My father died in 1979, when I was 22 years old. We lived in Toronto, Canada, where I still live today.
As far as I knew, Dad had been born in Hanover, Germany to Christian parents – though that information was a highly-classified secret, and I was warned at an early age to tell no one. Since my mother was a French-Canadian Catholic, my older brother and I were raised in that faith. Dad spoke with a highly-cultured British accent, and passed himself off as an Englishman. The fact that he had served as an RAF bomber pilot only helped to reinforce that cover story. What I didn't know, and only discovered in 1996, was that my father was Jewish.
My wealthy German-Jewish grandfather died in 1926 when Dad was only six years old. That was the beginning of a long and sad period. Dad had some kind of medical problem (supposedly migraines) that caused him to be a very fussy child who was difficult for my grandmother to manage. When my grandfather died, my grandmother sent Dad away to a boarding school in Bavaria, keeping her other two children at home with her.
In those early days of 1926, few realized that Bavaria was a powder keg that would spawn the Nazi party. Suffice to say that by 1929, Dad's teachers and classmates began to treat him badly. As the only Jewish student at the school, he was the object of increasing derision, and he left that school for another in northern Germany in 1929.
By 1933, things were already getting quite bad for German Jews. My uncle, now 17 years old and the "man of the house," persuaded his mother to let him go to England and prepare a safe haven for the family. He went to London that summer and found an apartment and a high school he could attend. My father followed in January 1934, just before his 15th birthday. Their little sister went to Switzerland and then made her way to England in 1938.
Sadly, with the Depression and Nazi economic persecution, much of the family fortune had gradually disappeared over the 1930s. When the time came, there was no money left for my grandmother to buy her way out of Germany and get to safety in England to be with her three children.
Outbreak of the War
In England, the two brothers did what they could to learn English and complete their education. They attended a London high school and became friendly with the headmaster, a childless Englishman who agreed to adopt my father when his student visa ran out after graduation in 1936. This allowed Dad to stay in England and get a job.
Unfortunately, with no close adult supervision and a fierce independent streak – no doubt due to his rebellion at being sent away from his family at age 6 – Dad got into trouble. In late 1938, his mother sent the remainder of the family fortune to England, which was to be used to care for the three siblings for the duration of the war that everyone knew was imminent. Somehow, Dad (now 19 years old and working in advertising), got his hands on the money and gambled away the entire sum. With not enough to support himself, he resorted to petty theft, and was eventually arrested.
During the summer of 1939, Dad was sentenced to three months in prison. On September 1, the day that Germany invaded Poland, many British prisoners were released, since cells would be needed for enemy aliens once war was declared. Ironically, my father was released, even though he was one of the enemy aliens in question. Taking the train back to London, he was given strict instructions to report to a police station.
Dad stole the identity of a London schoolmate who had died.
But Dad – whose name was Georg Franz Hein – never reported to the London police station, and a manhunt was organized. Instead, Dad obtained identity documents for a London schoolmate who had died several years earlier, a boy named Peter Stevens. Using those documents, Dad presented himself at an RAF recruiting station on September 3 – the day war was declared – and enlisted as Peter Stevens.
So while the British police were busy searching for a potentially dangerous German named Georg Hein, Peter Stevens spent 18 months being trained as a bomber pilot. Two tips helped the police realize that Dad had joined the RAF, but they did not figure out that he had become Peter Stevens. Had they tracked him down, Dad would have been arrested and interned for the duration of the war.
Dad qualified as a bomber pilot and joined a frontline squadron in April 1941. On one mission, he had to bomb his own hometown. Because he had disgraced himself by gambling away his family's money, he had lost contact with his mother and remaining aunts, uncles and cousins in Germany. It was with a very heavy heart that he dropped high explosives in the direction of his own flesh and blood.
On August 7, 1941, Dad and three crewmen bombed a military target in the heavily-industrialized Ruhr valley. They were on their way back to England in the middle of the night, when they were attacked by a JU-88 German night fighter. Despite all evasive action, the two rear gunners were hit by machine gun fire, while the navigator, hit in the thigh by a 20 mm cannon shell, almost bled to death.
Fortunately, one of the rear gunners reached up and grabbed the trigger of his guns, and by sheer blind luck, managed to blow the fighter out of the sky. The other gunner used the coffee from his thermos to put out a small fire, then went forward to help the navigator. Eventually, they made it back safely to England, only to realize that the plane's landing gear and flaps had been destroyed in the attack. Dad performed a flawless belly landing, and all crewmen recovered from their wounds. One of the gunners later named his only son Peter, after my father.
They ran out of fuel and crash-landed near Amsterdam.
