WILLIAM: How old were you at the onset of war?
GRANDAD: Sixteen and a half to seventeen.
I lived in Czechoslovakia for five years from the age of three to eight. My father remarried and we moved to Vienna, Austria. In 1938 the Germans annexed Austria. Because my father had retained his Czech citizenship, we had to move back to Czechoslovakia. I stayed there for about a year before I had to escape.
WILLIAM: Why did you escape from Czechoslovakia?
GRANDAD: Because the Germans had taken over the country. I was afraid that I might come to some harm, being Jewish.
My friend's father owned a pub somewhere near the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland. He said he could take me across the border without a passport and without permission. I thought it was a good idea to go immediately.
On Easter Monday I went with him to the border. I scribbled a note, for him to deliver, saying goodbye to my father. When he saw the German soldiers on one side and the Polish soldiers on the other side he lost his courage. He told me he'd never taken anybody across. I didn't stop, I just went into the forest and, with the help of a band of gypsies, found my way across.
Once I had crossed into Poland I got the money for a train ticket from a sympathetic Jew to get to a town, 60 miles from the border, called Bielsko, where my stepmother's parents lived. (To avoid the soldiers on the train I was advised to lock myself in the toilet and pretend to be ill. I did this for the entire two hour train journey!). I arrived at their house at 3 O'clock in the morning. I had to throw little pebbles at the window to wake them up, and they let me in. They gave me some money and I made my way to a very large town called Kracow. There I hid for a time.
I decided that, to get out of Poland, I would have to get to the Baltic sea. Gdynia is the Polish port near to Danzig on the Baltic sea. I made my way there by train, hitch-hiking, and walking. When I was in Gdynia there happened to be a youth transport ship. I persuaded them that, since I knew English, they should let me come along as an interpreter.
ROSEMARIE: How did you know English?
GRANDAD: I learnt English at school. I was very good at English. My best friend and I used to walk through the streets of Vienna talking to each other in English. He's still my friend and he still lives in England.
ROSEMARIE: When did you come to England?
GRANDAD: I came to England before England had joined the war; to London. For about a year, at the beginning of the war, we were not allowed to work - probably in order not to create unemployment. We were given money to live on. Eventually they permitted us to work, and so, in 1940 I went to work on a farm in Hampshire.
WILLIAM: Where were you during the war years?
GRANDAD: A year after the war started I joined the Norwegian merchant Navy. After that I was travelling between England and Canada, and then later on, in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and between places like Java and Sumatra and Australia. This I did until 1942. On the fourth of July 1942 the ship on which I was working, a Norwegian oil tanker called the SS Madrono, was captured by a German warship (see my see my text for Madrono for more details on this, as well as a link to a complete crew list). They put a prize crew on-board. Now a prize crew is simply a group of soldiers with an officer who take over the ship. They also put a lot of seamen on-board to take our ship to Tokyo. There I was handed over, together with other prisoners, to the Japanese. I was taken to a prison camp in Kawasaki (You have probably heard of Kawasaki motorbikes.) Kawasaki is a town between Yokohama, the main Japanese port, and Tokyo, the capital of Japan.
In Kawasaki I worked at first on ships, and then on the railways. Working on the railways was great fun because we were able to steal a lot of food. The Japanese didn't know we were stealing food but it kept us in good health.
One day towards the end of the war when everything was being bombed and the war was going very badly for the Japanese, there was an incident which made them send me to another camp. They sent us out to a piece of land to plant some sweet potatoes. In fact the field they were sending us to, had previously contained Japanese working men's cottages. They had burnt down and we had removed the foundations. This was turned immediately into agricultural land. I said to my friends, "Let's cook the potatoes over a fire, eat them, and plant some stones instead." So that's what we did.
In the evening when we came back to the camp, our group was called to the medical sergeant's office. The medical sergeant shouted at us, "You have stolen those potatoes. I know you have stolen those potatoes because I went to look and all I found was stones in the furrows!" We all got a beating to begin with. Then he threatened that we would have to stand all night and every night in the open until one of us admitted to this crime (because from his point of view it was a crime). I stepped forward and admitted that it had been my idea. I got another knocking about. It wasn't too bad, I didn't lose any teeth or anything. A friend of mine who was a seaman from Canada, also stepped forward and admitted to having taken the potatoes although he hadn't really.
