“I had to shake Hitler’s hand”
COMING home from school to be told that her brother and sister had been taken by the Gestapo, changed Holocaust survivor Hanni Begg’s life forever.
Their father had told them in a matter-of-fact way that if an official letter arrived calling for the family to turn itself in they would each swallow a Cyanide pill rather than be transported to ‘safety’.
But the letter never came.
With no possessions and no loved ones, the shocked and bewildered 13-year-old found herself wandering the streets – alone.
She found a friend who put her in touch with a woman who, like Hanni, was half Jewish and secretly took her into her home in the centre of Berlin. But when it was bombed and Hanni found herself out on the streets once again, she was picked up by the Gestapo and taken to a labour camp.
“I was uneasy about the film at first because it’s not really me but I think in memory of my brother and sister – innocent, beautiful children, for them to have been murdered like that, I maybe owe it to them to talk about it in the hope that it might never happen again.”
There she contracted the potentially deadly diphtheria – which turned out to be her saviour. “The guards wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible but I was admitted to hospital. A lovely doctor said in broken German that I would never go back to the camp and that a group of people would look after me. They turned up and we walked and we walked and we had to cross the river Elbe but I couldn’t swim so they got me across on a board.”
She got back to Berlin in 1944 and spent the remainder of the conflict in hiding in a flat at the top of a hospital. A month or two before the end of the war she found out that her father had also survived and was living in a bombed-out house, dying of tuberculosis.
Against the backdrop of Russia’s Red Army marching into Berlin, she snuck out of the hospital to tend to him every day but despite the hospital flying a Red Cross flag it too was destroyed.
She explained: “I helped to carry patients out of the hospital but then I left – I wasn’t prepared to stay any more and I ran across Berlin to my father. There was fighting on both sides of the street but I didn’t even suffer a cut. I was so lucky in so many ways. On May 9 1945, the last of the shelling stopped and that was when he died. I was 15, it was the end of the war and I had to bury my father.”
Two years later she found documents revealing that her siblings had been transported separately to Auschwitz.
“Hitler visited my elementary school and I was put on the front row as the token German girl as I didn’t look a bit Jewish. He went down the line and shook everyone’s hand – I didn’t look at his face or into his eyes. Afterwards when I got home I felt ashamed but if I hadn’t done it I would have been taken away immediately.”
Hanni’s mother became ill with stomach cancer just after the war started in 1939, had she lived the family’s fate might have been very different.
She was Christian they were planning on fleeing to relatives in Argentina to escape Hitler’s uprising before she fell ill. But after her death the children were classed as Jewish like their father and therefore victims of Nazi persecution.
Living in an apartment in Berlin city centre, Hanni was used to hearing Hitler, Goebbels and Goering make propaganda speeches over loudspeakers to mass crowds and one day Hanni’s path directly crossed with the Fuhrer.
She explained: “Hitler visited my elementary school and I was put on the front row as the token German girl as I didn’t look a bit Jewish. He went down the line and shook everyone’s hand – I didn’t look at his face or into his eyes. Afterwards when I got home I felt ashamed but if I hadn’t done it I would have been taken away immediately.”
Hanni puts her survival down to luck and the kindness of other – Germans who risked their own safety by looking after her.
From the doctor in the labour camp hospital and the Resistance who helped her escape, to the women who took her into hiding to the school friend, the daughter of a Nazi sympathiser, who gave her food when her loved ones vanished and she was all alone.
“I felt that I could be denounced at any time,” she told an audience at Teesside University as part of its Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration. “I feel I would not be here today if it wasn’t for quite a number of good Germans. I was brought up in Germany as a very obedient child, we were not really encouraged to ask a lot of questions, that was the German psyche at that time. But it has completely changed now, it’s a completely different generation. A different Germany.”
Following a nursing recruitment drive in the UK Hanni moved over here with a friend in 1949 and, despite intending to go to Israel, she fell in love with Frank, her future husband in 1950 and they lived in Guisborough where he was a GP for more than 30 years.
For decades she didn’t speak about the Holocaust but now, prompted by her children, a short film has been made by media students at Teesside University in Middlesbrough.
She added: “I managed to put it to the back of my mind. I did not allow myself to think about it as though it did not exist. But my daughter and son said “you really need to tell us, we really need to know your story, you are our mother and it’s very important to us”.”
“I was uneasy about the film at first because it’s not really me but I think in memory of my brother and sister – innocent, beautiful children, For them to have been murdered like that I maybe owe it to them to talk about it in the hope that it might never happen again.”
Holocaust Educational Trust http://www.het.org.uk