The Wartime Memories of Curt Gardner

Curt Gardner (originally Gärtner) was born in Hamburg, Germany in December 1937, the eldest child of a German father and English mother.

His father was Karl Heinrich Kurt Gärtner (born 1905, probably in Heidelberg) and Margaret (Peggy) Gärtner (née Kirsop born in Walker, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1911).

Curt has traumatic memories of wartime in Germany and Poland, leading to being a refugee from the Russians towards the end and after the War. After his parents divorced, he and his brother returned to the North East of England with their mother, and naturalized. The traumas of his early life have haunted him for more than 70 years

This transcript records his memories through the War years and afterwards as he adapted to his life in England.

The video is about 71 minutes long.

Recorded in Hebburn, County Durham on 19th June 2019.

[Pauses indicated by ….]

In places, text from Curt’s mother’s notes have been added, in italics. These have been updated by Curt.

Time codes on film indicated by Hour:Minute:Second for ease of reference between transcript and film on YouTube.

Transcript: –

Curt: Well, I was born in Hamburg in Germany in 1937. My parents, my father was German, my mother was English. I like to say she was wasn’t really English, was a Geordie which is sometimes different, but they met at a dance hall in Newcastle in the Oxford ballroom and they got married a few years after that and I was born in ’37.

At the time, he was a captain on a collier collecting coal from Newcastle to take to Germany, and of course, this was the Saturday evening, was the Saturday evening dance at the Oxford ballroom.

They were married in Germany. I am not sure, I think it was ’35, 1935 [actually 1936] and we lived in …. initially we lived in Hamburg, and then my father having been a sailor, he was also a navigator, and, in those days, aeroplanes were navigated by people, by the stars and he joined Lufthansa …. yes, Lufthansa as a navigator for aircraft.

Then, when the War started in 1939, Lufthansa was taken over by the Luftwaffe and he therefore became a navigator on transport aircraft initially.

Michael: Yes. You came along in1937, what were your earliest recollections at that time?

Curt: Well, my earliest recollection was really when I was …. I must have been nearly 3 …. because I remember being on a train with my grandmother and my mother being on the platform waving goodbye and the reason for that seemed to be that my mother must have been pregnant because in January 1941, I think, yes, my brother was born in Berlin, so we were  obviously living in Berlin at the time and I stayed with my grandmother in   Hamburg and it was Christmas time because there was a Christmas tree there and I couldn’t quite reach the  bar of chocolate on the top of the sideboard.

So that is my earliest recollections. She was very good, she provided me with semolina with spots of jam on, and so on, really very nice. The problem she had was that she tried to wash the windows once (before I was there), wash the outside of the windows of her flat, and over balanced and fell down, broke a hip as a result.

Michael: Right.

Curt: The consequence of that was, she should have gone to hospital but because she was a – what do you call these Christian, Science Christian?

Michael: Yes, Christian Science ….

Curt: “Christian Scientist” that’s it, thank you. She thought it would all be done by faith. Well, it never was, and she hobbled for the rest of my life. However, that was 1941.

Michael: Yes. So, there you were by that time in Berlin, what was going on there at the time from your child eyes? 

Curt: Well, as a child I remember going to the   zoo and it was it was a very pleasant childhood in those days. I remember once being taken into the, into the street nearby and there were lots of cars going past and I was told that Adolf Hitler was in one of the cars as they were flashing past, but it didn’t mean anything to me.

But shortly after that, there were air raids in, in Berlin and it was a bit of a novelty really because we would, all the lights would go out on the street and we would go and stand on the veranda and look outside and watch the …. lights of, the searchlights moving across the sky looking for aeroplanes, and then at times we could hear the anti-aircraft guns attempting to catch these people who were either passing over or were dropping bombs.

Michael: Yes …. and so, did you go to shelters?

Curt: Yes, whenever an air raid was due, we would get to know in different ways. Either the radio would become totally silent and we’d say, “Well, something must have caused that”, or there was the air raid siren or there were warnings on the radio saying bombers approaching from certain direction, assumed to target a particular town. And then, if we knew that …. sometimes we were all right, but other times, we would get dressed quickly and we would run downstairs into the cellar where, usually because of children, we had   to get dressed, and the rest of the people from the flats were already there.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: And on one occasion, we were sitting there and listening to the aircraft going overhead, and a bomb just dropped either on our house or next door, we were not quite sure which, with a terrific crash and the light bulbs swung and the ceiling came down and it was quite unpleasant ….

Michael: Yes of course.

Curt: …. but, we had, in the corner of the, of the cellar, the wall had been broken down and that was, the purpose of that was an escape in case you had, your building was hit; and so, that was the direction we went into.

But those were my earliest recollections of the war. 

Michael: And was your house destroyed?

Curt: I can’t remember, I know we were moved …. No, I don’t think, I don’t know, I know we moved to East Prussia after that, where my father was stationed, because it was considered to be a well away from Berlin, but we kept the flat going obviously because, in accordance with my mother’s records, we kept going back in the summertime or vice versa, we kept going back occasionally.

Prussia


In the summer 1941 we thought we would be safe in East Prussia. My brother was six months old while I was three and a half.  However in June 1941 Russia was invaded by Germany.  The following year (1942) leaflets were dropped on Berlin in the summer by the allies warning of increased bombing.  So we went home packed some valuables and necessities as we could to stay with the peasants in West Prussia for the winter, a little further away from the Russian front.


Then, later on, we went to West Prussia. While we were, there were some British prisoners of war, and my mother, she mustn’t have had a head screwed on properly, decided to find these prisoners of war. She found them; they were picking potatoes. So, she went potato picking, bending over and she got talking to a chap called Thom, that was his second name, I forget his first name.

[David Thom, Gordon Highlanders, was a prisoner of war at Stalag XX-B at Malbork (Marienburg) in West Prussia]

He was a Scotsman and he said they were planning an escape and so she says, “Oh, I can help you”, and she provided them with my father’s binoculars and my father’s maps of bombing raids into Russia, and …. which was very naïve of her to do that. But, on one side, they managed to escape and got back home very well, and they visited us on one occasion when we came to England (jumping a bit there) but when my father found out that his official maps had had gone and could be traced to him, he was quite angry and quite violent with my mother because we were aliens and we would have gone to a concentration camp and so would he ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: …. because he was married to an alien and obviously his maps had gone to the enemy and he would have been really big trouble after that.

Michael: So, did anything happen or was it ….

Curt: No, it was never discovered and so   nothing special happened as a result of that, other than this chap and his family visited Whitley Bay in Northumberland and called in to see my mother.

00:09:24

Michael: Yes, one hears of travelling in Germany at that time, you had to have passes and all that sort of stuff but how was your mother able to move around? Was it simply because your father was there?

Curt: Well, obviously with him having the position he had, she was able to, we were to move but any details of our, of that I am not aware of.

Michael: No.


One of my memories of those days were mice running up the curtains and the farmer’s wife preparing bread dough in what seemed to be a huge trough.  At the meal table she would hold the loaf against her body and cut thick wedges for the farm workers and for us. 

