Monday, December 2, 2013

Spotlight: Bern Brent

Here I am with Gisela and Bern. Bern is wearing a backpack- because when I'm 91 years old, I pray that I will be rocking a backpack while running around the city of Berlin. LOVE him.

Bern Brent, or “Gerd” Bernstein as he was known to Opa, is a dear man who has lived a fascinating life. I keep starting this blog entry and stopping, because I am so endeared to this man that I don’t know if I will say everything I want to say. Let me just be honest and say: I really wholeheartedly love this man. Bern is 91 years old, he emails with me regularly, responding to my questions about his life and his time with Opa in the Quaker youth group.  He and my Opa were friends in the youth group, although not as close as Opa was to the Halle girls and other of the older youth group members. Bern is about two years younger than Opa. When I traveled to Berlin last summer, Bern was there on a month-long trip to see friends and family. He lives in Australia, where he has lived since 1940. This is not your normal 91 year old.

When we first learned about Bern, we knew he was one of the members of the youth group. Anytime you learn someone’s name the first thing you do is google them, right? Well our google search led us to one particular chapter in Bern’s life, and it wasn’t the Quaker youth group. Bern was one of the Dunera boys. I need to back up a bit to explain how Bern became one of the Dunera boys (and I’ll explain who those boys were).

Bern was together with Opa in the Quaker youth group- his experience was very similar to Opa’s. Bern came from a family that had Jewish roots but not necessarily Jewish practices. His parents were also divorced, and much in the same secret and quiet way that Opa’s parents were. They shared a lot in common, actually, and I’m sure this didn’t escape them as they chatted with each other in the group. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany created a political and social situation that was a catalyst for a diaspora of religious and political refugees. Opa and Bern were among those caught up in the web of flight. You have been following Opa’s journey to the US. Bern’s story took a very different path. After kristallnacht, the kindertransport (see previous spotlight) was organized in an effort to get vulnerable groups, primarily children of jewish descent, to safety in Britain. The effort saved many lives, Bern’s being one of them. The first kindertransport left Germany on December 4th, 1938. Bern was on the train December 14th, 1938- he was 15 years old. He traveled on the transport to stay in England. Here are some snippets from his memoir “My Berlin Suitcase” about that experience:
I learned about the kindertransports by chance. Daisy (a Quaker friend) recorded the occasion in an unpublished article:
Monday evening (after a Quaker meeting)...Gerd said “I left my raincoat behind. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.” One Tuesday morning the phone rang. “It’s Gerd. I’m in the Quaker’s quite chaotic here… they are registering children for transports to… England.. hurry up… come along… get registered… I’ll wait for you here.”
When I entered the Quaker Bureau on Tuesday morning I found myself in a veritable beehive. I learned of the Quaker initiative (kindertransport) from someone there, rang home immediately to ask for their views, put my name on a list for Britain, and rang Daisy. The following day my mother telephoned Frau Halle, Gisela and Anni’s mother. Frau Halle was then Clerk of the German Meeting, the chief representative of the Quakers in Germany… My mother asked her if it was possible to include me as soon as possible in any of the transports to England. Frau Halle said “Yes, of course, no problem.”

Now over sixty years later, I realise what a momentous decision it must have been for my parents to send me off to foreign parts on my own. I now know that many parents could not do so and decreed that the family stick together, come what may. At the time nobody had the slightest inkling of what lay ahead. I was an incurable optimist even then. To be temporarily separated from my parents was no great wrench. I had been away from home many times…

On the morning of 14 December 1938, Omama and Mum and Dad took a taxi with me to Charlottenburg Station.. I would catch the special train there that was to take me abroad… I have since been asked if I was upset  and crying. I was not. I was not omniscient. I had no premonitions. I was excited at the prospect of living in a strange country and looked forward to the adventures awaiting me. My folks put on cheerful faces. I never doubted that I would see my parents again. I did. Many children did not. The train slowly pulled out of the Charlottenburg Station gathering speed. I leant out of the window to wave to Mama and Papa and Omama who waved in return. As they grew smaller and smaller, I lost sight of them and settled in the compartment. My childhood was now behind me and a new life began.

I think you might be getting an idea of why I love this man so much.

