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The Story of a Jewish POW Interrogator

Of all the connections made through Wartime Wednesdays, this is the most wonderful. Hank Herzberg of Chicago, aged 95, learned at last what had happened to his boyhood friend from Hanover, Germany, by reading my post called The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin. And his own story is also extraordinary!


First, the Georg Hein Story

The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin is the most popular article ever posted on Wartime Wednesdays. It was reprinted by permission in various publications, and hopefully has resulted in many book sales for Marc Stevens, who wrote the entire account of his father’s experiences in a book called Escape, Evasion, and Revenge.

Here’s a brief synopsis: When Marc Stevens of Toronto, Canada, researched his father’s service record, he discovered to his shock that his British father Peter Stevens was secretly Jewish, born and raised in Hanover, Germany.

His father had escaped to England as a teenager before the war, changed his name from Georg Hein by stealing the name Peter Stevens from a gravestone, and enlisted in the RAF. Here’s a photo of Georg Hein at the age of 15.

He became a bomber pilot, was shot down, and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp – his true Jewish identity unknown to his captors. He escaped several times – on one memorable occasion, finding his way back to his old home in Hanover before being recaptured! Here’s a photo of Pilot Officer Stevens in his RAF uniform.

After the war, he moved to Canada, married a French-Canadian woman and had two boys who were raised as Roman Catholics. He died in 1979, when Marc was just twenty-two years old, without ever revealing his real identity to his own family.

So you can imagine Marc’s astonishment, decades after his father’s death, at learning the truth. And it was horrifying for Marc to learn that most of his father’s extended family had died in the Holocaust.

To read the original blog post, click: The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin.

For the whole story, check out the book!

A Voice From the Past

Now here is the unbelievable part! Several weeks after I posted the original article on Wartime Wednesdays, I received this message.

“What a story! My name is Hans Herzberg. Georg Hein and I were best friends for many years in the late 20s and very early 30s. He lived with his mother on Heinrich Strasse, just a few blocks from our house. We spent frequent times at each other’s homes, and enjoyed our friendship as teenagers until Georg emigrated to England. 

“I visited him in London in 1936. He paid for my room and board since I could not take money out of Germany. We lost contact about a year later. Over the years I have wondered what became of him. Then, a few days ago, I typed his name onto the Google page, and was totally amazed what I read. I would certainly like to get in touch with Mr. Marc Stevens.”

I immediately passed this message to Marc Stevens, and the two men connected.

In Marc’s own words:

“My first reaction upon reading your message announcing that you’d heard from a man who claimed to be a boyhood friend of my father was utter shock. After all, my father would have been 95 years old last year, meaning that Hank would have had to be close to the same age. And since they were both Jewish, how was it possible for Hank to have survived the Holocaust?

“I called Hank on the telephone the very same day I learned of his existence. And I discovered that he was indeed who he claimed to be, and that his own story of survival was about as unlikely as that of my father.”

In June 2015, Marc Stevens flew to Chicago and met Hank Herzberg. Marc was finally able to fill in some of the blanks about his father’s boyhood.

One of the remarkable aspects of this story is that Hank Herzberg is almost 96 years old, and uses the computer every day. After speaking with Hank on the telephone myself, and then becoming Facebook Friends with him (yes, he uses Facebook, too) I realized that his own story is also an amazing one.

Hank began to write his own memoirs while he was in hospital for a minor operation back in 1943. Fifty years later, he sat down and finished them. Like many veterans, he wrote the memoir for his family and friends, but he sent me a copy, along with a few photographs, and gave me permission to publish an abbreviated version here.

Please take a few moments to read this powerful and inspirational story.

Hank Herzberg: The Early Years

Hans (later Hank) Herzberg was born in Hanover, Germany, on May 19, 1919. The country was still suffering from turmoil after World War One ended. His father was a well-respected doctor, and Hank grew up surrounded by a loving extended family. Eight years later, his little brother Uli was born. Hank wrote about his Bar Mitzvah on May 28, 1932 – what a beautiful ceremony it was, and how all of his relatives came to watch.