I suffered from asthma and it was thought that it was caused by polluted air.  So I was taken on a flight in a Luftwaffe aeroplane to breathe the clean air at altitude.  It only lasted perhaps an hour but it was not a pleasant experience for me.  There were no chairs and nowhere soft to lie down only a blanket on a hard metal surface; it was very noisy with a number of other Luftwaffe personnel present.  As curious children do, I pressed a button and was admonished for my curiosity.  Later I was sent to a children’s convalescent home in mountains where the air was considered to be pure but I was very lonely.  It seemed that other children would get mail from their parents every day, and I did not.  I was there only for 14 days but it seemed much longer.  In the afternoons we would all have to sleep on camping beds arranged in rows outside in the fresh air.  To ensure we did sleep we were wrapped tightly in blankets so it was not possible to move.


Curt: Eventually, we were moved, we were eventually moved to Silesia, Lower Silesia, which is now part of Poland, because it was well away from the Russian front and it was well away from Berlin and the bombing, and so this was obviously a place of safety and of peace and quiet. We lived there for about two to three years ….


In the autumn we all travelled on an l4 hour rail journey to my German grandfather Paul Gärtner. He had been able to find us accommodation in a tiny village called Nicolschmiede, near Halbau.  We settled in the quiet Silesian countryside just to the west of Auschwitz.  The countryside is flat and very sandy.  There we lived in a little farmhouse, well away from towns that might be targets for bombing.


Silesia 1942 – 1945

Michael: So, there you were in Silesia, what was your mother doing at that time? Was she, was looking after you and your brother?

Curt: She was just looking after my brother and I ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: She had been a teacher in England, and I remember she was attempting to teach me to read. I was six or seven by that time and I had great problems and the number of times she read the story, I was eventually repeating it verbatim, instead of reading it.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: But   she was there, and I started going to a school there, which was a village school which was fascinating in the sense that there must have been about 20 odd young people there, from me being the youngest to older ones, and sitting in rows, and each row  was given some work to do, while the teacher was teaching the others. And so, it was five classrooms in one or three classrooms one, I’m not quite sure which. So, we lived there in a little farmhouse which had a thatched roof. The farm had belonged to a farmer who had given it to the local Bürgermeister in exchange for being allowed to live there for the rest of his life and being provided with food. So that was his pension really.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: And we lived there and it being a thatched roof, there were mice in the, in the roof. There were mice everywhere and the, the toilet was an open toilet, outside in the open, but it was in a building, but it was a dry closet …. and my mother would grow vegetables and use some of that manure to fertilize the vegetables, but for food we used to …. my mother used to dry apples and plums for the wintertime and also do some preserving. I don’t know how, where she got the knowledge from, but she must have the knowledge from people somewhere.

Michael: Yes.


We were allocated a rough straw thatched cottage of two rooms and a kitchen on the edge of a huge forest extending for many miles.  We were also given coupons for the minimum of furniture and household necessities.

The area was well away from towns that might be targets for bombing and began to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the countryside.  We had no radio and so knew very little of what was going on in the world.  This isolation together with the escape from Berlin, with its tensions and air raids was one of the happiest and most peaceful times in mother’s life.

The farmhouse consisted of a large bedroom, a smaller one for Helmut and me, and a kitchen where we spent most of our lives. In the front of the house was a great old lime tree spread its branches from which we gathered lime blossom for tea and medicine.  The small windows all had thick green shutters.  Outside was a well, worked by an iron pump that kept us supplied with water and twenty yards away was a very draughty dry closet (or netty). 

The focus of the kitchen was the stove.  This was built of brick to waist height with a metal door in the front near the top where the fire is.  Below is an opening where the ash falls.  The top of the stove consists of a flat iron plate that has concentric rings nested into each other and a disc in the middle.  The fire was directly underneath the rings that would be removed depending on the differing sizes of pots to be placed there for cooking. 

There was a box like container on the floor of the stove into which mother would stuff kindling, light it, close the iron door and when it had burned away, rake out the ashes and put in the bread to bake in the hot space.  In summer when it was hot and with hordes of flies in the kitchen, she would wrap up the dough and carry it on her bike with us two children sitting on the carrier at the back, to the baker in the village of Halbau. While it was being baked in the bakery while we did some shopping on the ration cards. 

It was heavy work carrying water from the well for all the household uses.  Baths were taken once a week in a small zinc bath into which mother could just put her bottom, legs dangling over the side. 

Through a communicating door into the old farmhouse lived Oma and Opa Arold, an old couple in two rooms.  The farm used to belong to them.  Both were over 80 years old, very primitive, rather dirty and smelly, but we loved them both very much.  We often washed our feet at night, as we walked barefoot in summer.  One day when doing this Opa walked through the communicating door and stopped dead with a look of shock on his stubbly face.  “Ach, du lieber Gott Frau Gärtner, you should never do that – I once washed my feet and got my death of cold.”

He also believed in witches.  When he had this small farm he had a witch brought out from the next village and she cured one of his sick cows.  He could also easily get rid of the thistles in that there field, by burying the afterbirth of a cow in the middle of the field on a midsummer night.  He also told me that when his father was alive he had seen a fiery dragon flying across the night sky. 

Oma Arold taught mother all the various wild edible herbs and toadstools to supplement our diet as there were no vegetables grown in the area except potatoes.  There was also a bush outside our cottage, the leaves of which tasted like Maggi soup flavouring, possibly lovage.  Mother also dried toadstools, apples and pears for the winter and hung them in a bag with their clothes on the back of her kitchen door.  When Oma Arold went to her bag of dried herbs to give some to us but they were gone!  Well, of course, Opa had an old stinking pipe and he had smoked the lot, just as he had smoked the rose leaves in summer.  `If either Helmut or I said a rude word, our mother would wash our mouths out with soap!  We then would go to Opa and Oma who would give us a piece of rye bread spread with homemade black treacle to sweeten our sorrow.

If either Helmut or I said a rude word, our mother would wash our mouths out with soap!  We then would go to Opa and Oma who would give us a piece of rye bread spread with homemade black treacle to sweeten our sorrow.


Curt: One of the things she was particularly successful at, was learning the German language, because she had to blend into the background, so that nobody would understand that she was an alien, and she had to teach my brother and I German so that we didn’t by accident speak English and give the game away. But things were changing on the Eastern Front because the Russians were advancing on the Germans, the Germans always thought the Russians were non-people really, and they were quite callous and unpleasant towards them, which gave the Russians plenty of propaganda,  anti-German propaganda, so, as civilians we were always very much afraid of the Russian threat coming in. And from what I can gather, it was not a misplaced threat because they were quite brutal towards the civil population.

There was one occasion …. I think it was the end of 1944 when information from my father who was by this time navigator on bombing raids on Stalingrad said that they were having problems with invading Russia and he was actually the last aeroplane out of Stalingrad under fire and as a result, he and the rest of the crew were given some sort of an award for bravery for actually achieving that.

Curt’s father in Luftwaffe uniform.

One of the unpleasant memories …. when he was talking to our mother, was the Germans didn’t have enough food for their, for their own people or only just, and so they had no food for their prisoners of war who were in compounds out in the snow. And they were literally freezing to death.