The medical sergeant had a brilliant idea. He said we were each to wash sixty articles of clothing every evening after work. We had a big bath house where we could do that and he even gave us soap. The plan was that we would bring sixty articles of dirty clothing, all itemised on a list. He would tick them all off, and then he would give us the soap. We would go to the bath house, wash them, hang them up to dry, and bring them to him next evening with the list. They had to be spotlessly clean (the Japanese are very clean people). Then we would each have to collect another sixty articles of dirty clothing and so on...
We asked our friends to collect the same number of clean and dirty articles of clothing. We threw the dirty clothes into the water in the bath house, put a little soap on top and went to bed. Next day, we showed the clean clothes to the medical sergeant. He ticked them off the list and in that way we never washed anything at all! We got a lot of valuable soap which we kept and sometimes sold. When he came to inspect the camp he found that everything was even dirtier than ever. Well, he knew that he had been fooled.
I was then moved to another camp.
WILLIAM: What happened at the close of the war?
GRANDAD: At the close of the war I happened to be in a camp in the North of Japan called Suva. Suva was a camp which was associated with iron mines and melting works - we used to call them pot roasters. These were small furnaces where they used to melt the iron. First I worked in the iron mines. These were surface mines. We used to blast the iron ore rocks, break them up with chisels and hammers, just as you sometimes see it in the films, and then we would put the rocks into wagons and push the wagons along rails. After about a month, I was transferred to the pot roasters; to the melting furnaces and I worked there for some time.
The war ended and American aeroplanes came and dropped food by parachute on us. We traded the food for fresh food.
The Japanese took us down to Tokyo. In Tokyo they handed us over to the Americans. The Americans put us all onto planes and took us to a repatriation camp on an island called Okinawa. Okinawa is an island in the tropical part of the Pacific Ocean which we said yesterday is the largest ocean in the World. In Okinawa everything might have been alright but for the fact that somebody stole my papers - my documents, and among those was my Czechoslovak passport. All of a sudden I could no longer prove my nationality! When I went to the American officer in charge of the camp, he said, "Well I cannot do anything else for you but send you back to Japan!" So I said "Thank you very much. I don't want to go back to Japan." After all I had only just been a prisoner there for three years. So I stayed in Okinawa. After a time all the people who I had known in the prison camp and who were my friends left the camp in Okinawa to fly to the Philippines and to go back from the Philippines to their home countries. Only I could not go forward or backward. I was there in a tent in a tropical desert. Okinawa is nothing but a desert island. So one day I thought, 'this is awful I have to do something about it.'
So I went and studied the way the others were leaving Okinawa and found a weakness in the system. I exploited this weakness. I packed my things and I joined a group of people who didn't know me (the ones who knew me had all left). The officer in charge of the American bomber, read from the list the names of those who should get into the aeroplane. Of course he never read my name but I just followed the crowd and went into the baggage compartment where I had a good sleep. I woke up again hours later and shortly after, we landed in Manilla. Once I was in Manilla nobody cared anymore where I came from. Nobody said anything about sending me back or anything like that.
In Manilla I was put into another camp at San Carlos which had been a Spanish monastery. There I had a wonderful time playing badminton and table-tennis all day, I wasn't working in the beginning. Sometime later they put me into a bigger camp. Again I was not allowed to leave Manilla because I didn't have any papers! Whenever I went to the British consulate they said "We cannot let you into Britain. We don't know for sure that you are who you say you are."
I then worked as a mechanic's apprentice for a German mechanic. He lived in a ramshackle house with a tin roof. When it rained very hard, it used to rain through dozens of holes in the roof. It was my job to climb on the roof of his house and repair the holes. When I wasn't doing that he used to give me pieces of cast iron to saw out stars and rings using a hacksaw.
One day I met a friend, a Dutchman, who had been in the camp with me in Japan. I told him my sad story; that I couldn't get away from the Philippines because I had no papers. He said, "Don't worry. Give me your details and I'll get you a certificate, (what they call an affidavit) sworn and sealed to show who you are." So I told him everything and he gave me the document. On the document it said 'I Jacob Cornelius Goormans, administrative officer at Major Birchells camp in Japan (He'd never been anything like that at all) herewith certify etc, etc,' This was all made up (he had never seen any of my original documents)! My details contained within the document were, however, true. When I went to the British Consulate with it, they just happened to have got permission for me, Bedrich Scharf, to come to England. They were not stupid. They knew that the certificate was false but they were happy to use it anyway. They just banged their rubber stamps on it and I was then off to America.