All that changed in January 1933 when Hitler came to power. “The Jewish community became fearful, the future became uncertain, but the majority consensus in those days was that this madness could not last in a highly-civilized country,” Hank recalled. “My father’s patients as well as many of our neighbours told us not to give up, things were not as bad as they seemed, people would come to their senses after a while.”

But the situation got worse. That year, the first members of Hank’s family left Germany, and more followed in 1934. The noose was tightening around the Jewish community. They were no longer permitted to go to theatres, public parks or restaurants.

“There was one law that hit home the most – Jewish doctors could no longer deliver German babies. This made it very tough for my father, since obstetrics was a major part of his practice. Many of his patients begged him to ignore this law as he had already delivered their other children.” His poor father became so depressed that he had to be hospitalized.

Hank was finishing his eleventh grade when it was decreed that this was the end of high school. His class would graduate in 1937 instead of 1938 – and moreover, no Jewish students would be allowed to graduate.

Hank Begins His Working Life

Hank found work in the Braunsberg cotton mills as a clerk. But eighteen months later all German companies were “Arianized” – all Jewish employers and employees were fired.

“During the summer, I spent ten days in London. My friend Georg Hein who used to live close to us had emigrated to England a few years before. I did not see much of him in London, he had a 9 to 5 job, but we managed to spend a few hours together over the weekend. He paid for my room and board at a low grade hotel, and gave me a little pocket money for the subway and lunch. I was not permitted to take any money out of Germany.”

Back in Germany, Hank enrolled in the School for Welding Engineers in Berlin. “After receiving my diploma at the end of the eight-week course, I returned home. It was then that I finally registered with the American Consulate in Hamburg, requesting a waiting number for a visa to enter the United States.”

In 1938, Hank’s father lost his licence to practice medicine. “I think it was a lack of energy, and the power to decide, in both my parents that kept them from doing anything about emigration for themselves.”

Several months later, Hank left home for a job in Dortmund, welding steel barrels. “Then came the most tragic week of my life: the week during which millions of people got their first taste of what Nazism really is.”

Hank Sent to Prison Camp

Hank went home for the weekend in November 1938. He didn’t know at the time that it was to be the last time he saw his beloved younger brother Uli.

When he returned to Dortmund on the night of November 9th, a terrible scene ensued. Gangs of Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish homes and beat Jews. “They made me stand against a wall with my hands behind my back, then a few of them thought it great fun to land some mighty blows to my face. Every time I moved a little, one of those animals would kick me in the groin or the legs.”

Reports of destruction came from all over Germany as Jewish homes were plundered, Jews beaten and imprisoned. A few days later, Hank was arrested on the street and jailed overnight, then marched to a waiting train with six hundred other Jewish men.

“We were heavily guarded, fortunately by police, which was quite a relief for us because the officers were rather friendly and sympathetic; they simply had to do what the Gestapo dictated.”

The train carried the men away to the east, and when it stopped, they were taken outside and beaten. “Then the first of us died – a 67-year-old lawyer who died from repeated blows to his head.” They were marched at gunpoint into a concentration camp surrounded by high walls and told to line up and stand still – for the next twenty hours.

Finally, they were taken inside, their heads shaved and their clothes replaced with old uniforms from World War One. “We were now nameless. I was Number 11722.” The prison camp, Hank learned later, was Sachsenhausen, located fifty miles north of Berlin.

Existence in the camp as described by Hank was so horrific that words can’t do it justice. His life consisted of running back and forth for ten hours a day, carrying heaps of sand in the coat tails of his jacket, emptying the sand in a different place. They had very little to eat. The men’s hands froze – the prisoners urinated on their own hands to prevent infection. Those who fainted, or became too ill to work, were taken to the “hospital” and never seen again.

Hank Freed Again, Returns Home

Miraculously, five weeks later Hank was released. To this day, he doesn’t know why. He was handed his old clothes and a letter from his mother with 20 Deutschmarks, and sent out the front gate along with a group of other released prisoners.

