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"I was only a child when this happened," Bert Jakobs tells me, his blue-gray eyes aas heavy as bullets. "But some things you never forget."
We're sitting in a Tustin restaurant on a rain-drenched Sunday in late February. I've brought my copy of Children of a Vanished World, Roman Vishniac's stunning photographs of Eastern European Jewish children on the eve of the Holocaust. Ever since I'd gotten the book, the photographs—accompanied by Jewish nursery rhymes, songs and poems—had haunted me. I show it to Bert, after the waitress takes our order.
"Kids all over the world look the same," he observes, leafing through the pages. His eyes fall on a picture of beautiful children studying and then skip to a somber-faced girl somewhere in Yiddishland, her face engraved with a nameless fear. "These kids could be mine. All children look like they need protection. They need help, but they don't get it. Why? Because parents don't give a damn. They bring them into the world, and then they're on their own."
It's a dark pronouncement, maybe a confession. But then photographs are the perfect surface on which to project hopes and fears, joys and sorrows—especially when one's own childhood was stolen.
In 1938, when he was just 4 years old, Bert Jakobs' family fled Germany for Holland, the beginning of a six-year ordeal that would mark them for life. Hunted by the Gestapo, Bert would lead a life remarkably like Anne Frank's, except in two salient features: he was too young to keep a diary, and he lived.
It's difficult to imagine this bearish man with curly, silver hair, my cousin's 65-year-old father-in-law, as he must have been then, in Nazi Germany. The founder and owner of Bert's Foreign Car Service, a Santa Ana repair shop, is retired now, having sold the business to his son Ron. But he still has an iron handshake, the result of years spent wielding wrenches.
He lives in an upscale Orange County neighborhood with his wife, Jessica; he plays golf and occasionally rides his mountain bike. He sometimes works as a forensic expert at trials involving car crashes.
But beneath this life is an inner world of dark memories and primal fears. Bert is always ambivalent about re-entering that land because it means wading across deep rivers of loss and grief.
He was the last of four children, the son of a wealthy Jewish family that settled in Oldenburg, a German city of 100,000, including some 400 Jews. His father was a successful cattle dealer and rancher.
"We were quite well-off," Bert recalls. "We had a large house, two maids, a governess and a chauffeur. We lived more or less in the lap of luxury.
"My father and mother were Orthodox Jews before the war. I didn't have earlocks, like the kids in those pictures," he says, pointing to the open book. "I looked like a normal German kid. But we ate kosher meat, went to shul on Shabbat on Friday nights. We were a happy family.
"When Hitler came to power, we couldn't go to public school or participate in anything like a normal life. Jews couldn't go [to parks]. Movies and theaters? Not allowed for Jews. Moving from one city to another was forbidden. We would've had to get a permit."
I ask if he remembers the day he had to don a yellow star, a symbol the Nazis invoked to identify and isolate Jews, making their elimination that much easier.
"Of course," he says. "But we wore it proudly because we were Jews. There was no shame. I felt like I was someone special."
By the time Bert put on his yellow star, hatred of Jews had survived millennia. But an especially virulent strain of anti-Semitism had become a fixture in late 19th-century Germany, in the wake of a pseudo-science that proclaimed Jews part of a degenerate and evil race. By the late 1880s, many Germans—from peasants and intellectuals to bureaucrats and politicians—were blaming the nation's economic problems on the Jews.
It took Adolf Hitler to channel the nation's raw hatred and twisted mythology into genocide. A wave of anti-Jewish legislation between 1933 and 1935 that legitimized racial anti-Semitism and stated the ideals of the "pure-blooded" Aryan set the stage for the slaughter to come. But even in those terrible years, few believed that Hitler was capable of doing what he called for in his autobiography, Mein Kampf: the extermination of Jews.
Those Jews who anticipated the cataclysm and could afford to emigrate, did. But most lacked the money to start over in a different country. Emigrating in those days of closed borders was anything but easy. One needed a bridgehead in another country and a livelihood to survive. Moreover, a large portion of Germany's Jews felt they were Germans first and Jews second.
"Many Jews thought it would all end and Hitler would go away," Bert says, his eyes darkening. "But Hitler didn't go away."
Bert's father, Aron Jakobs, was one of those who took Hitler seriously. By 1937, he had begun to make plans for his family's escape. He briefly considered Florida but decided against it. Who knew what would happen to his family in a strange and foreign land? But because he could speak Dutch—Bert's grandparents on both sides were born in Holland—Aron felt his family would be safe there.