Horror, Hiding and the Holocaust

How Bert Jakobs outlived the Third Reich

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."

Bert called Carl into his office and told him that he'd seen the Nazi scrapbook. But when he told Carl he was furious, the mechanic asked why.

"I looked at this kid and said, 'Because I am Jewish.' And he said, 'I have nothing against Jews. I'm not anti-Semitic.' I told him, 'You're a follower of Hitler. Do you know what that means? Do you know what that man stood for?' And Carl said, 'As far as Jews go, I don't follow him on that.' 'Everything goes together,' I said.

"I told him to go back to work. And I called the Labor Commission and told them the situation, that I had a Nazi working for me. But the woman said I could not fire anyone over his or her political beliefs. I explained that this was an extreme case because of my background. But she said the law was the law and that I would have to find another way of dealing with the situation."

The next day, a Volkswagen came in; the owner complained of brake problems.

"I gave the car to Carl and asked him to check it out and tell me what it needed," Bert says. "I had heard metal-to-metal scraping; I knew the problem. But I didn't tell him that. The procedure for checking something like that is to look through a hole in the drum and see if there was any lining left. He looked through the hole and saw that there was lining. But he didn't rotate the drum to look on the bottom of the shoe, where there was no lining. So he adjusted the brakes and said that was all it needed.

"Well, I tested the car, and of course I found that the brakes were shot. I told him that he didn't inspect them properly, that he was derelict in his duty as a mechanic, and that I couldn't trust him anymore. And I let him go. I didn't mention the book. I didn't want that to come into play. He left without a word. He was not sharp enough to say, 'Hey, Bert, you're firing me for another reason.'

"Now a couple of years later, I was at Temple Beth Shalom at High Holy Day services. Suddenly, there's a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and, lo and behold, it was Carl. I couldn't believe he was there. And, of course, I couldn't wait to hear what he had to say. So when the service was over, I walked outside.

"Carl told me he was converting to Judaism. I asked him what happened to make him change from being a Nazi to becoming a Jew. And he said, 'Well, it'll be difficult for you to understand. But something happened a year after you fired me. My mother never talked to me about her past. She was always sad and quiet. But she took me aside one day and told me that she was Jewish.'"

Carl's father, it turned out, had been a soldier in the German army during the war, assigned to guard trains shipping Jews to the concentration camps. "But at one of the stops, the doors were flung open," Bert says. "Carl said, 'In the train car, my father saw this beautiful Jewish girl. And he took her off the train and hid her at one of the farms in Bavaria, with one of his friends.' Later, after the war, Carl's father made her swear that she would never divulge to anyone that she was Jewish. 'She always kept this as a secret. But she couldn't live with the secret,' Carl said.

"When I asked Carl why he was at the temple, he said, 'Because I am a Jew. And I want to learn what it is to be a Jew.'"

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