Not everyone in Germany agreed with the Nazis. Hank recalls the kindness of German civilians. “I safely got to the railroad station from which the train to Hanover was leaving. This is where I encountered an outpouring of human emotions. Hundreds of Germans were lined up to offer me help, money, shelter, food. Wrapped sandwiches were pressed into my hands, men and women asked me to stay at their homes overnight. These were a few hours which I will never forget.”

On the train, a man wearing a Nazi pin in his lapel spoke to him. “He said he did not agree with the actions against German Jews, and he was sorry, but look at all the other wonderful things the Fuhrer had done for Germany.”

Hank arrived home to find that his father, severely depressed, had lost his will to live and was now bedridden. His brother Uli had been sent to safety in Amsterdam with a party of other Jewish children — or so they thought.

War Brings Greater Suffering

On September 1, 1939, war was declared. The three Herzbergs remaining in Hanover were now ordered to take in other Jewish citizens. Five more people moved into their apartment.

For the next two years, life continued to worsen for the Herzbergs, although Hank obtained a job as a welder at a construction company about an hour’s train ride from his home.

Hank vividly recalls his first big bombing raid on February 21, 1941: “We were really happy that the RAF had finally come to try to reverse the tide of German victories, although naturally we could not share those thoughts with others . . . afterwards we went into the street and witnessed the unbelievable destruction. Fires were still burning and some house were totally demolished.”

Meanwhile, Hank’s uncle Julius in New York was working tirelessly to obtain an entry visa for Hank. He had to deliver an affidavit to the U.S. government promising living quarters for the refugee for one year, plus a $1,000 bond to be kept for three years. He could not afford the bond, so Julius set out to find a donor. After much diligence, he located a Detroit lawyer named Robert Anspach who put up the money.

Shortly after Hank’s 22nd birthday, he was called to Hamburg for a medical examination by an American doctor – and left with his U.S. entry visa in his hands!

Immediately, the decree came down that no more Jews would leave the country. But after some negotiation, the government agreed that Jews who already had their entry visas to other countries would be allowed to leave. It was the narrowest of escapes for Hank.

Hank Leaves His Home and Family

On August 10th, 1941, Hank left his family for the last time. “It was one of the saddest days of my life. There were butterflies in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and tears in my eyes, as we took a cab to the railroad station. ‘Be sure to write, we will join you once you are settled.’ These were the last words I heard from my parents. We embraced and kissed.”

Hank travelled by train to France, Spain, and then to Lisbon in Portugal where he boarded the SS Muzinho, jammed with bunk beds to accommodate refugees. As they waited to leave the harbor, “I saw a girl standing close by, admiring the sky line as I did. I said hello, and we talked for a while.” Her name was Ilse Nussbaum, and she was from Dortmund.

Later in the voyage there was a dance, and Hank asked Ilse to dance. “Our very first dance was the music of The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was the first dance with the girl who would later become his wife.

The ship docked on September 1, 1941. Hank’s aunt and uncle welcomed him with open arms, and he was taken home to live with them in New York.

After Pearl Harbour, all communication with Germany was cut off and Hank had no idea what was happening to his family. One month later, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but he was told that as an enemy alien, he must wait to be drafted. Hank found work and a room of his own in New York.

Hank Becomes a “Ritchie Boy”

Just before Christmas 1942, Hank received a letter from President Roosevelt telling him to report for duty! Here he is, proudly wearing his uniform.

While in his first training camp, Hank came down with spinal meningitis and almost died. He was in hospital for five weeks, but then returned to basic training in North Carolina. “I was not exactly the athletic type,” Hank said. He also had to overcome the language barrier, since his English was not yet perfect. But on July 13, 1943 something wonderful happened: Hank was granted his U.S. Citizenship in Durham, North Carolina.

He was assigned to guard Italian prisoners of war in an isolated area north of Winston, North Carolina. There he experienced anti-Semitism from the other soldiers. “There was constant verbal abuse, and on some occasions I was beaten by some of the top bullies.”

Thankfully, because of his knowledge of the German language, he was chosen for the Army Specialist Training Program. He received intense instruction in POW interrogation at the top-secret Camp Ritchie, Maryland.

