An ordinary man in extraordinary times, an extraordinary man in ordinary times.
Eighty years ago – on the 25th of August, 1939 – a ship called the Warszawa set sail from the Polish port of Gdynia with 70 Jewish refugee children fleeing from the threat of the Nazis, who were poised to invade Poland. As it left the harbour, the excited yet nervous children on board noticed the menacing presence of the German cruiser Konigsberg.
This was the last sight these children saw before sailing out onto the open sea and their journey to freedom and safety. For the last ten months, some 10,000 Jewish children from Austria, Germany and Poland had been evacuated to safety, thanks to an initiative inspired by former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin — the unsung hero of the kindertransport.
The children on this particular boat were among the lucky few. The Warszawa was the last kindertransport boat out of Poland before the Nazi invasion. Four days later, the ship sailed up the Thames estuary and into the port of London. And three days after that, the Germans invaded Poland.
One of the children on that boat was a 12-year-old boy called Bernard Kessler — my father.
Now 80 years on, at the ripe old age of 92, he has written and published his memoirs — Memories: Real or Imagined. It is a labor of love that he has worked on for the last eight years. In 300 pages of charming, elegant and eloquent prose, he describes his life as a child refugee, soldier, Zionist activist (he was executive director of the Aliyah Department in the Jewish Agency in London), as well as his more personal life as a loving husband and father.
This sweeping saga, covers the full scope of his remarkable life story. Born under the shadow of Nazism and the rise of Hitler, he was separated from his parents at the age of 12. He grew up in Britain, first with foster parents, then at a youth hostel in Ely of the Jews Free School. Growing up in a war situation is tough enough for any child. But growing up in a war without the comforting presence of ones parents, means growing up fast!
Ironically, Jewish refugees who were not citizens of Britain or the British Empire, were not eligible for conscription. But my father knew by then, with near certainty, that the Nazis had killed his parents, along with millions of other Jews. And he couldn’t wait to get his shot at Hitler. So, like many of his kindertransport friends, he enlisted in the Jewish Brigade, a military force attached to the British army. In fact, he tried to volunteer before he was old enough to serve. But they rumbled him and told him to wait. Six months later, he proudly donned the uniform of the Jewish Brigade and, after basic training, set sail for Italy, in a large troop carrier.
Sadly, he never did get his shot at Hitler. While he was in transit to the front, the “fuehrer” committed suicide and the Nazis surrendered. I first learned of this when I was a child myself, and for years I believed (no disrespect to the many other brave soldiers who fought against the Nazis) that Hitler heard my father was coming and simply threw in the towel!
But for my father, life didn’t end there. After some adventures and hi-jinks in the army — including being on guard duty when some trucks went missing, to be used to take Jewish refugees to collection points for Aliyah Bet — he completed his military service. Demobilization meant finding a job, meeting and falling in love with a woman, serving the Zionist cause in the Jewish Agency for 25 years and starting a family.
There is so much in this rich, exciting and moving memoir, that no summary could do it justice. Told not in strict chronological order, we learn of one man’s triumphs and tragedies. We read, in his own words, of the life, loves and laughs of a man who, even at the age of 92, has the gift of life within him and the kindness and compassion to share that gift with others.
His life, even after the Holocaust has by no means been a joy ride. But every time life dealt him a blow, he picked himself up again and came back stronger. When my mother died, we went to Israel, where he was able to celebrate a Passover seder with his siblings for the first time in 35 years. This was followed by aliyah (coincidentally on August 25, 1974) and marriage to a beautiful young woman from Kiev with a young daughter. They have been married for 41 years and are still going strong.
However, my father’s greatest virtue is not his inner strength, but his sense of humor, which neither the savagery of Hitler nor the tragedies of fate could take away from him. I remember once, when my older sister was struggling with a painful wisdom tooth and asked him if he had any, he replied “What? Wisdom or teeth?” On an earlier occasion, he claimed that his first job was at a factory making bagel holes. “Wait a minute,” asked my 8-year-old sister. “They make the bagels and then punch a hole in them?” “No” replied my father solemnly, with an absolutely straight face. “We made the holes first and shipped them to the bakery. Then the bakery made the bagels around the holes!”
And if my father’s humor comes first among his many virtues, his generosity comes a very close second. One Rosh Hashana, 50 years ago, he noticed a man (an American student) in the synagogue who did not have a machzor (prayer book). He offered to share his own, and through that simple act of kindness, my family came to know not only that man, now a professor of Russian history, but a number of others, whom we met through him.
In a very real sense, my father is, as it says in the blurb of the book, both an ordinary man in extraordinary times and an extraordinary man in ordinary times. His inspiring life-story is unique… and yet relevant to everyman.
Memories: Real or Imagined, by Bernard Kessler, is available from Amazon as an eBook or large format paperback.