Michael:These were Russian Prisoners of War?

Curt: These were Russian prisoners of war. And the …. prisoners, therefore, some of them resorted to eating the flesh of the dead comrades …. which was not a pleasant thought, but I often wondered which part of the body did they eat first and how did they eat it? How did they manage it? But I was a child. 


By now December l944 – we were aged 7 & 4.  It was Christmas.  We were sitting at the kitchen table with a single paraffin lamp standing in the middle casting shadows on the walls.  We were dressed in thick jumpers as it was cold.  The fire had gone out because we were running short of wood and brown coal. 

The village consisted of a few scattered farmhouses, cottages with smallholdings enough to produce food to feed each family.  It had been a bad summer and the harvest had failed.  There was little corn to make flour and bread.  We were nearly out of potatoes.

Outside it was snowing and, as always with snow, there was absolute silence all around especially in the country.  Mother was telling us the Christmas story and apart from her voice, there was no other noise.  The shadows moved on the walls as the paraffin lamp flickered.  All was still. 

We nearly jumped out of our skins at the banging on the door.  We looked at each other our eyes open wide.  Mother looked anxious.

She stood up, walked across the kitchen, and slowly drew back the blanket that was covering the door, pulled back the bolt and opened the door.  There framed in the doorway was the tall dark figure of a man.  The icy wind was blowing in the snow and making it colder still.  Hospitality being what it is in that part on the world mother bade him to come in.  He lowered the large pack from his shoulders, nodded to us boys and sat down on a chair by the stove.

In that part of the world, you always cared for travellers.  They were always made welcome and offered whatever they needed.  After all, there were no hotels, guesthouses, and inns were few and far between.  What made an offer of hospitality even more important was that there were stories that Jesus was wandering on the earth and might need help.  After all, he did rise from the dead after the crucifixion.  I was also possible that Joseph and Mary may have also been on the road needing shelter.

Mother fetched the wood allocated for the next few days, lit the fire, lifted a couple of rings from the top and placed a kettle there.  She then knelt, pulled his boots off to reveal cold feet covered in wet cloths.  It was usual to fold a triangular peace of cloth around each foot before pulling on the boots.  She placed the cloths on the edge of the stove, dried his blue feet with her long apron, and covered them with a jumper. 

It had been a bad harvest for everyone in the area.  She had pleaded with the farmers but had not been able to get any more bread or potatoes.  But she fetched out the last of our loaf, cut a slice and spread some plum jam on it.  He munched in silence as she made a mug of ‘Ersatz’ coffee.

As it was already late, we went to bed and left the man sitting by the dying fire.

‘Bed’ was a sack filled with straw we each had in the next room.  We didn’t take our clothes off as it was too cold, and just pulled the blankets over and went to sleep.

Now if you have ever slept on straw mattresses you will know that it makes a lot of noise whenever you move.  So we woke up as mother stood up.  She smoothed her skirt and went towards the door into the kitchen.  The powerful light coming out of the kitchen from around the door had obviously woken her.  We followed her into the kitchen and where we were met with an amazing scene.

The room was full of light from candles set around.  It was warm and cosy from a blaze coming from the kitchen stove.  The fire was so strong that the iron top was red hot.  On the top was a pan of potatoes boiling merrily.  We could smell a goose roasting in the oven.  In the far corner of the room was a sack of potatoes, a sack of flour and a huge pile of dry wood.  On the table was a loaf of bread, a lump of butter, some Christmas biscuits, and a carved wooden soldier for my brother and me.  However, of the man there was no sign.  Mother pulled the blanket back from the door, but it was still locked from the inside.  She checked the windows but they too were locked on the inside! 

Who was he?  Where had he gone?  Whatever had happened that night we shall never know.

The Trek

Written by Curt’s mother:

Just before Christmas 1944 I had to go to the nearest town Sagan by train to get the boys some boots with our coupons.  Leaving them with Opa and Oma I tramped the 3½ kilometres through the forest to the railway station at Halbau.  I took the train to Sagan where the POW camp was, about which so much has been written and filmed in the Wooden Horse (The Great Escape).  I could see my own people (British Prisoners of War) in the ground behind the barbed wire and the tall watchtowers. 

In later years we came to realise that it was somewhere west of Auschwitz and not far away from Stalag Luft III at the town of Sagan.  This was the place of ‘The Great Escape’ in 1944 which was, after the war, made into a film.

One morning earlier in the year, I had taken my daily walk across the fields to the farm for milk.  At the farm kitchen door and next to it on the sill of the window a paperback book in English.  I took it inside and asked where on earth it had come from?  Eighty men had escaped from the Sagan POW Camp and the farmer had found one of them in the barn. The man had left this book – I could have it.  I hurried lack to the cottage and took a basket ostensibly to gather sticks.  I walked through the woods nearly all day whistling the tune of “Pack up your troubles” in the hope of helping him but there was no response. A few days later I heard they had all been caught and 50 officers had been shot.

Well, I got the boots for the boys, rather large.  The children went barefoot for most of the year to save boots for bad weather.  But when I returned to the station I was appalled!  The platform was packed with a silent throng of peasant women wearing white head squares and long dark clothing, with their bundles and their children by their sides – some carrying babies.  The silence was uncanny.

Until then I had been socially very shy but now felt   impelled to speak to one or two of them.  They were refugees.  The Russian front was approaching and they had fled towards the West in the bitter cold and snow or had been forced to leave their homes by the German political Commissars of which each village and town had a representative.  They had come so far and were waiting to be told what to do next. 

Some days later a peasant woman and child knocked on our door.  I don’t know what her nationality was as she could only use sign language asking for food.  To my North Country horror of showing emotion publicly, she knelt down and kissed the hem of my skirt on leaving.  I felt very humble I realised much later that she was probably one of a forced labour group trying to return home. 

If the fighting front came closer, what was I to do?  My mind was in turmoil.  Already I had had two huge men with slit eyes and flat broad cheekbones, dressed in blue grey uniform, knock and by gestures ask for food and drink.  I had given them what I had – a pan full of potatoes boiled in their jackets, a pot of barley coffee and rye bread with black treacle, which I had made myself from sugar beet.  They had then left as silently as they had come. 

A Hungarian farmer herding his brown woolly sheep had passed through one evening in the dark.  The stories that filtered through from the refugees were horrifying and have no place in this account.  We certainly did not want the same experiences.  The Russian Army was advancing much to the fear of all in the village.  For some days we could hear the rumble of guns as the German Army fought a rear guard action against the advancing Russians.  There was a lot of anxiety in the air.  Adults were talking in subdued tones.  I explained the situation to the boys as best as I could. 


00:15:23

Curt: But January came of 1945 and it was pretty obvious that the Germans were in retreat. They eventually approached us, they had gone through Poland, and eventually they were so close that we could see the wood on fire behind us, and the problem then was, how were we going to flee to the West because it was winter time, there was snow on the ground and you couldn’t possibly walk away. It was just impossible. And so, we thought, well we perhaps could try and catch a train but there were no trains. And there was a train due in from the West to bring in more troops and we said, well, if they bring in the troops, we will get on the train and go to the West. However, before that happened, a train coming from the East, from behind the Russian lines, broke through with a German crew on, and they were stopped our village. And then, there was a terrific argument because the Army wanted the train to take troops away back to the front, and we said we wanted the train to go West. The local political commissar, Gauleiter, I suppose he was called, was able to pull rank and we went on this particular train of …. we’re not quite sure what it was …. there are open wagons ….

