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16 April 2001

The improbable hero

His German grandfather was a feckless husband and a lousy father, but when William Cook began diggin

By William Cook

Growing up half-German in Britain, barely a generation after the Holocaust, a heavy sense of shame hung over my father’s Teutonic family. The most shameful Teuton of them all was the grandfather I never knew. He had committed no atrocities, but he was a feckless husband and an indifferent father, and for me he came to personify the moral apathy upon which Hitler thrived. For evil to triumph, said Edmund Burke, all it needs is for good men to do nothing. My grandfather, I always thought, was someone who did nothing at all.

But last year, in New York, I met a man who changed my mind.

Manfred Alexander was born in Berlin in 1920, a German Jew. In 1941, he was sent to a death camp in Minsk. Out of 50,000, he was the only survivor. He never could have survived without the help of three men who risked their lives to save him. And one of those men, I was amazed to learn, was my grandfather.

Nothing in Manfred’s happy childhood hinted at the suffering that was to come. “Jewish people were more German than German people,” he tells me, one wintry afternoon in his New York apartment. “I consider myself a German and then a Jew. So did my father. My mother, too.” His parents were liberal, “three-day” Jews, who went to synagogue only a few times a year, on the high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. They lived in a mixed neighbourhood. Manfred barely knew which of his friends were Jews. His father was the manager of a top department store, whose customers included the Kaiser. Indeed, the Kaiser used to send them opera tickets.

“There was less anti-Semitism in Germany than in any other country in Europe,” claims Manfred. “It was the best country to live in.” But in 1933, Hitler became chancellor, and it quickly became the very worst. “What one man has done to this beautiful country with a beautiful people,” says Manfred, sadly. “He wasn’t even German. It’s so tragic . . . Week by week, new laws were declared against the Jewish people. The knot was tied closer and tighter.”

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Jews were banned from trams, buses and even park benches. Manfred had to leave school and sew a yellow star on his Burberry trenchcoat. “Nobody dared to voice any opposition because the concentration camp was just around the corner,” he remembers. “We knew if we opened our mouths too far, we would never be seen again.”

One local lad, who was in the Hitler Youth, even denounced his own father, who was a communist. The lad’s father was sent to a concentration camp. He did not return. “Everybody was afraid of everybody,” says Manfred. “The father of his own child, the child of his father. Brothers. Sisters. One was afraid of the other.”

Manfred’s brother fled to America, but Manfred didn’t want to leave his girlfriend, so he stayed in Berlin and got a job as a bricklayer. Most of his Gentile friends drifted away, and it was during this troubled time that he befriended my grandfather. Manfred’s best schoolfriend was a Pole, whose sister was in love with my grandfather’s sister. These two lovers, and their respective brothers, became his closest friends.

At first glance, my grandfather must have looked like an odd addition to this Polish-Jewish-lesbian alliance. A Prussian aristocrat, raised in a Schloss on the Baltic coast, he worked for Heinkel, the aircraft manufacturer. Yet he was estranged from his elder brother, who had inherited the family estate and title: in his own way, he was an outcast, too.

Manfred’s fine friends couldn’t shield him from the troubles. In 1941, the SS picked up him and his parents and herded them on to an eastbound train. Incredibly, Manfred persuaded the SS to let him go and say goodbye to his girlfriend before the journey. He could have fled, but he didn’t want to leave his parents, and he had promised the SS that he would return. But the SS didn’t keep their own promises. Everyone had been told to pack one small suitcase – but when the train left, every suitcase was left behind.

They travelled for several days, into the Russian winter, in freezing cattle trucks without food or water. “Whoever died on the way, old people, young people, were thrown out.” When they reached Minsk, they were handed over to the Ukrainian SS. “They were worse than the German SS,” says Manfred. “They used to say, ‘Here, a bullet doesn’t mean anything’.” But a bullet was far quicker than starving or freezing to death. “People were dying day and night.” They had to build bonfires before they could bury their dead, because the ground was frozen solid. They lived on bread and water and, occasionally, potato peel. “For us, that was like a delicacy,” says Manfred. “That was like caviar.”

Minsk had been badly bombed and, because he had been a bricklayer, Manfred was put to work rebuilding the ruined railway station. His boss was from Swabia, Germany’s West Country. He befriended Manfred and, in 1942, helped him sneak on to a train bringing wounded German soldiers back from the Eastern Front. As a disguise, he gave Manfred his Nazi armband. “That’s how I escaped,” Manfred says. “A British bobby trenchcoat with a swastika armband.” He climbed into the tender, and hid underneath the coal.

