Nazi atrocities must never be forgotten

BOB Kutner witnessed first hand the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis but fears their crimes are being dimmed with every passing year. Now 88, the Glasgow pensioner is retelling the story of his remarkable wartime experience in a bid to keep those terrible memories alive

HEARING Nazi soldiers singing about the joy of seeing Jewish blood spraying from their daggers is a memory which has stayed with Bob Kutner for nearly 80 years. Hitler had recently become Chancellor of Germany and for the nine year-old Jewish boy from Leipzig life would never be the same again. His ordinary loving childhood became one dominated by fear, violence and terror. For Bob, though, it was also the start of an incredible adventure across Europe which finally brought him to Britain, where he became an army interrogator.

After the war he settled in Glasgow where, many years later, he decided to immortalise his experiences in his autobiography Over My Shoulder. More than ten years later, aware of his own mortality and how few of his own generation are left, Kutner has reissued his book in a bid to make sure the horrors of Hitler’s regime are never forgotten.

The 88 year-old says: “Even in the earliest days of Hitler’s power I remember people being arrested, street beatings and elderly people being made to clean gutters with their hands. The memory of the soldiers singing that song, though, has stayed with me forever. I can still hear it … that and the sound of the ordinary German people cheering them as they sang.

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“I also remember going to school on the day Hitler came to power. The new regime had clicked into place immediately – the teachers changed towards us. It was only the start, though, and compared to what many other people experienced I was one of the lucky ones. What happened must never be forgotten, but there are fewer of us left every year, so I felt the need to tell my tale again in the hope of keeping the memory alive.”

In the months after Hitler took power, Kutner’s family decided they had to leave Germany. His father, a businessman, left for Alsace-Lorraine in France to set up their new life. Kutner, his mother and his brother and sister joined him in December 1933, taking only what they could carry. After having lived in terror for so many months, life in a provincial French town seemed blissful to young Kutner, but it wasn’t to last as his parents decided to move to Paris. Without the relevant work permits, the family lived huddled together with other refugee families in a flea-infested hotel.

Kutner says: “We were always starving because there was no money and no food, but my mother was so proud she would sometimes boil a pan of water so the neighbours would think we had something to eat.”

Frequent raids by the French police on the hotel, during which the men were arrested and held for days at a time, made life even tougher for Kutner’s family. Eventually, a charity organised for Kutner and his sister, Celia, to stay with a family in Switzerland while the rest of the family relocated to Milan, Italy.

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Kutner says: “When we joined my parents and brother in Italy, life was wonderful compared to what we were used to. There were shortages, of course, but there was not the anti-Semitism that there was in Germany. My brother and I were obliged to join the Balilla, a mixture between the Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth, but at the time I didn’t mind. The organisation was benevolent and the uniforms were stunning. Of course later on I grew to hate the fascist posturing.”

The short idyllic time in Italy wasn’t to last. In 1936 Kutner’s ailing and apolitical father was held for two weeks on trumped-up charges of sedition. He died not long afterwards aged just 47. Kutner’s sister Celia escaped to take a place as a sponsored domestic in England, just as Hitler demanded the introduction of anti-Jewish laws in Italy. Under the new rules Kutner was stopped going to school, the family were given six months to leave the country and all Jews were fired from their jobs.

It was at this time Kutner’s older brother, John, enlisted his younger siblings’ help spying. Kutner says: “We were counting the number of military planes and writing letters in lemon juice to someone in France. It was all a bit ridiculous and I thought it was just a bit of a game, but, of course, he was caught. My mother and I were taken in for interrogation and they recognised my handwriting from some of the letters, but, thankfully, I was too young to prosecute. My brother was sentenced to 30 years, he was lucky it wasn’t worse.”

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With the family in pieces and food and money in short supply, Kutner’s mother was desperate to get her youngest son to England. Fate intervened when an English couple arrived who had planned to sponsor a nine year-old girl from another family. In desperation that family had already fled across the Alps, so the couple decided to take Kutner instead.

Kutner says: “Parents wanted rid of their children. I know it sounds unnatural but it was the only way to make sure they were safe. I never knew what happened to the other family, but I am grateful they took me instead. They saved my life but I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much they did for me until much later.”

Having an English sponsor didn’t make escape easy for a 15 year-old Jewish boy in 1938 Nazi Europe, however. After his first attempt to leave he ended up in a prison cell owing to “problems” with his paperwork. In the end, he made the incredible decision to go through Germany.

Kutner says: “My parents were born in Poland so I had a Polish passport. It didn’t have ‘Jew’ stamped in it so I went into the German consulate in Milan and asked for a travel permit. I got it and incredibly I took the train right through Germany.”

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After spending a few months with his sponsor family in Hampstead Heath learning English, Kutner took a live-in position on a poultry farm in Berkshire where he worked until his mother made it to the UK and settled in Nottingham.

Kutner’s ambition of joining the British Army finally came to fruition in 1943 where his language skills were put to good use screening PoWs. As the war drew to a close he was posted in Europe where he had bore witness to the Nazi’s atrocities, including a day spent at Belsen concentration camp not long after its liberation, and interrogating many Nazis.

He says: “I remember one young SS officer who had been accused of shooting nine elderly people hiding in a cellar in cold blood when he knew the Allies were coming. He admitted his guilt but when I corrected him by saying there were nine not eight he simply shrugged his shoulders and asked what difference it made.”

Kutner also interviewed the notorious “Beast of Belsen” Irma Grese, known for making lampshades from human skin and setting her dogs on prisoners.

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He says: “You could see she hoped to use her womanly charms on me, but she disgusted me.

“I know I have had a fortunate and lucky life but I remember the many people I knew, including my own grandparents, who died in concentration camps and I know I will never forgive that generation of Germans and I hope that once we are all gone it won’t simply be forgotten.”