WILLIAM: America? I thought you wanted to go to England?
GRANDAD: Yes, well you couldn't go straight from the Philippines to England. I went to a port in America called San Francisco. I spent two happy months in San Francisco before taking a job as a saloon-boy on a ship called the African Reefer. We went to North Africa, to Italy and finally to England.
WILLIAM: How old were you at the end of the war?
GRANDAD: At the end of the war I was five years older so you may say twenty-two. About twenty-two perhaps going on for twenty-three. It depends a bit because you see the war in Europe ended in 1945.
WILLIAM: Where were your family?
GRANDAD: Well I don't know where my father was. He was still in Czechoslovakia. That much I knew. I know he died during the war. I'm not sure how. There were rumours that he died in a concentration camp - he may not have.
WILLIAM: What is a concentration camp?
GRANDAD: These were camps in Germany where Hitler put people whom he considered to be bad people; he put a lot of good people in there as well. They were treated very badly and many were killed. They were horrible prison camps.
WILLIAM: Where they hard times?
GRANDAD: It depended. For most people the war was a very bad time but for people like me it happened to be quite a good time. That is because if I had stayed in Vienna or even in Czechoslovakia, I would probably not have got anywhere at all. My family were poor. I might have struggled on, eventually becoming a teacher or something. (Sorry about that. I apologise.) It was a liberation for me. All of a sudden I had new horizons, I travelled through the world. Japan was great as far as I was concerned.
After the war I went to the Nurnberg war trials where I met your Grandmummy.
WILLIAM: How many good points would you give it out of ten and how many bad points out of ten?
GRANDAD: I think that's a question one can't answer. I would say that by and large it was ten bad points and one good one. The one good one for people like myself who, in a way, found that their lives grew larger. But ten bad points for everybody else who lost family and friends, who suffered in one way or the other, who were badly injured, who lost houses and property, who found that their communities were broken up, who simply lost years from school and University.
Post war interview with Bedrich Scharf's wife, Liselotte Scharf, who was German
(Oma means grandma).
WILLIAM: Where were you during the war years?
OMA: I was in Germany.
WILLIAM: What did you do and why?
OMA: When the war started I was twelve years old. We worked hard to keep our people happy. We were taught how to administer first aid. Whenever there was a Blitz we young people went out and helped to dig out the people who were in houses that had been bombed. We put bandages on the wounded. Next day we had to help with tidying up the ruins. We had to get the bricks out, clean them and pile them up tidily. We helped the people who were bombed out. In the field kitchens we collected wood, peeled potatoes, cleaned vegetables and helped with giving out the food. We usually cooked thick stews which were very nourishing. Apart from that we had to go to school when our schools were not bombed, and when the schools were bombed we had to go to church halls or other places which were not bombed and do our school work.
There was the Hitler youth. This was an organisation like the Cubs or the Scouts are here now, but as Hitler was our leader it was called Hitler Youth. Later on, when I was older, sixteen or seventeen, we helped by handing out the food coupons to every family. We were very well organised in those days.
We lived in a first floor flat in a large house. When the house was bombed I used to help my father to put in new window panes and repair the doors. So I learnt quite a lot of practical repair work!
WILLIAM: Where were your family in the war?
OMA: My father worked with the German railway. He was too old to go to war. He had been in the First world war. Besides he had a very important job. He was in charge of a switching yard power station. We lived in Nürnburg, near the big switching yard. It was an important target for English and American bombers. We lived in a large house with an air-raid shelter built in the cellar. Every time there was a blitz we all took our belongings, (we had suitcases ready with the most important things) and we went into the cellar. When they bombed the houses, if you heard the bomb it didn't hit you, but it did hit you if you didn't hear it. Our house was hit but it was a big and very strong house so we were not hurt in the cellar. We escaped out of an emergency exit.
My father had a handcart. Nearly everything was destroyed in the explosion. We rescued a few things. We loaded it all onto the handcart and went to my sister. We stayed with her for a few months until we found a new home.