Bern’s adventures were no over.  In 1940, the Germans invaded Holland and moved through to France with astounding speed, a blitzkrieg. Germany’s invasion, and the speed with which it carved out a large chunk of Europe for itself, was surprisingly successful. A whiplashed Europe could think of no other explanation but to assume there were spies underground. This conspiracy theory was referred to as the “5th Column.” The “5th column” is a term used in reference to a small, secretive group of people who function to rebel within a larger group or stage a coup, etc. So- spies. Then Britain did something monumentally stupid (which they admitted later). They decided to ship (as in put on a boat) all the “5th column” suspects to be interned in a remote location in Australia. These “suspects” included prisoners of war and Nazi sympathizers, but the majority of this shipment were Jewish refugees, to include the children 16 and older from the kindertransport. All on the same boat for the Australian bush. Really bad idea. Awful, bad idea. The infamous Dunera ship was horribly overcrowded, stealing was a common occurrence, and most of the ship’s staff was later court martialed for their harsh treatment of the ship’s occupants.

'HMT Dunera', Melbourne, 1940. Courtesy National Archives of Australia

HMT Dunera, Melbourne, 1940. Courtesy National Archives of Australia

Bern was on that ship, and would be later lumped into a group called the “Dunera Boys.” He was without family, about 17 years old, and being shipped around the world on a boat that had about twice its capacity. It also happened to be torpedoed twice, unsuccessfully. I asked him about this experience as he hadn’t really mentioned it much in his memoirs or his conversations with me. Most outside accounts of this trip are quite gruesome. This is what he said:

Regarding the Dunera.  To be interned in June 1940, aged 17, and sent to Australia, where I was behind barbed wire for another 16 months, was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. Better than winning whatever lottery was going in Britain at the time.
Firstly I was able to catch up on my education.  Tom (my Opa) emigrated with his Abitur - and any Australian university recognised the Abitur as a sufficient qualification for university entry provided there was proof of English language ability.  I had left school three years before the Abitur.  During internment I was able to prepare for the requisite Australian matriculation examinations.  Some of them I sat for in internment.  Others I passed before the war finished.
Secondly, I learned more about people and the world around me during one year's internment than during any year of my life, including my university years.
Thirdly, had I remained in Britain, I would have undoubtedly joined the British army and, unlike Tom when he joined the U.S. Army, I had nothing to offer but a pair of hands.  They would undoubtedly put me into the infantry and I would have put up my hand in due course for 'special services'.  I don't give myself more than 50:50 to have survived the war.
But even if I had survived, what would my future have been?  I have no idea.  But I have no doubt that I did very much better in Australia than I would have in Britain.

This is the perspective of a man who has had 90+ years to reflect. It’s kind of amazing. I am humbled by his natural optimism. This is not an untested spirit, it is not a modified response, this is an honest and straight-forward reflection. The thing that impresses me about Bern is that he is completely comfortable and rested in his own skin. There is no show about him. We shared drinks and a meal one night in Berlin with his family and my Dad was tricked out of paying at least for our portion of the tab… My Dad “chastised” him about this the next day when we gathered, and Bern was so simple and frank with his reasoning. He said “When you get to be 90 years old and you are like me, money really isn’t something you worry about.”

That is Bern. His perspective of the world is frank, real, and yet also optimistic. He does not worry or fret about things beyond his control, and he squeezes the good out of every circumstance that he experiences. I’m not sure if he was always this way- but I am grateful for his story and his perspective today. I told him I was doing a little spotlight on him for my blog and wanted more information about his Dunera experience. He sent me a email that included the quote I shared you, but also he sent me links to some work that he had done in retirement. This link HERE is to his book reviews that he did for a publication in Australia. If you want to be impressed, humbled, and even get some laughs- check the link out.  Look especially at the review he does on a book that covered the Dunera Boys. It’s pretty fantastic.

This is just a spotlight on parts of Bern’s life, and hopefully more about his personality. The most compelling discoveries in retracing my Opa’s life- are the people he befriended. In this discovery, I am learning that Opa was surrounded by incredible people with big hearts. I have also learned that there are many many people like this. How lucky I am to meet some ordinary folks who embrace life in extraordinary ways. Bern Brent is the kind of person everyone should have a glass of wine or coffee with… that’s why I keep encouraging folks to go out there- and look for your Bern. Look for your unexpected inspiration.


  1. Amazing that Australia still hasn't learnt and is doing this today.

  2. Hi

    Hope you're coping with lockdown ok in America (I'm in England)

    Do you have an email address for Bern / Gerd?

    I am researching for an article I'm trying to write on the Dunera - and wanted to pose a couple of questions to him

    If you prefer to email me directly I'm mc.rowe at outlook dott com

    All the best



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