Michael: Yes.


I quickly fetched Frau Lehmann and all 5 children and we waited on the platform.  Great soft snowflakes were floating down in the darkness as the open wagons of a goods train entered the station.  Men moved about shouting orders and carrying flaming torches – the only light.  Seizing the opportunity to escape, the whole village, harbouring mixed feelings of relief and panic and not considering what might lie ahead other than the promise of safety, rushed towards the open wagons.  The side were unbolted and let down and we scrambled on.

Children first, luggage next and ‘mums’ last.  The whole village scrambled into the open wagons oblivious of the frost and the falling snow.  Once we were on, the sides of the wagons were closed and bolted on the outside (as there were no facilities for locking them from the inside), and the train left. (A fortunate escape.) There must have been about 15 to 20 people in our open wagon. Curt had had fainted and for one frantic moment I thought that he was dead!  When I recovered my composure we sat on our possessions and covered ourselves with a blanket to keep out the frost.  But the snow kept falling on our faces.  Mothers just murmured softly to their children as the train moved off.  We ignored the frost and falling snow and were simply relieved to be moving westward out of immediate danger. 


Curt: …. and the wagons were opened on the outside, because if you transport animals or something like that, you wouldn’t want them to open the door …. open from the outside, and everybody piled onto these wagons and we then started off going West.

It was snowing at the time (I remember the snow falling my face) ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: …. but my mother thought (I was just reading her notes the other day) that I had died, I had collapsed and died. But in fact, that I had only fainted, but she thought I had died and therefore, she was obviously very distraught and …. it was just a side-line of some of the stresses that were around. So, we travelled in these open wagons with the snow coming and the freezing temperatures for about three days. Shortly, getting onto that, and I always remember I needed a pee. Somebody had brought a potty. Well, I couldn’t possibly – I mean a seven-year-old ever so bashful – I couldn’t possibly use that, but they hung blanket in the corner, and I was able to have a wee. The problem was then that there were 20 of us in this particular wagon and everybody wanted to wee and everybody wanted to do more than a wee, so this potty was passed around, used by people and the contents tipped over the side.  My mother’s notes said that there was much laughter and frivolity at the prospect of having to do this.  Obviously, the atmosphere was a positive one.

Michael: Yes.


There were many stops and diversions as the driver had to find a way round the various derailments.  Night came and the snow started again.  It was freezing, but the chamber pot was much in use.  We travelled in the open wagons feeling cold, wet and weary and longing for warmth and security.  Eventually on one of the many stops we found ourselves amongst other trains one of which consisted of passenger carriages but no engine.  It was argued that “somebody” would put a locomotive on it and that it would be warmer inside especially if the driver put on the heating.  So we decided to commandeer the train.  Someone opened our wagon.  Then someone from our wagon opened the next and so on down the train until the whole village had been freed.  We took possession of the carriages with their hard wooden seats.  But while the temperature was still below freezing there was no chilling wind and the toilet was private.  Our engine driver eventually coupled to our carriages and the train pulled away stopping at railway stations on the way filled with soldiers. 

Next morning we stopped at a station where, with a milk can in my hand, I fought with other women for a watery soup that was being dished out.  We shared it with the Lehmanns as we did all our food.  After four days travel making diversions or waiting, most of our food was finished.  On the last night Frau Lehmann shared her last bread with us and we sang lullabies to the children. 


Curt: But it was jolly chilly.  There was no hot food and the only food you might have had was sandwiches. So, on the way, we had many stops because the railway lines had been blown up and the driver had to find a different way of going. We went back and forwards to find different lines.   

Eventually, we found a passenger train with no engine on it, but we all decided to get into there because at least it will be free from the frost and the toilets were private. I have missed something off, I forget what it was.

Michael: It might come back to you.


The next day wore on and we arrived late that night at another station.  The station was empty.  No sooner had we arrived when around 22.00 hrs the city lights went out and there was utter and complete silence.  The sirens wailed. An air raid!  Then all pandemonium broke loose and the bombing started.  It was 13 February 1945 and the first of two air raids on the town of Dresden had begun. 

This city of no strategic value was being bombed by the Allies.  With an amazing presence of mind the train driver, who had kept his boiler fire going, reversed our train, packed with refugees, out of town in the direction from which we had come.  Slowly and with immense relief we inched our way out of Dresdenand watched from a distance as the whole city burned like a gigantic inferno. The whole city was burning from the effects of napalm bombs that burnt alive between 30,000 and 50,000 people. The memory of the event still haunts me.  From the distance we could see the whole sky was red and marvelled at the fortunate escape we had had (another miracle). 

It was my turn to lie down full length as space had always given to the children.  Even through my closed eyelids I could see the red glow.   The night that Dresden was bombed is a night. I will never forget. 

Perhaps this was the occasion when Curti remembered the prayer:

Lieber Gott, mach mich fromm, damit ich zu dir, in den Himmel komm.” 

(“Dear God make me holy so that I can join you in heaven.”).. . .”  It was certainly a time when we all prayed.

Once again we were saved by what seemed in retrospect like a miracle (another miracle), one of a number which happened to us on our trek to the west.  Fifty years later Curti met a woman who, as a child, had been in a similar train about 7 days behind us.  They had heard of our train entering Dresden at the time of the air raid and not knowing of our retreat in the dark and thought we had all perished in the fire. 

When morning there came another wave of bombing of what remained of the city but by that time our train had been re-routed to the small station of Meissen where the wonderful Dresden porcelain is manufactured.  At the station were farmers and peasants waiting with their carts and we were driven off.  The Lehmanns travelled to their relatives in Leipzig. 


00:20:16

Curt: It might come back. So, we carried on and eventually the train driver managed to negotiate his locomotive to collect the passenger train, passenger wagons, and off we went. And, eventually, we arrived at a town and it was night-time, and we’d only just arrived when the lights went out and the air raid siren started. It was the first air raid on Dresden, and we were right in the middle of Dresden in the, in the railway station. So, the driver with a tremendous presence of mind, he had kept his …. well, we hadn’t, his fire was still going in the engine. So, he put a bit more coal on and reversed out of Dresden [just in time] and we could see …. just …. the glow in the sky as Dresden was burning. 

[The raids on Dresden took place between 13th and 15th February 1945.]    

Afterwards, I was told there would have been between thirty and fifty thousand people had been burnt alive, because the first wave of aircraft were by the British and they used napalm bombs which burn the skin. So, the whole city went up in flames. When I did a little bit of research as an adult, there were a lot of photographs of people who were either asphyxiated, just immobile wherever they were, looking over a pram at a child. They just stopped, or bodies of people who jumped into pools or swimming pools and in the hope of escaping the heat, but the heat was so hot, the swimming pool dried out and the person in it was burned to charcoal.

