Gerald spent his youth in Berlin until 1938, when aged 14 it became clear to his family that he, his older brother and sister and his parents, would need to separate if they were all to survive.
Gerald’s grandparents on both sides descended from Poland (Prussia); but his parents Alfred Wachsner and Paula (Gumpert) were both raised in Berlin, Germany. His parents had always been patriotic and saw their future in Germany. Alfred Wachsner had been a soldier in the German Army and fought in trenches during World War I for four years. He was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class and was a brilliant linguist speaking several languages. After the First World War Alfred ran his own button factory, but business was hard during the Depression.
Gerald’s family did follow some Jewish traditions, though Gerald’s never felt very religious growing up. He had his Bar Mitzvah. “My parents were what you might call ‘three day Jews’, in other words went (to Shule) two days a year at Rosh Hashanah and on day a year at Yom Kippur.” His sister was part of the Zionist youth movement and Gerald had attended Hacshara in Gut Winkel, Berlin in preparation for going to Israel, but this was not to eventuate.
With the rise of anti-Semitism Gerald recognised that he and his friends and all Jewish people were losing their right to freedom of speech, for fear of being spied upon and betrayed. With the growth of the Hitler youth movement Gerald experienced constant harassment, and bullying, often being chased by boys who hounded him in packs. At the Grosse Hamburger Strasse Schule, a state school where Gerald attended, it was a requirement to stand in the school grounds each day and sing Nazi national anthems. Those who didn’t join in were singled out and each one knew that the other most likely came from a Jewish family. “Every day people were taken away to camps, every day another desk in my class was empty.”
By 1933, all Jewish children were made to leave Christian and State schools, and had to attend a school for Jewish children only. Under the passing of the Nuremburg Law, Jews also had restricted movement within in the city.
The family’s final push to leave Germany came with the destruction and violence on the “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallancht). Gerald witnessed first-hand the fires from two hundred Synagogues and the looting and destruction of Jewish businesses. Alfred escaped to the forests for a period of time, only returning home in the middle of the night for food and water.
Gerald’s parents then made preparations for him to be leave on the Kinder Transport. Children could leave Germany by the sanctioned Kinder Transport up to the age of 15 years, after that they were on their own. Gerald just made it, leaving on the second to last Kind Transport train the 1st August, 1939, just before he turned 15. He didn’t know that from that moment, he wouldn’t see his parents ever again. Gerald’s older brother and sister then also made their own plans to leave Germany. It would be another 7 years before each of these siblings made renewed contact with one another.
Gerald went on to live in a hostel with other refugee children in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was 16 (1940), he was declared a “Friendly Alien”. Gerald took an apprenticeship as a piano tuner for a couple of years, and by 18 he enlisted in the British Army. He returned to Europe to fight from 1943-45.
After the war Gerald learnt what happened to his parents when he met a woman who had survived the Holocaust but had been in the same concentration camp with Gerald’s parents in Riga, Latvia. Alfred Wachsner had been shot by the Nazis in 1942, whilst Paula died of an unknown cause, the same day his unit had landed in Normandy, in 1944. Gerald then went to work as a translator at some Nazi war crimes trials.
Gerald arrived in Wellington, NZ on the 25th October, 1948. His brother Günter was already here, while his sister Anneliese was living in Palestine (later the state of Israel), but passed away in 1946. Gerald went onto study languages and education at Victoria University and Wellington Teachers College. By 1962 he had settled in Auckland. Gerald, worked as a school teacher, married three times and raised four children. Gerald re-visited Berlin six times in his later life, including a class reunion in 1990 of some of his school mates, some who had survived the concentration camps and others like himself who had left Germany. On his last trip to Europe he visited the site of the Riga concentration camp leaving behind a plaque dedicated to his parents.
“The Germans were the most law-abiding people. They would never want to break the law knowingly. So what the Nazis did, they passed a law to then make the killing legal. “Thou shalt not kill” they just legally omitted the not”; and that is the tragedy of our generation.”
Gerald was interviewed in 1999 as part of the Holocaust Survivor’s project by the Jewish Oral History Group. An excerpt from his interview is used as a podcast to accompany this story.
Image Header (above:) Gerald Warner. Reproduced with permission by the Warner family © JoM