Like Ilonka Alexander’s story, Marc Stevens’ bears some similarities to mine in that none of us knew about our Jewish heritage until later in life, plus both of our fathers came from Hannover. But you will find in Marc’s account some extraordinary differences. This is his very unique and dramatic story:
Escape, Evasion and Revenge
Growing up, I had been told that, even though my father spoke with a very cultured British accent and had been a Royal Air Force bomber pilot during World War II, he had actually been born in Germany to Christian parents. I was told that this was a major secret, and I was to divulge it to no one. Since my father died in 1979, when I was 22 years old, I never really got the chance to speak with him, man to man, about what he had done in the war. About 1986, I started to get interested to learn why my father had been awarded Britain’s Military Cross, a very high honor for bravery in the face of the enemy. It took me 18 years of travelling all throughout Europe, but I finally unearthed a most unique story:
My late father was born Georg Franz Hein, in Hannover on Feb 15, 1919, the second of three children. His father had inherited the family publishing company, but he died in 1926.
My grandmother immediately sent my father away to boarding school in Bavaria, which was home of the nascent Nazi Party. But my grandmother, Henni Hein (nee Seckel), kept her other son and daughter at home with her, which destroyed her relationship with my father. He hated her for the rest of his life.
In 1933, things were already nervous for the Jews of Hannover. We also had a wealthy family branch in Berlin.
At the tender age of 17 my father’s older brother insisted to his mother that their family must leave Germany.
Grandma Henni allowed him to go to London and make a place for their family there. Meanwhile, she would stay in Hannover to run the family business with help from both the Hein and Seckel families, although they too had lost a lot in the stock market crash of 1929.
In early 1934, my father went to London to stay with his older brother, but they did not get along well.
Yet he learned English and finished high school. Then he attended the London School of Economics for a year. But Dad wanted something more, and soon left the LSE to earn his own money. During this period, his mother had been supporting all of them. But their little sister, Gertrude (Trude) didn’t get to London until 1938.
However Dad’s mother, Henni, either refused to leave or was unable by this point, because of Nazi policies. She sent all the money she had left to England for her three children in late 1938. But my Dad, with his intense hatred of his mother, got his hands on all of it and proceeded to gamble it all away out of spite. Not having any real parental authority figure close by, my father developed some wild habits. With nothing left, he began resorting to petty crime to survive. He was arrested for theft in 1939, and in mid-July, was sentenced to 3 months in jail.
On Sept 1, the day Germany invaded Poland, Britain’s Home Office sent a directive to all prison wardens to make room for enemy aliens. My father, who himself was one of the aliens in question, was released six weeks early. He then proceeded to London and made a bee-line for the cemetery where one of his London high school classmates was buried.
Noting the details of that boy’s birth, Dad went to the government records office and requested a copy of “his” birth certificate. On Sept 3, the day war was declared, my father took his new birth certificate and presented himself at a Royal Air Force enlistment office, saying “My name is Peter Stevens, and I want to be a pilot.”
For the next 18 months, he trained to fly, all the while the object of a British Police manhunt as a possible enemy spy. He was posted to a front line bomber squadron on April 1/41, and began flying missions against occupied Europe and his homeland.
Through the summer of ’41, he flew 22 combat missions, including one when he bombed his own hometown, Hannover. It is important to understand that, at that time in the war, the lives of British bomber crews were measured in weeks. They suffered the highest loss rate of any Allied unit in the war, at 44% killed. Dad was lucky.
On his first trip back to Berlin, since going there from London for the 1936 Olympics, his plane was damaged by flak, and he ran out of fuel near Amsterdam, where he made a perfect belly landing in a farmer’s field. He was captured the next day, and so began three years and eight months as a POW, with no protection whatsoever under the Geneva Convention because he was, after all, still legally a German citizen and therefore a traitor to the Third Reich. Had the Nazis ever discovered his true identity, the consequences would have been unpleasantly fatal.
He went on to make eight escape attempts, actually getting outside the wire three times. On his very first escape, he jumped off a prison train in a hail of bullets and made his way to his mother’s home in Hannover, hoping to get food, money and civilian clothing that would allow him to continue his journey to Switzerland.
Unfortunately, when he knocked on the door of his old house, he was told that his mother had taken her own life in July ’39, around the same time he’d been sent to jail in London. Dad was recaptured a day or two later and sent back to POW camp.
In 2006, I learned that, after he was liberated at war’s end, Dad was one of only 69 members of the RAF to be awarded Britain’s Military Cross for extreme bravery. He later served five years in MI6, spying against the Russians in East Germany, then made a clean break and emigrated to Canada in 1952.
That’s where he met and married my mother, a French-Canadian Catholic named Claire Lalonde. Dad told her that he was British and Anglican. My brother was born in ’54, and I came along in ’57. We were raised as Catholics, with no idea of Dad’s true heritage.
Eventually he owned up to being German, and to having two siblings, but not to being Jewish. He died in 1979, and I only tracked down his little sister in London in 1996. Dad’s brother had already died in 1960.
Aunt Trude confirmed the rumors I’d heard from Dad’s POW colleagues that he was in fact a German Jew.
Interestingly, my older brother, Peter Jr., moved to the US in 1980, and met and married a Jewish woman there in 1983. Peter converted to his wife’s religion a few years later, and his two children were raised Jewish. Today they both live in Israel.
I left the Church at age 13, and have considered myself an atheist ever since. My discovery, in 1996, that I am half-Jewish, seems to have been very much like your own.
It took me several years to come to grips with being able to admit it to people. Today I have no problem with it, but it still feels just a bit awkward to me. Perhaps that is because of my atheism, but I’m not really sure.
Regardless, I support Jewish causes like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and I am proud of Israel’s will to survive in a very dangerous world.
After 18 years of research into my Dad’s story, which I began in the mid-’80’s, I decided that his story was so unusual that it deserved to be told, and I wrote his biography. ‘Escape, Evasion and Revenge’ was published by Pen & Sword in 2009, and was written by the proud son of the bravest man I’ve ever met.