He and the other German Jews who had escaped their own country understood the psychology and language of the enemy better than anyone else. They later became known as “The Ritchie Boys.” You can read more about this fascinating slice of history by clicking: The Ritchie Boys.

“Half of us would don German uniforms acting as POWs, and the other half would interrogate the so-called prisoners while the instructors watched.”

Hank graduated and was promoted to S/Sgt. Herzberg IPW (Interrogator, Prisoners of War).

Hank Serves as POW Interrogator

It was while aboard a troop ship crossing the Atlantic in June 1944 that the men learned the invasion of Europe was underway. Hank spent three months  in England and finally landed in Normandy, assigned to the 26th Division.

For the next few months, there was little activity although Hank interrogated a few German prisoners. But in December 1944, they were dispatched to a town in Luxembourg. The terrible Battle of the Bulge was in progress.

“As we passed through rough terrain we witnessed the most horrible sight. Dozens of dead American GIs, frozen stiff in the snow, burned out U.S. tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, and countless pieces of U.S. military equipment. We knew then that a big fight for survival lay ahead.”

Hank was one of three interrogators who interviewed German prisoners. “We came across many who were cooperative, others who tried to give us misinformation, and those who came in shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ But we learned to handle each group to get the most information out of them. I was the main interrogator because of my German.”

In December 1944, the Malmedy Massacre, in which eighty-four American prisoners of war taken in Belgium were murdered by their German captors, naturally angered the American fighting forces.

“By January 1945 interrogations came to a virtual halt because our American GIs were in no mood to take prisoners. The three of us were dispatched to frontline positions at various company headquarters to speak to the troops about the necessity of bringing in prisoners.”

Hank Performs Vital Role After War Ends

Four months later, the war ended. Hank received a special assignment in Linz, Austria, interviewing former members of the German military forces. These were processed at a special discharge centre.

Prisoners were checked for their identity, including an inspection of their left armpits. All former SS (Schutzstaffel) members, responsible for many of the worst war crimes, had tattoos in their left armpits of their blood type, although some tried to burn or cut them out so they wouldn’t be identified.

Then their former residences were established – if they had lived in what was now occupied by the Russians, most lied in an attempt not to return.

Hank sat at the final table, the one where the prisoner’s fate was decided. They could discharge the prisoners (more than 90 percent were told to go home); hold them for further interrogation; or transport them back to the Russian zone (this was the equivalent of execution and many prisoners killed themselves rather than submit to the Russians).

Hank’s Life in Peacetime

It wasn’t until after the war ended that Hank learned of his family’s fate.

Four months after he left Germany, his parents were taken to a camp in Latvia, and executed three months later. His little brother Uli was taken to the same camp that Ann Frank later inhabited. He was then deported to another camp in Poland and put to death.

Hank, the only surviving member of his immediate family, returned to the United States and moved to Chicago in 1947. He and Ilse had stayed in touch throughout the war, and they were married on June 8, 1948.

In the 1950s, Hank and Ilse visited Robert Anspach and his wife at their home in Detroit, so that Hank could shake the hand of the man who saved his life.

Hank pursued a career as a department store manager, and for years he and Ilse owned a children’s wear store in Chicago. After his retirement, he performed volunteer work. He and Ilse were passionate about travelling and took trips to many countries around the world. Sadly, Ilse died just a few months ago.

Hank still lives in his own home, surrounded by his loving family and friends. He has two daughters, Joan Schaller and Barbara Faermark; and two granddaughters, Deborah Wallace and Rachel Schaller. He also loves his “bundle of joy” — his first great-grandson, Alex Ryan Wallace.

Here is a recent photo of Hank Herzberg.

Thank you, Hank Herzberg, for your service to your country, and to the Allied victory over tyranny. And thank you for sharing your story with us.

(Note: Hank Herzberg passed away in 2017 at the age of 97. Readers, please consider sharing this post through social media and email, so that others can read about both of these courageous boyhood friends, whose stories deserve to be widely told.)

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Hank Herzberg’s wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form with the title: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. See more info by visiting the book cover image at the bottom of this page.


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