I saw a photograph of a figure obviously contorted in agony   just black all over.

So, we came out of there – few years later actually (that’s one of the things I wanted to remember), a few years later – many years later, about perhaps about 30 years ago, I was at a dinner party in Whitley Bay and one of the people there was a university lecturer. He had been told by one of his students that her grandfather (she was German), that her grandfather when he was a boy was fleeing from the East from the Russians and his parents had had gone to a railway station somewhere and wanted to board a train going West to Dresden. He created such a stink, he screamed and howled, so the family I had to abandon getting on that train.

This student said that afterwards, they were pleased that that had happened. It must have been an act of God that that boy was so angry …. afraid, because a train went, full of refugees went into Dresden and were burnt alive. So, when I heard the story, I just couldn’t help but react and in a peculiar voice which didn’t sound like my voice at all said, “No, they didn’t die because I was on that train.” Well that’s just stopped the party didn’t it?

Michael: Yes.

Curt: Anyway, so when the train went on again, we went to another town and the train was an emptied and we were taken off by farm carts to different parts of the local countryside.

Michael: Yes. 


We arrived at a tiny village called Mertitz near Wahnitz and were billeted with an old peasant couple called Herr and Frau Burckhardt.  To their great astonishment, the three dirty refugees promptly laid down on the bare floorboards of their living room and slept deeply for hours.  We were safe, or so we thought.

After, several hours we awoke refreshed and after our first wash in four days and clean clothes looked more like ourselves. The elderly Burckhardt’s looked at us with less suspicious eyes, as we changed from dirty looking tramps into a quite respectable young mother with her two children.

Frau Burckhardt took us up the bare wooden staircase to the room where we were to sleep.  It was small, bare boards with only two single bedsteads in it and sacks of straw as mattresses.  There was one window, no curtain, and a two-inch crack running through the masonry from ceiling to floor, so that there was an elongated view of the hillside and plenty of free fresh air!  We had one corner of the room while in the other three were other refugees. Once again we were living again with an old peasant couple who was scraping a living from a few acres.  We had to register as always with the police, which was compulsory when you change your address.  You fill in a form in triplicate of which copy must be signed and stamped.  In the evenings, when the children were in bed on the floor, heads to tails, we sat on wooden chairs around a scrubbed table and chatted about ourselves, the war and anything else we had in common.  The small country town called Lommatsch where I had to shop was a three-mile walk away.  For the first few weeks it was quiet and restful except for the beautiful golden angels of planes, gleaming in the clear blue sky.


00:25:15

Curt: One of the memories I have of that place – I have a few memories – strangely enough, thinking of a lot of people of these things and going back, things come back. I remember train, local train and we used to put a coin on the railway line, and it would flatten the coin.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: But I remember going to a school, I was obliged to, and there was barbed wire on one side, on that side, on the left side of the road and somebody in there looked out and said something to me.  I had no idea what they said, but when I got home that evening, I said, “You know, there was this man and he said, Hello Ginger.” My mother said, “What?” It was a POW camp with, obviously, British soldiers in there and she had me walk past. “Don’t look whatever you do, don’t look over there.” Because you couldn’t identify yourself too much, because by this time she was beginning to understand about revealing too much about herself.

The other memory I have of that location was when we arrived, we were given a room with three other families in the room, and each family had a corner. Well, you can’t stay in the room all the time or can’t carry your bags around with you all the time, so, when we were out on one occasion, somebody had obviously gone through our belongings and found my mother’s teaching papers. She had left everything behind except the papers which qualified her as a teacher; and they had found this and had gone to the local political commissar, I forget the proper name. I keep calling him a Gauleiter, but I don’t think that’s the right name.

This  man turned up and he wanted to take my mother and my brother and I off to a concentration camp. So, they had a tremendous argument and then she pointed out that she’d done more for the German Reich than he had done because he was an old man and she was, had two young strapping lads who were going to become Hitler youths and eventually soldiers and etc etc.

So, that situation was defused. He says, “Right, I will come back”.  By this time, we weren’t allowed to move without having permission from the Burgermeister. And the Burgermeister happened to be the commissar so she [my Mother] walked to the nearest town for the Ober-Burgermeister and found him in his office outside working hours and explained to him the problems she had. He said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll make a phone call, everything will be all right.” Sure enough, everything was all right.  

But we couldn’t trust what was going on and the Russians presumably weren’t too far behind us, so my mother borrowed what they called a Leiterwagen which was a four-wheeled cart, wooden cart, with a handle on you, can steer it, and pull it with. And we put our two sacks of belongings which consisted primarily of featherbeds because featherbeds were worth having. We then started to walk westwards from then on, from just outside Dresden all the way west to Heidelberg, where my father, I think he had been born there, and my grandmother was still living there.

The rest of the journey there took us right until …. well, it was from February to June when we arrived – if I remember correctly.

Michael: What year was that? Was it ….

Curt: 1945 ….

Michael: Yes …. 

Curt: And …. it was a hard time because we had no food and we had to go begging. I never liked begging and I still don’t like it. When I see somebody begging …. now, I just wonder how they got into that condition, but what is it that makes them now, in the 21st century beg for some money? I am uncomfortable with that; but we had to do that and what I did, I used to stay with the Leiterwagen out in the countryside somewhere while my mother and my brother went into the villages to beg for food.

Usually we got food which was often simple food. I remember one occasion, I was called from the Leiterwagen. “Oh yes, there is cooked food here.”  It was flour soup which is hot water with a spoonful of flour in it, which tasted awful. But it is the sort of thing you remember.

On another occasion, we’d walked so long with a crowd of wagons, we were not on our own because were the deserters, German deserters, there were more refugees and the people who had come from farms and if you if you think of the Wild West scenes of covered wagons, well, it was a bit like that with wagons with sloping at the side which was very unpleasant to sit in.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: But they had a cover on. One place we stopped at with this whole caravan of people, they tried to wake up the farmer. My brother had actually fallen asleep standing up. He was propped up against the wagon and had absolutely fallen asleep.   Sleeping in barns in the Wintertime in straw is cold, and it’s not a very pleasant situation. But Spring came and things became a little warmer, the snow disappeared, it was easier to walk.

00:32:30

However, pulling the wagon (my brother was four and I was seven), we couldn’t give her much help, so she was having to do all the work. As we did not have sufficient food, she was getting weaker and she was struggling. But we were ahead of the Russians. That was the important thing.

We were terrified of the Russians. We were in a place where we were told, “You are in the American sector now”. So, thank goodness for that.

We were given a room and we stayed there. Then one day, I remember I was playing in the street and an armoured personnel carrier came through the village from West to East, and the Americans had contacted the Russians to say they were withdrawing so many kilometres, because the agreement had been that they shouldn’t come so far.

So, the Americans withdrew, the Russians came in and we were actually in Russian territory now, with all the unpleasant things that would happen to the women; the jewellery was taken and any valuables, you had, were also taken. This was April – March, and I remember that because one evening my mother told my brother that we have got to be quiet. “No noise, don’t run around, I’m just going to a local farmhouse”, and she did.