He paid a high price for his freedom: he had to leave his parents behind. His father died of a heart attack. His mother was shot while trying to trade a ring for some food.

By the end of 1942, all the Jews in Minsk had been slaughtered, the last 16,000 on one day. When Manfred got back to Berlin, infested with lice, he went to see his girlfriend, but it was far too dangerous to stay with her, so he phoned my grandfather. “Come over here,” said my grandfather. His flat was opposite a police station, but he took him in, and fed and clothed him. “He wasn’t afraid of anything,” says Manfred. “He risked his life for me.” Manfred stayed there for several weeks, until he was ready to leave Germany. “We had such a close friendship,” he says. “You only have friendship like this once in a lifetime.”

With his girlfriend and her mother, Manfred caught a train to Luxembourg, but on board the train he was collared by the military police. “Where are your papers?” They asked him.

“In my compartment,” he lied.

The military police told him to fetch them. Then they followed him up the train. When he reached the last carriage, he jumped off. Luckily, the train wasn’t travelling very fast. Manfred hitch-hiked to Luxembourg, where he found his girlfriend and her mother. They sold some jewellery to pay a cigarette smuggler to lead them over the Ardennes mountains and into Belgium. The smuggler had to carry Manfred’s girlfriend on his back. Fortunately, her mother was strong enough to walk.

In Brussels they bought fake French papers, and then set off through France towards Switzerland. But when they reached Besancon, near the Swiss border, their luck finally ran out. A German soldier had been killed, and his comrades were rounding up civilians, locking them in barns and burning them alive. “On the street, our lives wouldn’t be worth a penny.”

In desperation, they sought refuge in the cathedral. There they met a blind monsignor. “He couldn’t see us,” says Manfred. “He could only feel our faces.” As he traced their profiles with his hands, he listened to their story. “He trusted us,” Manfred remembers. “We could have been German spies. He would have lost his life.” The monsignor hid them in the crypt. “He led us down into the basement, between skeletons.”

For several days, he took them food and drink, and finally, when the coast was clear, he gave them the password for a friendly farmer who would lead them to the border. They walked by night and hid by day. “We saw the border guards and their dogs, but we were lucky this time. It was raining, and when it’s raining, dogs cannot take any scent.” As they crossed the border, the guards saw them and opened fire, but the bullets missed, and they made it down the mountain and into neutral Switzerland.

Interned in Switzerland until the end of the war, Manfred married his girlfriend and, in 1947, he finally joined his brother in New York, taking his wife and mother-in-law with him. All three of them lived in one rented room, just three blocks away from the apartment where he lives today.

Manfred got a job as a bricklayer. He had trouble with the construction unions, which were run by and for Italians. Sometimes he was laid off and rehired four times in the same day. But his first contractor bought him a spirit level, the second bought him a hammer and a trowel, and he ended up working for Donald Trump. For this Holocaust survivor, the American dream is a reality. His wife and brother have both died but, despite open heart surgery, Manfred is still very much alive.

Manfred attributes his survival to his sheer fearlessness. In France, he took his wife and mother-in-law to a restaurant full of SS men because he believed they would be safest right under their noses. “Don’t they look like Germans?” he heard one SS man ask another, as his wife and mother-in-law conversed in broken French. “I had no nerves at all,” says Manfred.

His recklessness is something he shared with his three guardian angels – certainly, it was a quality everyone recognised in my grandfather.

My father was born in Dresden in 1942, the year my grandfather sheltered Manfred on his return from Minsk. By then, my grandmother had already left him. She married an English soldier, and brought her infant son to England. My grandfather met my father only once, when he returned to Germany from a British prisoner of war camp. I never met him. He died when I was still a child. He fell out of a train.

My grandfather was a disappointing spouse and parent. But maybe the recklessness that left him wanting in these roles enabled him to risk his life for Manfred. Or maybe he was merely happy to take that risk because he had nothing left to lose. Either way, 60 years after he helped save Manfred’s life, and 30 years after his own life ended, so suddenly, I finally discovered something about my grandfather of which I could feel truly proud. And I realised that my own family knew almost nothing about him at all.

Despite the cold wind and the descending darkness, Manfred insists on walking me to the subway. “There weren’t too many heroes around in Germany,” he says. “They deserve to be mentioned, that lived under such tragic, harsh conditions, and did whatever they could.”

We say our farewells. “That would make it really easy for me to leave this earth,” he concludes, “that I know these people are honoured.”

We shake hands, and Manfred shuffles off, stick in hand, baseball cap tugged down against the winter weather. And then he turns the corner, and disappears. But his friend, the long-dead grandfather I never met, feels very close at hand.

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