Ninety-nine years ago, out of the trenches and beyond

Ninety-nine years ago my father was wounded by shrapnel from an enemy shell.

A MOCK-UP of a First World War trench in Fay, France (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MOCK-UP of a First World War trench in Fay, France
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ninety-nine years ago my father was wounded by shrapnel from an enemy shell. He was an 18-year-old volunteer who was hit in the left shoulder by part of a volley from the enemy side of the river Meuse in Belgium, which formed the front line between the German and Allied forces on the western front. His head was bleeding, and he was quickly evacuated to the military field hospital, where he received emergency treatment. He was ordered to remain in bed for several weeks, having suffered a flesh wound to the head and a more serious one to his back. Conditions in the field hospital were sanitary but primitive, and my father was able to get a message to his parents in the capital that he was wounded but being well looked after.
His parents were naturally worried and hoped to have him transferred to a better hospital near the capital. They dispatched his youngest brother, Eric, who was a little below military age, to try to locate him and bring him home. Eric, young and inexperienced but rather intelligent, left the capital on a military train going to the front. It was embarrassing for him to be the only passenger in civilian clothes, but he got on well with the troops and, when he had gained their confidence, they gave him important information on the location of the front.
It turned out that the center of activity was near Namur, the local capital, and from there my father, Raphael, had sent several postcards home, via the military post. The cards showed views of the classical- style cathedral and the pompous-looking Victorian railway station of the city. One card was even written by my father in bad French to get it past the censors. He asked his parents to send food and underwear, and, if possible, some French or Belgian money for food and chocolate.
After a journey of three days, Eric reached Namur and set about looking for the field hospital. It was not an easy search as official information was restricted to army personnel but Eric managed to quiz the locals, in bad French. Eventually after a few days he found the camp where the field hospital was. He was not allowed entry at first, but he persuaded the commanding officer that he was the brother of a patient and that he had come a long way to see his brother and bring him home. Eric had not been able to sleep during the long journey, and he was eventually allowed to rest overnight in a hospital bed.
Thus, after a week of painful travel and searching, Eric found Raphael, to the great joy of both brothers.
Eric telegraphed home that the head wound was not too serious although the shoulder and back wound would need lengthy treatment. He was doing all he could to get permission to bring Raphael to a fully-equipped hospital in the capital. We still have his telegram from Namur, saying that the wound was not too deep and that he hoped to be bringing Raphael home in three weeks’ time.
After some lengthy negotiations with the military and medical officers, Eric received permission to travel with Raphael and a nurse on the way home, something which the doctors knew would do him much good, and relieve them of another long-term patient. Thus, by a miracle, young Eric had found his brother and got him home after certain delays to see the parents and have him treated in a regular hospital. There he could be well looked after by the nurses and doctors, and receive visits from family and friends. Raphael’s reunion with the parents was tearful and sensational, and the thanks doled out to Eric were overwhelming.
In the hospital near home Raphael spent nearly a year until he was fully recovered. He was constantly and tenderly cared for by an attractive Jewish nurse named Tilly. It was thought that they would marry after the war, but it was not to be. In fact she married one of his other brothers, who had come from time to time to visit Raphael during his convalescence.
My father married another young lady, whom he met after the war, while having his teeth seen to by her father, the dentist, to whom she acted as part-time assistant. Her nickname was Hansi, and she had been an art student, who, because of the war, when no professional dental assistants were available, had to fill in to help her elderly father.
After his recovery, my father was discharged from the army and spent the ensuing years in civilian life as an art dealer, working in partnership with his uncle and brothers. It was a good life, but after 15 years, it came to an abrupt end. In spite of his military service, my father lost his civil rights, was forced to close his office, and had to send his three children to segregated schools. It was too awful; my father and mother packed up, and left suddenly, crossing the Channel to England with family. There Raphael made a new life in a country tolerant of Jews, and he never again set foot in the fatherland for which he had fought, which had awarded him the Iron Cross, second class.
He came to experience peace of mind and tranquility in the land whose soldiers had wounded him so seriously 20 years earlier. In 1936, we all settled in London and became naturalized British citizens after five happy years.
When, after World War II, it was my turn to do British national service, the recruitment officers asked me what regiment, if any, my father had served in. I told them it was the Kaiser’s Guards.
They laughed and put me in the Royal Engineers, and sent me as an interpreter to the headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine in Berlin. There I found the undisturbed graves of my great-grandparents, and visited them several times, and even once with my mother, who came over especially to see them. We took photographs for my father as he refused to set foot in the land of his upbringing, a land that had so brutally and murderously attacked him and his people.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.