There, they had managed to hide a radio because all the radios had been confiscated but this farmer has managed to hide a radio and there had been reports that there was to be an announcement.  I think it was the 1st of April.

The announcement did come. My mother said that there were so many people in that one room, she could not physically move. The announcement was that Hitler had died and that was, I think, was the first of April 1945 ….

Michael: Probably, the 1st of May ….

Curt: First of May, was it?

Michael: or thereabouts, certainly, he died ….

[Adolf Hitler died on 30th April 1945, announced probably on 1st May 1945]

Curt: I’ve got the wrong date then, thank you for that; first of May and then of course the German Admiral Dönitz surrendered formally seven days later.


One day a curious thing happened.  I was told that there was an American POW had taken refuge in the schoolmaster’s house.  As we were in German territory what was an American doing here?  So that day I went there to enquire but the schoolmaster’s wife was very wary.  However she promised that if I called again in the evening he would be there.  It turned out that he was not an American but English! 

That evening, I entered’ the schoolmaster’s house and met a young man in khaki.  I spoke to him in English,

“Good evening, I am English.” 

He looked at me warily.  So I said,  

“I come from Heaton, in Newcastle, my name was Kirsop.  Where do you come from?” 

And to my amazement and delight he said,

“Cullercoats!”  (A few miles from Newcastle.)

He was in love with the beautiful daughter of the house and they were going to escape to the west.  After a happy evening of chatting to Robert Hart in my own language I left, for them to go their own way.


Anyway, we were back in the Russian zone. So, my mother went round the different refugee groups to see what they were going to do. She came across one group of about five or six people who had bought a wagon and an old horse and who were intending to flee during the night. She said: “Look, can I come with you?” “Oh no, you can’t because we’re going to be held back by children. We don’t want that.” So, she produced her teaching papers and said, “Look I’m really English. I will help you on negotiating through any of the checkpoints that we may come across.” So, we were accepted with some reluctance.

And so, we got up in the middle of the night. I remember, there was a bucketful of boiled potatoes between eight of us. If you were hungry, you’d have a boiled potato. But we were off.

We managed to get through the various checkpoints and there was one checkpoint in particular with an American soldier. A checkpoint by the way could consist just of an armed guard, just checking the papers of people going through. He said, “If you go a kilometre further on, there is a Russian camp there and the Russians are transferring everybody to a labour camp. If you want to go there well that’s the way to go.”

My mother said, “Well, we want to go to the American zone.”  He said, “The only …. all the access in that area is controlled by both Americans and Russians, except a mile back. If you go through a particular country lane, you’ll come to a stream and there is a bridge across the stream, and it is only got one American guard on it.” 

So, that is what we did.

My mother tried to negotiate with the guard, the GI, to let us through, but he had instructions not to let us [anyone] through. Eventually, she managed to convince him, and he said, “Well look, I’ll turn the other way and I won’t see you then.”

So, we then uncoupled the horse from the wagon and we only just got the wagon across that narrow bridge by just inches, apparently. Then we were back in the American zone.

On the way ….  the four people, we were travelling with, we didn’t ask who they were, because we never knew who they were. However, one of them turned out to be a friend of Dr. Goebbels’ family. Goebbels was the [notorious] Propaganda Minister. So, she had a good reason for keeping quiet, by association.

Another one was a tank commander, a German tank commander who hadn’t any papers. So one day, apparently, we went to a Bürgermeister’s room, all of us crowded into his office. There was a real reason for that. We [children] were also brought along. I was told to misbehave …. misbehave …. and while this actually was taking place and the Bürgermeister had his back turned, looking for something behind him, somebody picked up his stamp and stamped up a blank [travel] pass for the tank commander which gave him a validity he had a …. now a pass, in effect a Reisepass,  which is a passport.

So, they were happy, but it also meant, because we had been to this Bürgermeister, we could get food – we had permission to buy food, if there was any available.

We had a lot of GIs, a lot of lorries of American soldiers going past on the road and sometimes, they would take pity on us and would throw us their iron rations which were all in a sealed in …. in …. in wax, and then we would get one of these …. a lunch meant for an individual, and we would open the packet and share the box, eight of us.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: On one occasion, my mother’s notes say that we came across a place with a lot of plums and something else …. So, everybody gorged themselves on plums. The problem was that bowels did not appreciate that, and because out in the open there no toilets, so, “Everybody walk on while I just stay behind for a minute.” And of course, there were no newspapers or toilet paper. We had to use grass or the best you could, which wasn’t very easy.

There was something else …. it’s just for the moment I’ve just it’s just …. One of the things I remember being in the American zone, I was playing on burnt-out tanks and …. I overheard the adults saying that these Americans are peculiar people, they even have chewing gum. What is chewing gum?  Gum is rubber; so, I found a piece of black rubber and I tried to chew it. Well it was a bit of a tyre from …. from a lorry and I decided that wasn’t for me.

The other memory I have was walking along a country road …. you see, I have memories and I can’t always recall them easily now, but they keep coming back ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: Walking on country road and on the right-hand side was a convoy, a German convoy, or what had been a convoy of lorries and vehicles of all sorts.  They were riddled with holes because obviously they’d been strafed. So, we were walking walk along this particular road and we saw an aeroplane in the sky, and we sort of watched it carefully, and then it turned around and it started coming towards us. We all ran to the side of the road, as far away from the centre as we could, because that aeroplane was not friendly. It was obviously determined to get us. But it didn’t. But at the time, I remember I got my ears boxed because I should have gone to lie down where my mother told me to, because she said she was going to lie on top of us so that any bullets would  be stopped by her body. Of course, thinking about it now as an adult, it would never have done that. It would have gone straight through her. However, that’s the way she was, and so, I got into trouble for that.

00:42:58

But this …. these memories of the bombing and strafing are problems I suffer with now, which is why I get emotional. Because they have really sensitized me in a way, I never thought it was possible. So, a year or two ago, I was in France and an aeroplane came past and then turned round. I thought it was going to be for me.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: Another occasion in this country, I found I was standing behind a tree. “What the Hell, are you doing behind the tree?” It was only a police helicopter going overhead and I was hiding. Just automatic reactions.

Another automatic reaction was, I had been to Theatre Royal [Newcastle upon Tyne] to watch the ….

Wendy (his wife): Glenn Miller ….

Curt: The Glenn Miller story. Thank you. It was all good and jazzy and the Americans were the …. just actors dressed up as Americans, but it took me right back ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: …. to those days. Nothing wrong with it …. it was, it was bit strange to be reminded of where you …. where I was when I was aged seven, eight and nine but it was okay. But the end of the story was an air raid. The siren went, and I remember so many sirens in Berlin and the bombs fell – good sound effects in the theatre. But I was on the floor hiding, you know, an adult just reacting like that instinctively ….

Michael: Of course.

Curt: …. not premeditated.

So, it’s left its mark on me in a way; but we carried on walking westward towards Heidelberg. Then my mother couldn’t go on anymore. She was so ill partly with heatstroke, because by this time it was June, I think ….  excuse me ….  and partly with lack of food. So, we left the Leiterwagen at a railway station to be collected later on, and we took the next train towards Heidelberg.

