Horror, Hiding and the Holocaust

How Bert Jakobs outlived the Third Reich

When she was 17, Edith left for Amsterdam. Martin had already taken a job back in Den Bosch. Bert was left alone with his parents. But he couldn't make them happy.

"I was 12 at the time, in the sixth grade, and I just could not grasp how to help them. I wanted to be as normal as possible. But going back to school, I was very anti-social. I was always in a shell, very suspicious of everybody, not letting anybody come close. I was an outcast. I hadn't been with kids my own age since 1941. . . . I couldn't talk to anyone. I was the only Jew in my class, and there was still a lot of anti-Semitism. Kids said, 'Dirty Jew' or, 'Why didn't the Germans kill you?' Out of 24 kids in my class, I must've fought 22, one at a time. . . . That was my only answer, to fight."

Before the war, Aron and Frieda Jakobs entertained frequently, hosting elaborate dinner parties and card games. But the Holocaust forever changed that.

"Most of their friends ended up in concentration camps," says Bert. "My parents never smiled again after the war."

When he was 16, Bert went to college to get away from his father as much as to learn. In Apeldoorn, he studied mechanical engineering, specializing in automobiles. In 1955, a year after graduating, Bert left Holland for the United States. At that time, a lot of Jews, fearing Communism, were emigrating to the U.S. and Canada. But Bert also wanted to get away from his memories.

"I wanted to go to the land of the free—a democracy where something like this could not happen again," he says. "And I have not been disappointed. I have never looked back."

He arrived in New York and moved near Chicago to be with relatives. Less than a year later, he moved to Lakewood, California, where he worked as a mechanic for Cadillac, Volkswagen and Volvo. And in 1956, he got married.

"I knew Jessica for three days and then asked her to marry me," he says, smiling.

His first son, Ron, was born in 1957. Five years later, he opened his own auto-repair shop. By 1966, he had two other sons—Gary and Lee.

Bert's mother died in 1968; in 1980, his father—the patriarch whose leadership had saved the family but whose silence had helped shatter it. Bert was left with a raw mix of love, regret and hate.

"The tension my parents were under from 1938 to 1944 was so intense because we didn't know from one day to the next whether we would survive," Bert says. "My father was strong and raised our hopes all those years. But he was domineering and hard on us. And I was a rebellious teenager.

"I never got physical abuse, but mental abuse—I got plenty. And mental abuse sticks with you longer."

I ask Bert if he feels his father's darker qualities—his need for control, his intolerance—characterize his relationship with his sons.

"In many ways, I'm different from my father, and in other ways I'm not. I feel I picked up his good traits—he was a straight shooter and a man of his word. He never reneged on anything," Bert says. "But I was intolerant, too, and intolerance is always going to backfire because it leaves no room for maneuvering."

Intolerance divided Bert's family back in the early 1980s. Bert's eldest son, Ron, got involved with Ilona Erhardt, a German woman he met in Big Sur whose father fought in the German army. The way Bert recalls it, Ron announced one day that Ilona was pregnant. Bert was opposed to the relationship, but Ron eventually married Ilona anyway. Neither Bert nor Jessica went to the wedding.

"'What you're doing is putting a knife in my back,'" Bert remembers telling his son. "And Ron told me, 'You are not my father anymore.' For a long time after that, we didn't talk."

"My parents considered us dead; they didn't honor the marriage," says Ron, now 42. "Both of my parents basically disowned me. But once we had a child [Benny Jakobs, now 16 and living in Germany], they wanted to be a part of my life. And the weird thing is that after I divorced Ilona, my dad and mom got really close to her. It's like they were making friends with the enemy at a time when it was safe."

"The fact that she was German played a role. Plus that she was divorced and much older than Ron," Bert says. "I felt that I was right. But if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't do the same things I did then. I eventually realized that in my feeling of righteousness, I had accomplished nothing. I had driven a wedge between myself and my son, and I was also hurting my grandson."

Like many children of survivors, Ron has tried to make sense of what happened to his father. "We would get into these fights all the time, and he picked on me. But I don't have the energy for that anymore. I know he hated his dad—he was under his thumb and left as soon as he could. I think his father was smart and savvy, and that helped save them from the Nazis. But my grandfather was also strict and was never really there for his kids. He never told them he loved them.

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