Ken was born in November 1922 into a liberal Jewish family. His father ran a private music school in Frankfurt and played the organ at the Synagogue.
Ken’s early years were very happy; he had three elder brothers and his father’s music school prospered despite Germany’s inflation and unemployment problems. However, once The National Socialist Party came to power, Ken noticed a difference in the way he was treated at school.
Quite rapidly I became a second-class citizen and I was not allowed to participate in all the lessons, which the other boys did. But in fairness to the other boys I was in class with, they did treat me reasonably fairly. There was some, of course, who called me a Jew or a dirty Jew or whatever, but I was actually still accepted by the other pupils at that school until I had to leave it towards the end of 1936.
My best friend was called Heinz Jochen Stiege. He kept up with seeing me… but he joined the Hitler Youth like all the other boys did, and by 1936 when he invited me to his birthday it was a separate birthday party especially for me and one or two other boys, who also knew me and accepted me. So there was this separation then, which was a little bit hurtful.
Ken’s father was very aware of the political situation and, although it was forbidden to listen to broadcasts from Britain. By the late thirties he was sure there would be another war and wanted his family safely away from Germany. His second son Walter, a left wing university student, took his saxophone and clarinet, fled to Paris in February 1933 and became a street musician, never to return to Germany. He played in a band in Singapore when war broke out and fortunately for him he was interned and sent to Australia just before the Japanese occupied Singapore. His eldest son Hans went to work in North Africa in 1934 but had to return to Germany when his work visa expired in 1936. As he suffered from asthma he was unable to emigrate and perished in the holocaust with his parents.
After Ken’s school would no longer teach him, his parents hoped he could emigrate to Palestine and decided to send him to an agricultural training camp in preparation.
I actually passed a test and was accepted to be able to go to Palestine, but at the same time a cousin of mine, who was in England, had found somebody who paid a fifty pound deposit into the funds of a Jewish committee to sponsor me to come on a Kindertransport to England… and my parents thought it would be better for me to go to England.
The relevant documents were received confirming Ken’s place on the Kindertransport leaving Frankfurt on 25 August 1939.
The day before I left I was having singing lessons from my father and I sang the final aria from the opera Tosca and the words of the lyrics actually say, “I have never loved life so much but now I must die“, and I was singing that in a tenor voice as I always did and as I sang out the high C at the top of my voice, I turned around and for the first time in my life I saw my father crying. I suddenly realised properly as a youngster what was happening.
My mother took me to the station at that time. I shall never forget that because she was not allowed to go on the platform and she had to stay at the barrier, no one else was allowed to come.
I leant out of the window, saw my mother standing all alone crying by a pillar and when my mother waved goodbye, that was horrendous, and that was of course the last time I saw her –
On arrival at London’s Liverpool Street Station, I was taken over by a committee member who took me to a lady’s house where there were four or five other boys staying like myself and then a week later we were sent to Margate – Cliftonville – to a hostel for refugee children. I was there with many other children and there we heard Prime Minister Chamberlain, declare war on the third of September. About two weeks later I was summoned to the Town Hall of Margate in front of about ten or twelve good citizens who interviewed me… I was sixteen then, and I looked much younger. I was sitting there in the centre, in front of a horseshoe table and they asked me why I was in England, what I was doing and all sorts of things like that, and suddenly came the killer question which utterly shattered me, “would you like to go back to Germany?” I actually burst into tears and said, “for God’s sake don’t send me back to Germany. I have only got here about a few weeks ago and at least here I can walk about freely and needn’t be afraid of members of the Hitler Youth standing at corners and beating me up on the way past them. My parents can’t get out of Germany because my father is blind and he can’t get a visa to get into any other country in case he becomes a liability. If you send me back I shall probably be killed eventually by the Nazis, so please don’t do this.” And they said, “well, don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s quite alright. We won’t do that and we will actually classify you as a friendly enemy alien, and if you go to the police station tomorrow you will be getting a book, an identity book, for that and then you will be quite alright and don’t worry.”
At the end of 1939, Ken was sent to a refugee hostel in London also funded by a Jewish committee. He found work as a houseboy at a boarding house in Swiss Cottage after the job was advertised at the labour exchange for a week, and no English boy could be found willing to take on the job, he was given a labour permit. He worked 87 hours a week for 7 shillings and six pence plus his board and lodging.
But I was always very happy to be free and to be in England. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced being a second class citizen and being scared to walk down the streets will realise how important it is to feel free and despite the fact that the war had started and that I spoke with a very, very strong accent, I was accepted by everyone, I was absolutely accepted as an equal. Nobody ever assaulted me; nobody ever called me a “filthy Jew” or a “bloody foreigner” or anything like that. It was absolutely marvellous.
When the Blitz began in the East End of London, Ken decided to find employment elsewhere. In December 1940, he found work in a factory, cutting uniforms. In 1941, contact with his parents suddenly ceased and Ken’s aunt in the USA wrote to him.
She sent me a letter which had been published in a German refugees magazine in America that my parents and my eldest brother Hans had been deported to Poland and that they assumed they had been killed on arrival… Of course, that shocked me terribly and that made me decide that I have got to do something, and that’s when I volunteered for The Army.
Ken joined 87th Company Pioneer Corps and began training at Huyton Camp near Liverpool.
Then a regulation came through that aliens or foreigners who want to join fighting units may do so once they had been interviewed. So, of course, I wanted to be in a fighting unit because I felt my parents and my brother had been killed and I wanted to get my own back so instantly I volunteered. I chose tanks because I felt it would be nice to be in a tank and then you don’t have to carry all your kit… after an intelligence test and agility test they accepted me… and I was trained as a wireless operator in the RAC (The Royal Armoured Corps) at Farnborough.