Of course, there were no passenger wagons, so you just sat wherever you could on a wagon, goods wagons, legs hanging out the side, and we arrived in Heidelberg where my  grandmother had been. She had been a very prominent person. She used to own pre-war in the 1920s, the Hotel Prince Carl which was a watering hole for European aristocracy, and when the inflation period came in the 1920s, she lost it all. But she was still a well-known figure. The Prince Carl Hotel still stands but no longer as a hotel, but now as a municipal building.

Heidelberg

So, we eventually found her. The account of my mother says we went to a particular street and she wasn’t there; then we went to another Street and she wasn’t there. We went back and forwards across the river by boat because the Germans had blown up the bridges to stop the Americans advancing. Eventually she managed to find somebody who said, “Oh, Frau Gärtner, she lives in a certain street.”

So, we went there, and she rang the bell and the intercom said, “Yes, what you want?” and she says, “I am Frau Gärtner and I’m looking for my mother-in-law.” “Oh, she’s in the garden.”

Curt and Helmut with their mother in Heidelberg (1947).

This bit of my mother’s story always makes me upset. Nothing horrific. But she says she went into the garden and there were a pair of legs underneath or behind a bedsheet being hung up to dry.  It was my grandmother. We were safe.

After that, well, we were safe anyway. Being refugees, we were allocated a room eventually, but again there was no food and my grandmother took me along with her to visit the various farms who used to supply the hotel and say, “Have you not got some potatoes?” “Oh no, Frau Gärtner, we haven’t anything.” “Ah, well surely you have got something, enough for yourself, so we can have a little bit for us.” I was passive there. It wasn’t as painful for me begging with my grandmother because she was doing the begging, as it had been with my mother.

Eventually there was no food. But my mother had been enterprising and there was an American Hospital in Heidelberg, so she went there, and she says, “I can speak English. Here are my papers, my teaching papers.” And she was given a job as an interpreter, because they employed a lot of Germans for doing various tasks and eventually, she became the Personnel Manager. Now that is a high-profile thing and if you’re employing people, it can be a difficult thing.

Now the three of us were living in a single room in Heidelberg and I remember people would knock on the door and come in and say, “Can you get us a job?” “No, I can’t do that.” “Well, I’ll give you something.” They were promising all sorts of things and one that I remember in particular. This man brought out of his pocket an egg. He says. “I will give you this egg if you give me a job.” I don’t know where he got the egg from. My mother said: “No, you …. I can’t do that.” “Well, I’ll give you an egg a week if you give me a job.” “No, I can’t do that.” And eventually, this person went away. But that was the sort of value that people had on them.

We were, once we had registered with the authorities, we were given food parcels which had been produced by the Quakers through an organisation, Quäker Hilfe, I think it was called. Then that was replaced by the Red Cross bringing food parcels and obviously mainly financed by the Americans, who financed the war …. generally.

So, we saved up a lot of food parcels in that way. On one occasion, we actually bartered one for a featherbed.

Another memory I have, I was, was dressed and I had my hair combed and washed and I had a bag, a shopping bag with a newspaper in the bottom. “Don’t disturb the newspaper, don’t talk to anybody, don’t do anything, just go to such and such a shop and ask for Herr so and so. No questions, just do it.” So, I went to this shop with my bag.” “Yes, what do you want?” “I want to speak to Herr so and so.” “Oh yes, come in the back.” Underneath the pieces of paper was some money which had been sent from Hamburg by my father to buy American cigarettes and I was a courier. So, I had this bag with the cigarettes, a couple cartons of cigarettes, plus something for me too, a newspaper on the top and I was stopped by the Americans.  I thought, “Oh dear ….” But it was just sundown and they were lowering the American flag and they expected pedestrians to stop too. So, I was all right, but they had …. my parents had made contact with each other.  Because she had written …. I don’t know how she …. I know at one stage there was no post and she would take the letter to the railway station to see if anybody was going to Hamburg. She would give that person the letter for that person to deliver the letter. How they got in touch …. I think he must have contacted his mother and said, “I’m in Hamburg.” He had surrendered to the British. and was living up there in the British sector. 


Curt wrote:

Mother then told me that we would be going to England in September.  In the event it happened in October. 

Holding the ship’s rail as we left the German Quayside I watched the lonely receding figure of my father waving goodbye with his white handkerchief. Fighting back the tears I stood still until he was lost from sight. This painful image is still with me …. years later.


00:53:39

England

Curt: Eventually the, my parents, we moved up to Hamburg, my parents were divorced and my brother and I and my mother came to England.  

That was a very painful part …. but it was the beginning of another difficult time of our lives. Not the same difficulty but there was a lot of, this was 1949. There was a lot of anti-German feeling this country.

Curt with his younger brother, Helmut, c.1949.

We had to go to school.  Well, I was …. ’49 …. 12 then and I sensed the anti-German feeling. So, I did not argue, just kept out of the way. But my brother didn’t, so he was in a lot of fights. He was three years younger than me but because of that, we had to change our name. We thought it was wise to change our name from Gärtner to Gardner, the only difference is you take off the umlaut over the ‘a’ and the ‘T’ becomes a ‘D’. And I was registered because of …. I was a young lad. I was registered as an alien and had to report the police station in Newcastle every now and again to say that I am still here and haven’t escaped or whatever.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: It was a difficult time because I had to deny my German background, my German language, the music and things like this. It was homecoming for my mother in one sense that, when she went [to Church], she was an Anglican and when she went to the Church, she wasn’t allowed to take Holy Communion because she was divorced, and it was high church. The Sunday School was in the afternoon.  

Now, we went to an Anglo – German club which had been set up by the Quakers for German POWs who wanted to stay behind and who had made contacts in this country.  She went to keep up her German language skill and she was talking to this man on one occasion, and said “I want my kids to go to Sunday School, but it is on a Sunday afternoon and we have been used in Germany to go for a walk on Sunday afternoon. It is a social occasion …. family time.” He replied, “Our Sunday school is in the morning. She asked, “Well, who are you?” To which he replied, “I’m a Quaker.”

So, we started going to a Quaker Sunday School. Cutting a long story short I’m a Quaker now. So very briefly, from what I can remember off the cuff, that’s my German story.

00:56:51

But there is more, because we had to settle into this country, and so ….

Michael: Tell me a little bit about that, I mean because you were 12 years old, your brother would have been nine, presumably, at that time. It would have been a big change for you.

Curt: It was a massive change. First of all, apart from the coupons and pocket money and the strange coins …. The big copper pennies and things like florins, crowns and half crowns and things like this. It was, it wasn’t easy, but I learned the language, particularly by …. we had to live with my grandmother, grandparents, and because we were restless young kids …. we were shoved out in the back lane and this is where I learned my English. I had learned my English; I had a little bit of English before we left Heidelberg. They tried to teach it in schools, but I had never had schooling before, so learning was a difficult thing anyway. We settled in and lived with our grandmother, grandparents for some time before and then we got a flat of our own in Byker.  I must have been about fifteen then because I left school and became an office boy.

