industry, at the same time working with democratic trade unions. He served in the South African field artillery. He tells a present-day class how he regretted having to take up arms against his native country, "but I found it absolutely necessary to bring down that regime".

When he retired at 81, he was living in London with his family. He had visited Germany several times, but on a trip that year he met schoolteacher Ortrun Heimann. She invited him to her school to talk to her pupils. They were fascinated by his story. "There was a feeling of unease - not guilt, they have heard these things before - but for many he was the first Jew they had met," Heimann says.

In retirement, Herzberg felt ready to achieve a long-held ambition - and settle a score with his father, perhaps. He had had a good education, including Greek, Latin and French, but, for the rest, he was self-taught. Seventy years on, he re-read the German classics, from the first printed work in German to Gunther Grass and the work of innovative Jewish poet Paul Celan.

He worked like a demon, but he attended no lectures and his only contact with his fellow students was at exam time. His third-class degree after eight years was a triumph to anyone but this perfectionist German. However, his one big regret is that it is not high enough to allow him to do a masters.

Herzberg says the studying helped to "keep the Alzheimer's away", and he certainly does not appear to have problems with his memory. This is one reason he is in demand in Germany. He tells, for example, of a train journey through Mainz, Cologne, Dortmund to Hamburg, towns from which his relatives were wiped out, by emigration or the gas chamber. "The terrible thing about exile is that you become conscious that the past exists only in the memory, and in cemeteries and commemoration plaques to 'our fellow citizens of Jewish faith who perished in the national socialist period'," he says.

The UK celebrates its first Holocaust Memorial Day on January .

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