The day the friendly colonel stopped saying 'Guten Tag'

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The Independent Online
'HIER sind die Mittagsnachrichten] (This is the midday news). State President von Hindenburg has appointed Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist Party, Chancellor of Germany.' It was Monday, 30 January 1933, in Breslau, capital of the German province of Silesia. My parents, two sisters and I had just started lunch. First to break the stunned silence was my father: 'He won't last long. He doesn't have a majority. Let's finish our meal.'

I didn't really understand the full significance of the news. I knew that General von Schleicher, the Chancellor, had resigned two days before and that we had no government. But that was nothing unusual. There had been one government crisis after another. Suddenly, I caught sight of something on the balcony of the house opposite. We lived on the first floor of a large apartment house and, although the street was wide and the other side seemed far away, I could see a huge flag being raised on the balcony. The swastika was unmistakable. Surely, flags other than the official national black, red and gold one were banned?

I rushed out on to our balcony. The air was crisp. A sharp frost during the night had given way to a few hours of sunshine out of a cloudless blue sky. Soon the street was festooned with swastika flags, some suspended from poles attached to balconies, others draped over window sills and long expanses of wall. Only the sound of trams and a few passing cars penetrated the usual midday quiet.

It was too cold to stay on the balcony. Deep down I was disappointed that so momentous an announcement had not been met with clamours of jubilation or protest. A sea of scarlet flags with black swastika crosses and silence, that was all.

I was in my first year at St John's Gymnasium, an old and very traditional school. My mother insisted on accompanying me there: street brawls were common in the last years of the Weimar Republic and the school was in the centre of the old town where the narrow streets and small squares were an ideal battleground. Nazi Brownshirts would march down one street and confront Communist Party members parading down another. The police were powerless to halt the fighting that inevitably followed.

Jewish children were particularly vulnerable, but the school was tough enough for the 10-year-old boy I was then, without the indignity of being called a sissy as well. My mother and I reached a compromise. We travelled in different parts of the tram, ignored each other and walked the last stretch on opposite sides of the road. At midday she would wait at a grocer's near the school and follow me home.

That Monday had followed the same pattern as other weekdays. But then came the news announcement, and the flags. Suddenly, the telephone rang. My sister answered it. I can hear my father saying: 'Be careful; the lines may be tapped.' Why should they be tapped? I don't think I even knew what that meant.

We all returned to our 'normal' afternoon activities. For me, that meant homework. Afterwards, as usual, I went to a friend's house. On the staircase I met the friendly colonel who lived above us. 'Guten Tag, Herr Oberst,' I said. This time, unusually, there was no reply.

I arrived at my friend's house to find chaos: he and his mother and younger sister were all packing cases and bags as though for a long journey. His father, a professor at Breslau University, was lecturing in France. I knew that he was an active member of the Communist Party and had often taken part in street rallies.

'I am joining my husband in Dijon for a while,' his mother said. 'Dieter and his sister are going to stay with their grandmother until all this has blown over. The children will be safe there.' Only then did I begin to realise that everything was different.

The author's parents and older sister died in Auschwitz. The second sister ultimately went to New Zealand. The author arrived in England as a refugee in 1939. After war service he became a teacher and education adviser and settled in Oxford.

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