Horror, Hiding and the Holocaust
"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.
Los Angeles Angels vs. Seattle Mariners
TicketsFri., Jun. 30, 7:07pm
New Japan Pro Wrestling - G1 Special In The USA
TicketsSat., Jul. 1, 5:00pm
Orange County Soccer Club vs. Portland Timbers 2
TicketsSat., Jul. 1, 7:00pm
Los Angeles Temptation vs. Pittsburgh Rebellion
TicketsSat., Jul. 8, 7:00pm
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.
So in February 1938, Aron sold the farmland, the pastures, the house and everything in it for 10 percent of its value to a Nazi collaborator. A short time afterward, the family—Aron; his wife, Frieda; Bert; his sisters, Edith and Rose; and his brother, Martin—left Germany for good and set out for the Dutch border.
"It was a dark winter night—I remember that. We crossed the border, and it was nearly midnight. There were SS troops standing there, ordering us out of the car," Bert says, his voice still thick with a Dutch accent. "They were immense, those soldiers, with their helmets and gray coats. And we were very much afraid of them. We were each taken into a room and forced to strip. They were searching us to make sure we didn't take money or gold or jewelry out of the country. And I was scared."
By German law, each Jew was allowed to take only 50 marks out of Germany—enough to last a few days at most. But during the previous year, Frieda Jakobs had visited Holland repeatedly, ostensibly to visit relatives. On each trip, she had worn the same dress—a green dress that had twin sets of buttons.
"But she only came back with one set—because the second set were buttons made of gold covered with cloth," Bert says.
With some of that smuggled gold the family rented a house on the outskirts of Nymegen, a small town in southeastern Holland. Aron once again rented a farm and took up buying and selling cattle. And the children went to school, trying to resume a normal life.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Europe's Jews caught a glimpse of their terrible future. That night, known as Kristallnacht, Jewish synagogues and institutions all over Germany were burned to the ground. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were destroyed, thousands of Jews were beaten and tortured, and many were killed. And when Hitler's armies swept over Poland in September 1939, Aron was forced to rethink his plan.
"Now my father felt we weren't safe anymore," Bert recalls. "So we moved to Den Bosch, another city in southern Holland, which was behind the so-called water line. You see, Holland had inundated certain areas of the country with water so the Nazis couldn't get across."
But water did not stop the Nazis. On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland with no warning—but not by land. Thousands of soldiers dropped in from the skies; the Germans were the first army to exploit parachutes.
"I remember that morning," Bert says. "It was 4 a.m., very gray outside, just before daybreak. My father wore a white nightgown. We heard all these planes coming over. My father was standing on the balcony of his bedroom in his white nightgown. He looked up and said, 'Those are German planes.' But the soldiers were dressed in Dutch army and police uniforms."
Nazi planes bombed Rotterdam, killing more than 500 people. Four days later, Dutch resistance crumbled and Holland surrendered. In no time, the Germans appointed a civilian governor —the ferocious Austrian anti-Semite Artur Seyss-Inquart—who immediately began the insidious assault on Holland's Jews, attacking by stages their rights, their livelihoods and then their lives.
When the Nazis decreed that Jews didn't need cars, Aron rode from cattle market to cattle market on his bicycle, involving trips of 30 or more miles per day. By March 1941, Seyss-Inquart's government confiscated the property and businesses of all Dutch Jews. By summer, Jewish children were barred from public schools. And in April 1942, Holland's Jews were forced to wear the infamous yellow star.
"We were totally ostracized. If a German soldier came walking by on the sidewalk, you would have to get off. Otherwise, he would push you off," Bert remembers. "The only people who would pay any respect to Jews were the Catholic and Protestant clergy. If you came across a priest on the street and you had a yellow star, he would take off his hat and bow. He would get off the sidewalk."
Then 6, Bert had no illusions about what was happening. "My father told me the Nazis were out to kill the Jews. We knew that."
To stop Dutch Jews from fleeing the country, the Germans ordered the male adults to report for labor duty.
"My dad told the families he knew, 'Don't go. The Germans are bad news.' But they said, 'No, we will go. That way our families will be safe. We'll come back in six or seven weeks, and everything will be fine.' Well, these Jewish families would get a post card saying how wonderful everything was, that they should come over soon to be with their husbands. That's how they tricked the Jews. The families would join them on the train, and they were sent to the extermination camps."
By July 1942, the Nazis began deporting Holland's Jews to transit camps where, unbeknownst to them, they would be shipped to Auschwitz. Within a month, Bert's father found a Dutch farmer willing to hide most of the family and arranged to pay other families to hide Martin and Rose.