One of the consequences of all that was, I was office boy, but my mother had to come to, felt she had to come to the personnel manager to give me a job, in case there wasn’t a job, and by the way, he comes from a divorced family. There was a stigma there all the time.

When I started work …. of course, my name is Curt. “Oh, we have got another Kurt, an …. the ex-POW down in the Light Assembly Shop.”  The company, C.A. Parsons, employed 10 thousand people or thereabouts, but they all knew about that one man. Now, they knew about the second man [German].

Michael: Yes.

Curt: So, I became recognized. Well, not because I was a particularly outgoing personality but red hair, German. But it meant that cumulatively, I have become an outsider. Wendy, my wife, may not agree with that, but unless you walk in my shoes, she won’t know what it is like.

I was an outsider in Heidelberg when we first came off the trek, because I was a refugee. And they resented refugees coming in and taking away their rooms and the kids who were there who weren’t refugees, they had toboggans and …. not roller-skates …. what do you call them? Scooters.

Michael: Yes.

Curt: I didn’t, so I had to keep borrowing theirs, so there was a bit of a difference there. When we came to England, there was this anti-German feeling and there were all sorts of things I just can’t remember off-hand.

Eventually, it became a way of life for me. In the 1950s, there was still a lot of strong feelings between religious communities and so, I was a Quaker. So, if that person was an Anglican, we had to be careful because …. you know …. We used to go and chase the Catholics. There was a Catholic school. “Yeah …. get the bricks and throw them at them”. It was still that sort of atmosphere.

So, I was still an outsider and that continued on into my adulthood. I can’t offhand think of examples of it.

Michael: So, you’ve, do you feel you’ve always been an outsider?”

Curt: Yes, I do, not as a kid, but now I …. I’m in a lucky position just now. I am married to Wendy who is a Catholic and she has a most wonderful group of friends. They are not any old Catholic group, but they were a Catholic group, about 30 odd of them with charismatic leanings and the bonds that developed were very strong, especially living in the same village of Hebburn. They know each other, they brought up the kids together; their kids know their kids.  It is a very closely-knit community. And by marrying Wendy, I became part of that community and having learned to keep a low profile, I was eventually accepted by them, not that they were ever against me in any way.

It’s just that somebody would now say, “Well, you remember that Curt? Oh, no, you were not here then.” I have been integrated so much that it is as if I have been part of the group anyway, which is a lovely feeling. It’s …. I’ve never had that before ….

Michael: Yes.

Curt: It’s a feeling of being included which is wonderful.

Michael: You have been in this country 70 years?

Curt: Yes, I’m coming up to my 82nd birthday now.

Michael: Yes.

Wendy: Your Saturday night ….

Curt: What?

Wendy: Your Saturday night club ….

Curt: Part of my time with the Quakers, I grew up with them …. I was dragged up by them really, because I had never had a regular family life and so, there was no …. my mother was always out, my father wasn’t there and so discipline was exerted by my grandfather and grandmother …. very little of it. But being at this Anglo-Germany Club, which was held on Quaker premises, this lad and I used to explore and there were only two of us, so we would go right round the building and on the roof and wherever we could, and we discovered there was a badminton hall as part of the premises.

And …. there were people playing badminton. So, we just sat and watched. So, these people in their late teens, early 20s …. Excuse me …. [Blowing nose] …. would play badminton and then, when they stopped for a cup of tea, Alan and I would get the racquets and play badminton till they came out. Then we would scurry back again. So, every month or whenever it was this …. we went, we would do this, until eventually these young people didn’t ever ….  didn’t appear and so, we went exploring.

We found the cupboard where they kept the badminton the gear, and the two of us played badminton. Then, we thought, well, it’s not much fun just two of us, so we invited the kids from the Sunday School to come to the Meeting House to play badminton, table tennis, snooker …. It was all there.

Parents must have asked questions, what about supervision? There was no supervision. There was just a crowd of us. My friend that I would be, as I said, unruly and would be on the roof and be all over the place. The meeting eventually decided we would need some sort of supervision. We resented that.

So, I remember spending hours making a black notice board with skull and crossbones on the top, saying we’re independent. However, in the end, we were controlled very gently in a very subtle way, it was amazing. We resented some of the initial people coming in but then, there was a little man came, he was no higher than any of us, so he was acceptable.

That youth club eventually grew to about 30 or 40 young people, because people would bring their friends along. Then, we would put country dance records on. We would do some country dancing and so that, that Saturday night club carried on for years and years until I was, I don’t know, until I must have been about 40, something like that. It was 20 or 30 years anyway, which was, which was good. Yes, it was   very good.

Michael: A large amount of your story is really around the legacy of the War and how it’s affected you. What would you say to people today, youngsters today, who are going out into the world …. the sort of things that you would advise them to do, if you like, to lead a life that’s not stressful, if you like, and maybe something like that could make them successful. Do you have any advice for young people today?

Curt: That’s a difficult one, the answer is yes and no, the important thing is to be yourself and to accept other people irrespective of their backgrounds or their beliefs. That is very important because in my 30s, I worked very extensively with Quakers in the ecumenical movement trying to encourage the Churches to work together harmoniously and to a lot of extent, it has happened. It has stopped now because the impetus has gone. It is the extreme views which cause problems, and it’s not just extreme views but also …. which are fuelled by ignorance.

There is very little one can do about somebody who has never been taught something different because one of the things that we do without questioning it, is if we’re given some information that sounds authoritative and we’ve never had that information before, then that is the truth.

It doesn’t matter what it happens to be, whether it is political or whether it’s religious, if somebody says that is the truth and then, you accept that.   Unfortunately, a lot of things like that happened with people and now people say, “Well so-and-so have taking our jobs away; the immigrants are taking our jobs away.”

Michael: Yes.

Curt: Well, they’re not taking .… they are doing jobs which the locals don’t want to do. But because they were told that and as it appears to be like that, then they accept it. So, advising young people, travel as much as you can, and learn different cultures and different views. That is the only way I think you can, you can understand.

Michael: Curt, thank you very much for sharing your life. I think you’ve done fantastically well.

Curt: Thank you very much.

Michael: And thank you very much for doing it.

Curt: Okay, it was my pleasure.

Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Michael Thompson and Curt Gardner.

Footnote:

Curt’s father was German born, Karl Heinrich Curt Gärtner,  probably in Heidelberg on Christmas Day, 1905. He died in 1986.

For Karl to have a job, he would have had to present what was known as an Ahnenpass, an Ancestor Passport, a form of Aryan Certificate.

The pass gave information on all his ancestors in an Ahnen-tafel, going back 5 generations, each person being numbered, up to 63 persons in total. In addition, each page would be devoted to each husband and wife, and their marriage.

The ideal was to have all 63 persons listed with and stamped to confirm that the information was officially genuine. Unfortunately, records were rarely complete because they had been destroyed in the past. This footnote shows some examples of the pages that were found in Karl’s Ahnenpass.

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Author: mjthompson2017

Since retiring from Civil Engineering some years ago, I took up film making professionally. Now, I have retired from that but will continue to work with WarGen filming War Memories as long as I can, even though I am in my 70s.

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