For the first half of the 20th Century, life in Germany was not easy. A world war, hyper-inflation, depression, the rise of fascism, and finally another, even more destructive world war. This is what my grandfather, Hans Wilhelm Joachim Boldt faced. One could argue that my Opa was lucky, damn lucky to have survived all that. But that’s a form of “survivorship bias”. That is, it’s the survivors who get to tell their stories. Here are some his.
My Opa, Hans Boldt, was born almost on the eve of the 20th Century, September 1900, in a small village in the former Grand-Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. His father, Heinrich Boldt, worked as a day laborer, as did most other men in rural Mecklenburg. But when he figured out that the land-owners were cheating the workers out of their rightful pay, he could no longer find work, and so the family moved to the city of Hamburg.
During the First World War, Heinrich Boldt went off to serve in the army, and Opa went to work to support the family. Food was scarce. Heinrich was often able to send food packages home. But by the time Opa returned home from work, his sisters Bertha and Minna and half sister Frieda would have already finished off all the food. As soon as he was able, Opa joined the army, if only to be properly fed. He joined an elite unit whose members were over two meters tall, and he served as a motorcycle courier on the eastern front.
Fast-forward to one of the last “free” elections in Germany before the rise of the Nazi party. Hans brought his son Ernst (my Dad) with him to the polling station. While waiting in line to deposit his ballot, he suspected something amiss (probably from the presence of brown-shirts monitoring the process). He handed his ballot to his son, a typically rambunctious six year old, who promptly ran to the front of the long line, and dropped the ballot into the ballot box. Of course, kids will be kids. Once the ballot was in the box, that was that, and they left. We’ll see the relevance of this anecdote later.
Once the Nazi’s were in power, the first groups they went after were their political opponents: leftists, socialists, and communists. At the time, the shipyards in Hamburg were a hotbed for leftist groups. Although, my Opa was not officially a member of any left-wing group, he certainly sympathized, and he certainly knew people belonging to these groups. While the communists were being rounded up, Opa helped one of them escape, the editor of a communist newspaper. Opa took him to the top of one of the tall church steeples in the city, and he was able to hide there until it was safe to leave, and he then successfully escaped to Denmark.
While at the top of the steeple, Opa couldn’t resist taking a picture of the city. That photo, and other evidence left at the top of the steeple was enough for the police to arrest Opa for aiding a fugitive. During questioning, two factors worked in his favor. First, the Nazi’s had a lot of respect for veterans of the First World War. Second, they mistakenly thought he had voted Nazi in the previous election. How could they know who he voted for? Probably, someone was able to merge arrival information at the polling station with the ballots, still in arrival sequence, to figure out who voted for which party. When my dad dropped the ballot into the box prematurely, that put a number of ballots out of their proper sequence, and so some of the resulting data was incorrect.
The arrest resulted in my Opa’s first imprisonment. More stories later.