Helmut Bernert

* 1935

  • “When we first came to Opava in May 1945, my father was arrested. First he was in the regional court’s prison, but he was quickly found and requested by his previous Czech subordinate, who used to be his deputy, as a master painter. I don’t know why it was, but every day I had to pick up my father at the prison gates, take him to the master painter and bring him back to the prison every evening. That lasted until August 1945. That painter also asked for my older brother who later also worked for him, he was not locked up at the time. My father was released from prison in August 1945, but in November they locked him up again. Then he was assigned to the group that was exhuming Russian soldiers falling during the street fighting in the town and burying them at the central graveyard. So he took part in that. I know that because I used to bring him food at the time. I was basically the only person in our family who was in contact with the rest of the world. My older brother was at work all day, my father was locked up, so that actually made me the oldest. My mother tolerated the situation very badly, she was pregnant at the time and my younger sister was then born in November 1945. So I had to manage all the necessary affairs outside of our home and at age ten I quickly learnt a few Czech words and so I could walk about the town without my ‘N’ and go shopping. People clearly knew I wasn’t Czech, but they apparently accepted it because I was just a kid.”

  • “Germans had to officially wear an ‘N’ mark on the right side of their chest. Looking back it was clear: This was a kind of version of the Jewish star for Germans, that was obvious. You were supposed to wear it sewn on, but I didn’t have it sewn on, just attached with a safety pin, because I often took it off. For example, and this was an almost schizophrenic situation, once a man stopped me in the street and slapped me for not having my ‘N’ sewn on. But that man was wearing an SA uniform, so it was quite the hilarious situation.”

  • “It was like this: My mother was contacted by a former colleague of my father’s, a master carpenter. At that time it was usual for the painting and varnishing workshops to also finish furniture, so the carpenters and painters were in close contact during work and that’s why this man knew my father. The man came to my mother and told her: ‘I’m supposed to gather people for a displacement train car.’ My mother answered that if they let our father out of the work camp, we’d be willing to resettle. So they let our father out, we packed everything up and moved to the concentration camp, where we were for two or three days before they gathered everyone. From there we moved to the train station, it was only about 200–300 metres, and got on the train cars, which were of course cattle cars. First of all we loaded up our luggage, then embarked and headed out. I don’t think we knew where we were headed. They probably didn’t tell us where we’re going, but I’m not sure about that. These transports usually headed for Bavaria. Our transport left on 9 May and on the 11 May we were at the German borders. At the borders they first of all registered us, then deloused us – for health reasons they disinfected us with DDT. We probably also got something to eat, but we continued on the same day. We arrived at our destination on 13 May. Actually there were two destinations, the second close by the first, which was Frankenberg an der Eder in North Hesse. That’s where we arrived on 13 May. The second group continued to nearby Munden and our part of the carriage arrived at the town of Rengershausen, where we were registered with the police and divided up into our corresponding farmsteads. The first thing we wanted to know was where we’d actually ended up.”

  • “On the one hand I tried to explain which institutions are necessary in a democratic country and what the influence of each citizen could or should be, such as participating in elections. So that the state isn’t self-serving, but in the hands of its citizens. At the same time I tried to show the consequences of the citizens of the Weimar Republic not sufficiently identifying with their democratic state, allowing a dictatorship to take hold. Next, what mechanisms allowed Hitler to sufficiently mollify the people, so that they didn’t even notice how they were being used as tools and manipulated. I never understood how it was possible for even the so-called intelligentsia to be hoodwinked. The lawyers I understood, I studied history and state law and so I knew that the lawyers had as it was called legal positivism. But that all the other intellectuals would be so tricked, apart from a few small exceptions, that was quite unexpected to me. However, looking at how the AfD party is agitating today and at the kind of people who are cheering them on, that’s a terrifying experience, because I can see it still works exactly the same way. Which is why I keep asking again and again: What options does democracy have to promote itself, what are the possibilities for a positive depiction of democracy, to show that engagement and critical thinking are necessary.”

  • Full recordings
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    Dresden, Německo, 15.06.2021

    duration: 02:00:49
    media recorded in project The Removed Memory
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

The expulsion is a rift in my personality, today I spread ideas of democracy to avoid injustice being repeated

Helmut Bernert as a child in Opava
Helmut Bernert as a child in Opava
photo: pamětník

Helmut Bernert was born on 24 June 1935 in Opava, to a German family with Czech roots. His father Franz was a member of the Sudeten German Party, during the war he served in the Wehrmacht, fighting in Ukraine. His older brother also enlisted. In 1943 his father returned to Opava due to illness, in 1944 the family was subsequently evacuated to a small village near Šternberk. His father eventually deserted and the family survived the last of the fighting of the war in early May 1945, hidden in the woods. Their walk back to Opava on foot took four days. The father was arrested at the city limits, he remained in prison almost continuously until expulsion in May 1946. On returning, the children and their mother found their house had burnt down, and so they lived in the workshop behind the house. In July of 1945, the older brother also returned and in November their youngest sister was born. Ten-year-old Helmut took care of the family, including shopping. His father’s Czech colleagues brought the family food at night, one of them helped out the father, buy requesting him from prison as an assistant. In May 1946 the whole family was expelled in a transport via Prague to Hesse, to a small village of Rengershausen, where they were not welcomed in the kindest manner. Helmut initially helped out his father, but after his illness and the collapse of the business, he decided to study and eventually became a teacher of history and political education. He led his students towards democracy, always emphasizing how important it was that the injustices of the Second World War never be repeated again. He lives in the town of Kassel, from 1979 he has been visiting Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, where he carries out archival research.