TOM (Bedrich's son): How badly was the house damaged?
OMA: It was very badly damaged. It was just one big heap of rubble. Next day we dug out our belongings, and helped the neighbours dig out theirs. Then we cleaned and stacked the bricks up, ready to rebuild the house again. We were all very helpful to each other, just like people were here in England. In need and in emergencies, people stick together. They help each other.
WILLIAM: Were they hard times?
OMA: Yes they were pretty hard times firstly because there was the blitz and secondly there was strict food rationing. People used to go into the country to try and get food on the black market. That wasn't easy because there were a lot of police about. If they caught you, firstly they took the food away and secondly, if they didn't imprison you, they made you pay a hefty fine. But people had to go to the farmers and try to get something extra because what you got on the coupons just wasn't enough! Meat and fat - 50 grams a week of meat is not much.
WILLIAM: Did you ever find that when you had the coupons and you didn't have enough food, and the place that you were going to get food from was bombed, did you feel that you were starving?
OMA: We had the shops and there were always emergency shops opened up. After a bomb attack, soup kitchens used to be set up. You went to the soup kitchen and got a ladle-full of thick stew. That was it. Until you found a place to shelter, either in a school gym or places like that and then eventually you found something again. We were lucky. My sister could accommodate us but people from our house, who didn't have anybody they could go to just cleared out the cellars and lived in them until they found somewhere new. It was a hard time, it was very hard.
We had the propaganda of course. "Your Fatherland" "You all have to stick together." Well it all really goes back to the First world war. When we lost the First world war we suffered peace treaties which just about buried Germany economically. They took all our industry away. They took all our colonies. Of course Hitler said, 'We have to get all these things back again. The colonies belong to us. Our industry has got to be built up.' We didn't really fight for Hitler. We fought for our country, for our homeland. We suffered all that. You just have to stick up for what you believe in and carry on.
TOM: What sort of substitute foods did you use?
OMA: We had dried milk. We didn't have any coffee. We had coffee malt and acorns. If you roast acorns you can make acorn coffee. We had some sort of cooking fat. Butter was very rare. Dried eggs, we had, and dried milk; things that keep. As we lived in Nürnberg which has got a hinterland of vegetable farms, we got vegetables and potatoes. But all that was rationed and you had to stand and queue for hours.
They brought animals to the slaughter-house that were hurt during the blitz. They slaughtered them and the meat was sold to people without coupons. At 4.00 in the morning we went out, there was no transport, and walked for two hours. At 6.00 we were there and there was a queue a hundred yards long! I waited there with my mother in winter for six hours until we got in. So we had two hours walk there, six hours waiting, and two hours walk back in winter. That was no fun - but we got a lump of meat and we were grateful.
My mother used to make minced meat loaf because you could stretch it, you could put bread in, and potatoes, and oats, and other things. And that lasted the family. It was an inventive time for cooking.
ROSEMARIE: What about clothing?
OMA: Clothing was on coupons. My mother used to unpick old clothes which, otherwise would have been given to the rag and bone man. We unpicked them and made 'new' clothes out of them.
TOM: What about collections of metal items to help the war effort. Did that go on in Germany?
OMA: Oh yes, and we collected old paper. In Germany we had hand-carts. We went round and collected old paper and old metal. All this was organised by the Hitler-youth and by the schools. We also went hop picking during the harvest time. The older students helped with the corn harvest.
WILLIAM: What happened at the close of the war?
I was no longer at school. I finished my school and went to commercial school. The commercial school was bombed out, so we were left to do voluntary work. Many worked in hospitals, just doing menial jobs like cleaning bed pans, tidying up the lockers and so on. But as I had been in a commercial school I worked in an office where they gave out the coupons.
After the war of course we didn't finish our schooling and I didn't have a real exit certificate from the school. I just got a certificate to say that I had attended the school. Then I went to the German railway and I got a job there as a typist.
The Americans came and took over the Government. They said `We don't need so many typists any more' and we would have been made redundant. I was not going to become redundant and took a kitchen job they offered - kitchen help in the canteen. Of course everything had been bombed out and facilities were very primitive. At the start we ran only a soup kitchen.