There was only a little anti-Semitism and some of “these bloody German Jewish Refugees”…but all the other things were just friendly comments at times. I mean for instance when I had joined the 1st RTR and was on a tank crew, we were very friendly, we were mates… The guys would say “come and have a look at our tame Jerry at a penny a time” – but these were very friendly comments. I must say I was always very well treated and I always felt I was part of the group.
Just when we knew we were going to join the tanks an order came through suggesting that those of us who had volunteered should change our names, because if you get taken prisoner with a German name you wouldn’t stand much of a chance. As all my kit had been marked with my initials KRW, I had to choose a name with those initials. I chose a name which was very common and did not stand out in any way. We were issued with dog tags (identity discs) which you carried on a chain round your neck. The disc gave your name and number and in the centre your religion, to ensure you were buried in the right grave. In the centre of my disc was a large ‘J’. I knew I would have to get rid of my disc if I was ever taken prisoner.
After six months intensive training, Ken joined the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, part of the 7th Armoured Division that had recently served in Africa and Italy.
The crew on my tank looked down on me a little bit – not because I was Jewish or German or anything like that, but simply because I was a rookie who had never seen an angry man before… But I learnt and as soon as I learnt, I became more accepted by them.
Ken was posted to Normandy. The Sherman Firefly tanks were waterproofed in the huge grounds of Orwell Park School, a private prep school near Ipswich, which had been evacuated. From there the tanks were driven to Felixstowe, taken across The Channel by LST and on 7th June 1944, on D Plus 1, landed on Gold Beach at Arromanches. The tanks were brought close to the beach on Rhino ferries and the waterproofing was discarded on the beach and the tanks moved into Normandy.
On the second or third day there, things quietened down a bit. We were parked in a field and we were sitting behind our tank, brewing up, and a German soldier came crawling out of the ditch next to me, and he had been lying in the ditch for at least 24 hours. He was dirty and soaking wet and he looked terribly old to me, but he was probably only 30 or 35 and he was so scared, I could see. He thought he was going to be shot and not taken prisoner. I had made my resolution, “I am not taking any prisoners“, but when I saw him, and saw the fear in his eyes, I couldn’t do anything. As we were just brewing up tea, I made him a mug of tea and that’s how I learnt my first lesson, that although the Nazis had killed my parents, he hadn’t done that. He was just an ordinary soldier fighting the same as I was.
The first major action Ken saw was at Villiers Bocage.
We were moving along a hedge and as we came to the end I looked to the right hand side and I saw two German Tiger tanks pulling out from a hedge further down. I called out to Les, the tank commander who said: “Oh, cor blimey, look at those bastards there! Christ, lets get in there and make sure we get them.” The gun was already loaded and then we started firing at these tanks, hitting one front on. I ran out of armour piercing shells on my side and he shouted: “never mind, never mind what it is. Just put anything in and fire!” So I got some HE (high explosive) shell in there and the gunner fired at these two German tanks as we were moving. Then because the gun sticks a long way out, as we were moving quite fast, we hit a tree with the gun and the turret started spinning round very fast, smashing the traversing gear, which put our tank out of action. I was very lucky that I was standing with my feet on the turret platform and not on the floor, as my feet would have been cut off.
When the Regiment had broken through Normandy, they advanced towards Belgium. In September 1944, Ken witnessed the parachute drop at Arnhem and from Holland entered Germany.
It was Christmas 1944, which was a cold, cold winter and we were dug in in a place called Sittard. We were expecting to be attacked in a pincer movement because the Germans were attacking the Americans in the Ardennes further south and we were on a standby… I was in a fox hole on Christmas Eve and I could hear the Germans sing Christmas carols in German and I found that very disturbing and moving in one way, but I also felt, “I am now on German soil and we are getting rid of the Nazis.”
Eventually they headed for Hamburg where the surrender was being negotiated. In a nearby village, Ken became aware of what was known as the ‘Adolf Hitler tree’ planted there by Hitler many years earlier.
I went to the nearest farmhouse and I got the chaps out and said, “look, I want this tree chopped down. I am not having that tree here, get on with it quickly.” And they came out and chopped that tree down. They took all the timber away because they needed timber and they were very pleased to do that. It gave me great satisfaction to see this memorial tree of Hitler’s chopped down. This was one of the things I liked.
They went through Hamburg to Schleswig Holstein and the German Army surrendered there on 5 May 1945.
I was still purely in a tank crew with the other soldiers and we tried to sort things out before the Military Government people took over. The squadron leader called me over and said: “Well, we really ought to separate out the SS and the Nazis from the ordinary soldiers. Go round with the only one other chap who can speak German and see what you can do. So I went round trying to find special Nazis, which was, of course, very difficult, but we had to try and keep order. I found out later, that a tall German Airborne officer with an eye patch, in the German army hospital I inspected, was in fact Heinrich Himmler. Unfortunately I did not recognise him at that time.
When the War in Europe ended, Ken volunteered to become an interpreter. He was attached to the British Military Police in Berlin and eventually joined the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) investigating crimes committed by British soldiers against German civilians and damage to British property caused by Germans.
I met a lot of Germans when I was stationed in Berlin and that probably changed my attitude, and I met a German non-Jewish girl there – a Christian girl – and we weren’t actually allowed to fraternise to start with, but we did, and then eventually I decided to marry her. Hildegard had not been involved in any Nazi activities and she came back with me when I was demobbed as a war bride, and then we had problems when we came to England because she was not accepted so easily by the British people as a war bride… That was in January 1948. Eventually the marriage broke up and I married Joyce, an English non-Jewish girl and now have two English sons, one son from my first marriage, and an English daughter.
I am not only contented but I love this country, I love this country dearly and I love living in England, and in one way I feel perhaps a little bit better than an English person who is born here because he is English purely by birth, but I am British by choice, because I love this country so much.