Otto Decker’s Family, 1962
Still, there are some childhood memories of feeling distant from him, of wondering who this stranger was in our house. Those feelings are long gone, but it’s odd I had them since he was and still is a good father. No one could call him an absent dad. He did work a lot though, and as a mechanical engineer successfully climbing his way into management, he was away on frequent business trips.
I can find reasons for some of the distance between us then, a few things on my side and a few on his. And there’s always the traditional push and pull of fathers and sons. But there’s one thing that helps put all this into perspective: My father doesn’t have many memories of living with his parents as a child. At the age of five or six, he was sent to a boarding home so he could attend a distant school. And by the time he was eight, his parents sent him even farther away...for good.
Amidst the gathering storm in Germany of September 1930, Ilse Decker gave birth to her second child, a boy named Otto. Her first son, Rolf, had been born a year and a half earlier. Together with her boys and husband Hans, they lived in Biberach, Germany. But life was becoming increasingly difficult for them. With Adolf Hitler firmly in control of the country by the end of 1933, his anti-Semitic ideas were taking hold. That same year there were government-sponsored attempts to remove Jewish children from schools. And just two years later in September 1935, when Otto was only five, Germany passed the Nürnberger Gesetze, the Nuremberg Laws, effectively stripping all Jews of their civil rights and citizenship. Ilse was Jewish, and according to the Jewish religion – and now German law – her children were as well.
And so one of the many heartbreaking decisions Hans and Ilse had to make had practically been made for them. They couldn’t send their children to public schools in Wiesbaden, the town where they now lived. And the nearest Jewish school the boys could attend was The Philanthropin in Frankfurt, which was over thirty miles away. So they found a boarding home for Jewish boys in Frankfurt, the Flersheim-Sichel-Stiftung, and sent their young sons away – for the first time.
When I wonder why there might have been a divide between my younger self and my father I can’t help but remember the instances of innate love. There were many, both big and small. It was him I'd go to as a 5-year old waking up with a stomach ache in the middle of the night, fearing the sick that was about to come. My father, not my mother. He’d gently bring me to the bathroom and rub my head while my body was retching. And afterward, he'd bring a basin into my room and sit next to me on the bed, softly kneading my shoulders until I drifted off to sleep.
Except for a couple Sunday visits from their parents every month, the boys were on their own. Hatred for Jews was spreading, and gangs of brown-shirted Hitler youth often threatened or beat them on their mile and a half walk to school. They found safety in numbers when the older boys accompanied them.
Then, in November of 1938, the plague of anti-Semitism grew violent with Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). For two days, the Nazis attacked Jews and their property, homes and synagogues. At the boarding home, the boys were given a stern warning. On the first night, they were sent to bed and told not to show any light or make any noise, no matter what happened. A frightening night for anyone, let alone an 8-year old boy.
The morning after, police came to their boarding home, arrested the boys’ guardian and took the children of Polish Jews away. The guardian was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, leaving his daughters to care for the remaining children. Hans and Ilse immediately brought their sons home to Wiesbaden. After a week, though, when things had settled, they sent the boys back to Frankfurt to continue attending school.
But Kristallnacht was the unmistakable turning point. Jews now had tangible proof that life was no longer possible in Germany; their growing nightmare was not going to simply fade away like some passing fad. Many sought to leave Germany, but other than permitting the regular trickle of immigration, the doors across Europe, as well as to the United States, were closed.
The British government, however, decided to allow Jewish children from Nazi Germany and the occupied territories into the United Kingdom. This Kindertransport quite literally saved the lives of nearly ten-thousand young souls between December 1938 and September 1939 (the start of World War II). My father and his brother were two of them.
I also recall being seven or eight and having an existential crisis of sorts. I’d figured out that some day I would die – that simply not existing was in my future. Through the tears and the hics of my ragged breathing, I kept repeating, ‘But I don’t want to die’ plaintively – as though someone could simply say, ‘Okay’. I remember my father’s frustration at first, his not being able to make it better with truthful explanations. But I also recall that after he stopped trying to answer the unanswerable, he began rubbing my back while I sat like a puddle on his lap. The tide turned with my ear pressed into his chest; I could hear his heartbeat, feel the warmth of his body. How would it feel to go through that without a parent?
From Frankfurt, the guardian’s eldest daughter managed to make contact with the British representatives for James de Rothschild, who agreed to take thirty of the youngest boys from the home and care for them. But the price would be high. According to the conditions for transport imposed by England, not only couldn’t the parents leave with their children, they all had to unconditionally agree to send them away to fates unknown.
Though they couldn’t have realized it at the time, Ilse and Hans likely saved their sons’ lives by agreeing. Many parents couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
Preparations were made; the Rothschild’s lawyer and a businessman signed agreements with the parents, the guardians and the Nazis, and by March of 1939 about thirty of the boys from the Frankfurt boarding home were prepared to travel to the United Kingdom. Ilse and Hans spent more time than usual with their children that month, though my father doesn’t recall much conversation about their future. It didn’t make much sense to him, but he and his brother received some new clothes to wear and posed for pictures with their parents. To Otto, it seemed like an adventure.
Rolf, Otto and Ilse Decker, Frankfurt, March 1939
To his parents it was anything but. At this point in the Kindertransport, the Nazis had decided to put an end to the gut-wrenching emotional scenes taking place in train stations across the country when Jewish parents sent their children away. They wanted to ensure the image of Germany wasn’t tarnished in the world press. So fathers and mothers were forbidden from accompanying their children to the stations and seeing them off. The Decker family said goodbye and parted ways at the boys’ boarding home in Frankfurt.
It wasn’t until much later in their lives when Otto and Rolf learned that, after saying goodbye to their children, Ilse and Hans drove to a point along the railway, somewhere on the Rhine between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. They knew which train their sons were on and stopped there by the road to say their final goodbyes and watch helplessly as the boys were taken from them once again, perhaps forever.
- To Be Continued in Part II -