Horror, Hiding and the Holocaust

How Bert Jakobs outlived the Third Reich

"My dad told me the price he paid to be Jewish and told me and my brothers that we had to honor that," Ron says. "He may have thought my marriage to Ilona was a betrayal of his trust. But my dad betrayed me, and he did it more than once.

"But I don't know what's going on in his mind. I don't know if he has friends he can talk to because he's a loner. And I think he uses the past as a crutch and a way to excuse his behavior."

Everyone who experienced the Holocaust came away with deep wounds. And many feel guilty—they wonder if they are worthy of survival. Bert readily acknowledges that his own trials were small compared with those who endured the death camps and death marches.

"Their scars are much deeper. By comparison, mine are light," he says, almost apologetically.

In 1985, nearly 30 years after he left Holland, Bert received an unusual invitation. A Christian organization from his hometown in Germany asked that he come, all expenses paid, to bridge the gap between Germans and German Jews who left the country after the war.

"At first, I didn't want to go. But both Jessica and Ron said if I didn't try it, I wouldn't get the feeling of hate out of my system. And they were right."

Edith wouldn't come, but Martin, still living in Holland, did. Ten relatives Bert hadn't seen since 1938—now living in Argentina, Chile and the United States—came.

"We were wined and dined. They took us to the cemeteries so we could visit our grandparents' graves. They wanted to communicate with us more than anything else. So every day we had meetings. They felt terrible."

On Nov. 9, 1938, during the terror of Kristallnacht, Oldenburg's synagogue burned to the ground. Now, on the ruins of that spot, a monument was unveiled.

"The monument's inscription said, 'Don't we all have one father? Weren't we created by one God? Why do we hate each other?'"

Bert wipes his eyes and stops for a moment.

"Well, this old man came up to me while we were standing there, and he started to cry. He was not part of our group, so I went over and put my arm around him. I was crying, too, now. And he said, 'I feel so bad. I fought in the German army, and I was on the Russian front. And we all did terrible things.' We don't know if he was a Nazi. Maybe he was just a soldier who fought. So many Germans had to fight; they were conscripted. They'd been indoctrinated with hatred for Jews for 12 years—told how to hate us and why they should hate us."

Near the end of the trip, the survivors were asked if they would speak to an assembly of German high school students. Some refused, but Bert agreed.

"I told the students I had blue eyes like many of them did, and five fingers on each hand. And I didn't have any horns coming out of my forehead. I said, 'What is so different between you and I? We're all human beings. Forget that I'm a Jew, forget that I'm an American. Forget that you're a German and a Christian. We're all human beings, and we have to live together. We have to tolerate one another.'"

A year ago, Bert joined a group called the Child Survivors of World War II, which meets once a month in members' homes. Some people talk about their experiences; others just listen. Some survived in the forests, like wild animals; others in convents.

"It's a closed meeting—outsiders cannot get in. Even spouses can't come," Bert says. "The group has helped me to deal with my own problems. I've changed a lot. I used to see everything black and white; there was no gray area. But now I want to see the gray area—the middle ground where people can live together and accept one another for what they are. Live and let live. It's a simple message. Be kind to your fellow men."

One day, Bert calls to tell me a story. It's about a former employee of his, a man we'll call Carl.

"Carl came into my shop one day, some years back, wanting to be a mechanic, and asked me for a job. He knew something about cars. He'd been to some kind of trade school," Bert says. "He was quiet, and he seemed to be honest. And so I took a chance. I put him to work, and he worked out quite well. He wasn't really sharp, but he wasn't dumb, either."

Three months later, Pete, one of Bert's other mechanics, asked to talk privately with his boss. Pete was carrying something Carl had given him at work.

"'This is what Carl does on his weekends,' Pete told me, 'when he's not working for you.' And Pete handed me this scrapbook filed with Nazi propaganda. It had swastikas, pictures of Brown Shirts and Nazis shooting at targets. It made me angry that something like this could happen in my business. Pete wanted me to get rid of Carl. He said he didn't want to work with someone who had those beliefs. And neither did Tony, my other mechanic. But I said I first wanted to talk to Carl."

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