On the morning of Aug. 27, 1942, Frieda and Edith left Den Bosch by train at 5:30 a.m.; Aron and Bert left a half-hour later, taking off all their identification papers and the yellow stars so that no one would know they were Jews.
"We felt naked," Bert recalls. "We were not wearing a star on our clothes."
The train station was mobbed with Jews carrying packed suitcases, all reporting for what they were told would be brief journeys to labor camps. While waiting for their train, they saw another stopped on the other side with a large column of Jews who had reported for relocation. Aron would have been on that death train but for a friendly Dutch policeman who warned him to get out of town at all costs.
From Den Bosch, Aron and Bert went to Nymegen. There, near a park, they had to wait for the next streetcar.
"I remember my dad said, 'Well, let's go for a little walk.' I said, 'No, Pop, we can't.' And he said, 'Why not?' I had read the sign in the park. It said: 'No Jews are allowed in this park.' My father said, 'Today, we are not Jews.' And I said, 'I know I'm a Jew.' And he looked at me and said, 'Forget about that. Let's go in the park. Otherwise, it may become obvious that we are Jews.' So we went walking in the park for a half-hour, waiting for the next streetcar. And I felt guilty not wearing my yellow star, which I'd worn for two years."
If a German soldier, Dutch policeman or any collaborator had suspected father and son were Jews, they would've been turned over to the Nazis immediately and sent to one of the death camps. But, as with many survivors, the Jakobs' escape turned on a measure of luck. No one stopped them. The streetcar came, and they boarded it. A short time later, they arrived in the village of Bergand Dal, where they walked a mile or so down a long road to a farmhouse owned by a Christian couple—the Driessens—whom Bert would come to know as Father and Mother.
"My father pointed to a farmhouse up on the right," Bert recalls. "He said, 'You see that house? We're going to stop there for a glass of milk.' I remember I had a glass of milk and met the Driessens. And then we went into the barn."
On that morning, more than 58 years ago, Bert and his father climbed a rickety ladder in the barn and slid down to the other side of the hayloft. There, hidden under the hay, was a little trap door that opened onto a secret compartment. Bert's mother, Frieda, and his 14-year-old sister, Edith, were already inside.
It was only because of Frieda's smuggled gold buttons that the family could afford to go into hiding. Aron paid the Driessens the equivalent of $400 per month—a small fortune in those days—to hide his family in the farmhouse.
"My father paid Mr. Driessen every week. Plus, he gave them all the cattle he had and the use of all his land."
For the next two years, the family lived as fugitives. They could not set foot in the outside world, and the slightest slip-up would spell doom.
"The only time we could go downstairs was to go into the barn to use the old-fashioned toilet," Bert says. "Then we had to go right back upstairs again. We washed ourselves from a bucket of water. We never had a shower, never brushed our teeth."
There was one small window in the attic, but no one could look out. Whenever the Driessens or the Jansens—the Driessens' daughter and her husband, who lived in another wing of the house—had visitors, the Jakobs couldn't move or make a sound. "Talking was out of the question, and so was going to the bathroom. Sometimes we would sit for two or three hours at a time, saying absolutely nothing. And that was something my father drilled into us: 'You move, you're dead.' Because you never knew who was downstairs. And that type of self-discipline saved us."
The danger of discovery was constant, the tension excruciating. The punishment for hiding Jews was execution for both families. But fear was not something you could act out.
"I couldn't afford to have fear. I got that from my dad because he never showed fear under any circumstances," Bert says. "My dad said, 'We'll survive. Trust in me.' And he never let us down."
Even in hiding, life had its rituals. Each day, Aron ground wheat. The family ate oatmeal in the morning, and the flour went into bread that was baked downstairs and served for lunch. Dinner was the same each night: potatoes and onions.
"That was because my father didn't want any outside help from the Dutch Underground," Bert says. "The reason for that—and he was right—was that the moment someone else knows where you are and they get caught, they might talk."
There was no radio. But from the German-controlled newspapers came two maps of the western and eastern fronts, showing the progress the Allies were making everywhere from Africa to Stalingrad.
"The stories would say that the soldiers had moved to 'better defensible positions.' But we would look at the map and see that they had gone back 30 or 40 kilometers. The stories never mentioned the word 'withdrew.' And that was a game my father and I kept up all through the time we hid."
The days became weeks; the weeks, months; the months, years. Time passed with a mixture of boredom, fear and uncertainty.