There were lots of workmen to clear up the ruins, to rebuild and get things organised again. We cooked soup for one thousand people a day. With some of the people who helped, we searched for wood from the ruins - the splintered wood to heat the soup. I learnt how to saw and chop wood.
TOM: So all this was done over wood and coal fires, presumably on a huge range?
OMA: No, it was a soup kitchen. We used large cauldrons hanging over a fire. You fill the cauldron with water, put the potatoes and other ingredients in. Then wait for it to boil. Gradually things got better and the kitchen was sorted out. We still had two great cauldrons where we made soup, and a great cooking range where we cooked smaller things. For instance we used to fry fish. We had a lot of people to feed so we were very busy.
TOM: How did you come to meet Dad?
OMA: There wasn't much going on; everything was destroyed. I was interested in learning English. I went to an adult education centre to learn English. Then one day there was an advertisement in the paper stating that the Americans were very keen on fraternising with the Germans - to make friends and to bring their ideas to the German people - so that we could see our errors - bring real democracy to us (!)
GRANDAD: I'm glad I didn't see that advertisement, that's all I can say!
OMA: The advertisement said that they were going to form a German/American youth club and that people who wanted to learn English and wanted to learn about the way of life in America would be welcome, especially young people. Tante Emmi (my stepmother) said to me, "Your English might be good enough. Why don't you go there and see what it is like?"
ROSEMARIE: Where did you learn your English?
OMA: I learnt it at school and I went to the adult education centre.
ROSEMARIE: So you've never felt hostile towards them?
OMA: I didn't feel hostile because I thought this is the way of the world. There are people in England who suffer as much as we do. They were bombed out, they starved, they had no clothes to wear. Why feel hostile? I felt hostile towards governments who put people into such dire straits.
GRANDAD (Bedrich): I didn't feel hostile towards the Japanese either, or to the Germans.
OMA: But of course we felt for our country, we felt 'we are Germans, it is our homeland and we have to defend it'. We were afraid that if we lost the war we would lose everything again as we did in the First world war. After the first world war the value of money went down to nothing. Somebody owed Opa 200 marks and when he got it back it bought him a roll!
GRANDAD: My father had the same experience. Somebody owed him the money for a flat with furniture. When he got it back he was able to buy one cup of coffee.
OMA: After the first world war there was terrible unemployment. Hitler came to power, because he created work for the people. He created the Autobahnen (motorways) and he got Volkswagen going. He did a lot of social good for the workers. Of course, his ideology is a different matter altogether, but what he did for the people after the first world war, after 1933 was a good thing; because up to then, Germany was absolutely on it's knees. Hitler brought back self respect and wellbeing. The workers could say 'alright, if I work I can afford a Volkswagen'. Mothers were held in great respect. They were sent on rest-cures and if a mother had two or three children she got a medal, because he wanted to regenerate the people. The workers motto was Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy). Workers were sent on voyages, just pleasure cruises for a fortnight and so on. They still to some extent do this in Germany.
ROSEMARIE: So how did you meet Grandad?
OMA: I went to the German-American youth club and there were some allies who came and gave talks. Freddy (Europeanised Bedrich) was there as a guest of the allies. He came along regularly. I quite liked the atmosphere of the club because it was an educational club. We read English and American literature. We had discussions about all sorts of things; about the ideology of the third Reich, about democracy. We were in discussion groups and I sometimes didn't like what he said. I contradicted him and he became aware of me.
Freddy was an interpreter in the Nürnberg war trials. After the Nürnberg trials we wrote to each other and then he went to Hamburg for a few months (Then to England). I was working at an office at the railways. I was bored by all the office work, all the filing. Freddy asked me to marry him. My father was against it; for me to go to England. Then I thought, "If I don't get married I want to have something else to do." So I thought if I learnt English I could become a ships nurse and see the world. So I came to England and started nursing. And then Freddy proposed again. We got married but we didn't give our marriage long. We assumed it would last three weeks or three years. In those days after three years you could get divorced. Although we were married, we didn't have a home together. I lived in the nurses home and Freddy lived in his batchelor flat. Then the top flat became empty and his landlady, Mrs Benham, asked if we would like to move in. So we moved in and I started to work at Hammersmith hospital. Then Tom was expected and that was the end of my nursing career, and I never became a ships nurse.
I would again like to encourage others to send me more personal stories for inclusion on this page, these stories are very valuable.