A month later, on September 7, 1941, Dad and his crew were ordered to bomb Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany and the target with the best defenses in Europe. They made it to Berlin and dropped their bombs, but the aircraft was damaged by artillery fire, and Dad ordered his crew to bail out. Both gunners did, and it was later determined that one's parachute had failed to open. Sadly, his body was never found.
Dad realized that his plane was marginally flyable, and the navigator stayed with him as he turned back to England. But there was a hole in one fuel tank. They ran out of fuel and crash-landed near Amsterdam. Captured a day later, Dad and his navigator were eventually sent to separate POW camps. Of course, it was critical that the Germans never realize his true identity, as they would have immediately executed him as a traitor. For the next three years, he was without any protection whatsoever under the Geneva Convention.
Dad made escape his first priority, and he had a massive advantage. He was, after all, a native German. The month after his capture, in October 1941, he was sent with hundreds of other British POWs from one camp to another, locked in a cattle car with two armed Nazi guards. Using other prisoners to arrange a distraction, Dad jumped off the moving train through a ventilator shaft. Unfortunately, another prisoner had done the same thing, and was noticed by the guards. Looking out, they saw Dad running for some nearby woods, and started shooting. Fortunately he was able to make it to the forest before they perfected their aim. The guards searched the area, but did not find him.
Sleeping by day and traveling by night, Dad made his way to Hanover, determined to go to his mother's house to get food, money and civilian clothing. Knocking on the door of his own home, he was told that his mother had committed suicide in July 1939, rather than submit to the Nazis. Despite the immense shock of that news, he went to see an aunt and uncle, and obtained what limited help they could offer. He headed south toward Switzerland and got as far as Frankfurt before being challenged. Not having had the opportunity to get any forged identity papers, he admitted to being an escaped British officer, and he was sent back to a POW camp.
Dad disguised himself as a German guard and led prisoners out.
With his German language skills, Peter Stevens became a key participant in escape schemes – either direct involvement, or helping to prepare false documents in German. On two separate occasions in December 1941, Dad disguised himself as a German guard and escorted a group of British prisoners out the camp gate. Both times they had to turn back, but a London newspaper called it "The Boldest Escape Attempt of the War."
Another time, in 1943, a tunnel was built out of a camp latrine in rural Poland, and Dad managed to travel over 300 miles in 24 hours, before being captured by the Gestapo in Cologne. He spent a very unpleasant week trying to persuade them that he was not a spy, but in reality an escaped British Air Force pilot. They eventually bought his story and sent him back to another POW camp.
Dad became one of only two Allied prisoners authorized by the Escape Committee to trade with the Germans at the massive Stalag Luft 3, home of the Great Escape (March 1944). Fans of the movie will recognize the James Garner character as "the Scrounger," a job filled by my father.
By war's end, Dad, like all POWs, had lost over 50 pounds. But he was one of the lucky survivors, and after a horrible march westward from Poland in February-March 1945, he was liberated in April. During his captivity, he had made eight escape attempts, and actually got outside the wire fencing three times. Today, he is mentioned in numerous books, on record as one of World War II’s greatest escape artists.
In 1946, he was awarded Britain's Military Cross for extreme bravery. He then served five years in MI6, the British secret intelligence service, spying against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. In 1952, Dad immigrated to Canada and became a businessman.
While growing up in Canada, I was privy to only a few details of Dad's story. Like most veterans of the war, he never spoke about his experiences. On a family trip to Europe in 1967, we went to the Allied Forces Cemetery in Berlin, looking for the grave of Dad's rear gunner. Sadly, no grave exists, and Dad shed many tears that day.
In 1979, at age 60, Dad died of a heart attack, as a consequence of chemotherapy. He took most of his secrets to the grave.
About 1986-87, I was curious about what exactly Dad had done to be awarded the Military Cross.
I visited England to research his story. It took me many trips over 18 years – retracing Dad’s footsteps from Germany, to England, to Holland and finally to Poland – to piece it all together. I'd heard a couple of rumors that Dad was actually Jewish, but I had always discounted them.
It was only in 1996, I finally tracked down his sister in London. It was then that I learned the truth, and that our family had lost some 10-15 members to the Holocaust. It was a very emotional discovery for me, and it took me a few years to come to grips with the realization of my Jewish roots.
My father was alone in the world from age 6, and never had a Bar Mitzvah. He had to tell many lies in order to save his life. I don't know why my father never revealed his Jewishness, but after his trauma of losing so much in the Holocaust, it is difficult to question his motives. Suffice to say that, to the Nazis, he was a Jew.
This story is so unique that I was determined to write a book about it. Escape, Evasion and Revenge was published in 2009. It is written by the proud son of the bravest man I’ve ever met.