Eight months into hiding, Rose joined the rest of the family. But Martin stayed in the other house in Den Bosch. Bert recalls his two sisters teaching him reading, writing and arithmetic. And the children made their own games: chess figures and an improvised Monopoly board. A few pieces of clothing had been smuggled in beforehand. And from burlap potato sacks, Bert remembers, his sisters made shoes and handbags.
Aron had warned his children never to go down into the barn or the Dreissens' house. But one day, when the Dreissens had left, Bert sneaked into the house. He was luxuriating in a big chair in one of the main rooms when the door opened suddenly. The girl who worked next door, a German dating a Nazi soldier, had come in.
"So I snuck behind the chair and sat there for two hours," Bert says. "I never made a sound."
The Gestapo came twice to search the house. Bert remembers seeing and hearing them. "You could hear everything downstairs," he says. "But they didn't find us."
His father had told him that every day they survived was one day closer to liberation. And on Sept. 17, 1944, 25 months after they'd disappeared into the Dreissens' secret barn loft, liberation seemed at hand. The Jakobs heard the sound of planes overhead that Sunday morning. Looking out their window, they saw dots filling the sky. American planes of the 82nd Airborne had parachuted some lightly armed soldiers into an area still strong with German troops. And then the Jakobs heard the explosions of bazookas and grenades.
"We knew that we were in the war zone. So everybody in the house moved out of the attic and into the basement of the farmhouse that night," Bert recalls. "Now there were 12 people in a small basement, and it was terrible. You couldn't go to the bathroom; you could do nothing."
That night, Bert and his father crawled from the house. They made it as far as a haystack perhaps 50 yards from the house. But the Americans thought they were Germans, and the Germans thought they were Americans. Both sides opened fire on the haystack. Miraculously, the two made it back to the basement unharmed.
For four days, they were in a no man's land, under constant fire. Then, in the early morning of the fifth day, Sept. 21, an American patrol passed near the house. Rose, who spoke English, hollered at them. Two GIs bore a stretcher with a mortally wounded soldier. Moments later, Bert watched the soldier die. After hearing their story, the GIs agreed to take all 12 of them across the American line.
They hiked along a road and up a hill, grenades exploding all around them, the bodies of dead German soldiers strewn everywhere. After crossing the American line, an Army captain gave them the house of a Dutch collaborator. Across the street was an American field hospital.
"My two sisters right away volunteered to help, and the only thing I knew was that the Americans had great chocolate," Bert says. "I went there every day and had my bars of chocolate and learned to speak a little bit of English."
Two weeks after liberation had begun, on the afternoon of Oct. 2, Aron, Rose, Edith and Bert were in the Bergand Dal town square with some American soldiers when a low-flying German plane zoomed overhead and dropped a fragmentation bomb. The explosion instantly killed Leo Driessen, Gerrit Jansen and four soldiers. It also sent a fatal piece of shrapnel into Rose Jakobs' heart.
"At first, we could not find the wound. But Rose had a wallet with money, like we all had, in case we were separated," Bert says, wiping tears from his eyes. "The shrapnel went right through that into her heart. She died almost instantly.
"Rose kept a diary that was later published. She had been the oldest and so knew more when we were in hiding. She thought the world was coming to an end. The last words in her diary were, 'I hope that a bomb will hit me so that I won't have to go on living.' And that's what happened. And that's when the problem with my family really started. Because my mother couldn't accept the loss of a child who was her star."
Almost overnight, Frieda Jakobs' hair turned white. "In two or three weeks' time, she looked 25 years older. She couldn't sleep, couldn't wake up, and she took pills all the time. She became a different person—a person who could not function."
After Rose's death, the Jakobs were evacuated and spent eight months at a farm in Wychen, Holland. Aron resumed his life as a cattle dealer in Nymegen and buried himself in his work. He left at 4 or 5 a.m. and didn't come home until 8 p.m. The farm was gone; now he leased pastures. And a veil of silence was drawn around the years they'd spent in hiding.
"We couldn't talk to him, and he wouldn't talk with us. My poor sister Edith had to take care of my mother. She was 16 years old, and it was very hard after all she had been through in the war to become a nurse and a housekeeper," Bert says, his eyes downcast. "She wanted desperately to go back to school. She'd lost six years of her youth. But my dad wouldn't let her. He said, 'You have to take care of your mother.' There were terrible, bitter arguments in our house. That's the only time we talked."
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.
"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."
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.'"
"Did you give him any encouragement or see him after that?" I ask.
Bert shakes his head.
"No. I just said, 'I hope you find what you're looking for.' And I never saw him after that. But I still wonder about something. I wonder how his father got into this country."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.