I was born on 1 September 1936 in Paris (Picture: Supplied)
My mother held me in her arms as she was ordered to face the wall in the living room with my brother Albert standing next to her.
The Nazi officer then went through into the bedroom with four policemen and beat my father until he screamed in pain and lost consciousness. My brother turned around briefly and caught a glimpse of the horror.
The policemen carried my father out of the flat using a blanket as a stretcher – and that was the last time I ever saw him before he was incarcerated in the notorious holding prison at Drancy for almost a year before being transferred to Auschwitz.
I was just five years old at the time and now – just over 80 years later – I’m alive to tell my story as a Holocaust survivor, but also a proud gay man living in London.
I was born on 1 September 1936 in Paris – of Polish-Jewish parents. My brother Albert was born five years earlier in Warsaw.
My parents sought to escape the dreadful conditions for Jews in Poland by moving to Paris. Soon after my birth, my family and I moved into a first-floor flat in the 11th arrondissement.
Whenever we heard movement outside, we had to make no noise at all for fear of being discovered (Picture: Sacha Kester)
Life became increasingly threatened for Jews in Paris after the Nazi occupation on 14 June 1940. I was not yet four years old. As a baby, the warmth of my family life insulated me from the menacing atmosphere.
Nonetheless, I recall queuing with Albert for the yellow stars inscribed in capital letters ‘JUIF’ – the French word for Jew – that we were forced to wear on our clothing. The fact that this has stuck in my mind indicates that I must have been somehow aware that this requirement meant trouble for us.
One of the few memories I have of my father is him jumping me up and down on the bed – I still hold on to that to this day.
On 20 August 1941, he was taken away by the Nazis. This scene has been blotted from my memory, but Albert – being five years older than me – cannot forget it and it haunts him still. My mother was distraught but she knew she couldn’t let Albert and I suffer the same fate.
In July 1942, she must’ve received warning of an intended raid so, with the help of her sister, took Albert and I into hiding in a room in the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, which wasn’t far from where we were living at the time.
There, we were kept in the dark with the shutters closed and, whenever we heard movement outside, we had to make no noise at all for fear of being discovered.
My mother, like my father, was murdered in Auschwitz (Picture: Sacha Kester)
We’d later learn that this event on 16 and 17 July was the French police rounding up over 13,000 Jews – including 4,000 children. They were held in a bicycle velodrome and stadium called Le Vélodrome d’Hiver in extremely crowded conditions, without food, water or sanitary facilities.
These poor people were then shipped in rail cattle cars to Auschwitz for their mass murder.
Over a year after our father’s arrest (which was a few days after my sixth birthday), Albert and I – together with Stella, a neighbour a year or so older than me – were taken on a train journey by an unknown Polish woman. It wasn’t possible for my mother to come with us, so she stayed behind.
We ended up in a small village named Arrou, between Chartres and Le Mans. There, we went into hiding at the cottage of an elderly couple, Monsieur and Madame Sineau.
Their cottage had just one room plus a small lean-to. There was no electricity, no water, and no toilet. The nearby wood served as the latter. There was a wood burning stove for heating and cooking. Lighting was by means of candles and oil lamps.
Albert had to fetch water from a well a hundred metres away and carry the heavy bucket home.
Life became increasingly threatened for Jews in Paris after the Nazi occupation on 14 June 1940 (Picture: Sacha Kester)
The daughter of Madame Braconnier – our concierge in Paris – came to visit us one day in February 1943. She broke the news that our mother had been arrested. This was a shattering blow but I’m not sure I fully comprehended it.
My mother, like my father, was murdered in Auschwitz.
I attended the village school and I believe that all the villagers knew that we were Jewish children in hiding. German soldiers at one time occupied the village and set up tents in the woods near our cottage. Thankfully, no one denounced us.
When the war ended in 1945, I was eight years old. We were brought back to Paris and stayed for a time with Madame Braconnier, the concierge of our old home.
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Then I went to a succession of orphanages before Albert was able to contact distant relatives in London.
In December 1948 – when I was 12 – Albert and I went for a two-week holiday, at the invitation of the extensive London family, my grandmother’s first cousins. One of my clearest memories was marvelling at the carpet of an elderly relative’s home in Edgware, which was a far cry from the cold, hard floors I was used to.
I never returned to Paris, and I was formally adopted by the only childless couple in the family when I was 14. Albert went back to Paris to continue his education, but we kept in contact regularly.
I was formally adopted by the only childless couple in the family when I was 14 (Picture: Sacha Kester)
I went to school and university in the UK, studying natural sciences and then engineering. It was during my teenage years that I realised I was attracted to men. I found myself falling for guys, but always in secret – so of course, it was unrequited love.
Back in those days, it didn’t seem to be a possibility to be openly gay. To have a gay relationship was illegal and frowned upon – and it was hard for me knowing that gay men were persecuted for their sexuality during the Holocaust. For this reason, it just never occurred to me that I could explore any sort of gay lifestyle.
By my 20s, I became a chemical engineer and I felt societal pressure to get married. It was in my late 20s that I was introduced to my wife via my cousin.
We got along well and we both loved singing so we joined a choir together and bonded over our passion for that. We got married when I was 30 and had two children together – a boy and a girl.
In our late 40s, our marriage hit a bad patch and we split up. The kids, who were teenagers by this point, chose to stay with me.
I take comfort in my family life (Picture: Sacha Kester)
It wasn’t until after we got divorced in my early 50s that I felt like I didn’t have to suppress my same-sex attractions. Gradually, I thought life was too short to stay in the closet so I went in search of a gay community.
Up until that point, I didn’t know anyone who was gay so I felt quite awkward. I can’t remember how but I came across a gay group in Harrow that would meet every week for drinks and socialising.
The first time I walked in, I felt very weird being there. I immediately fancied a couple of the guys there but I was just too anxious to talk to them. It took a full year of going to this social group every week before I worked up the courage to do anything with a man there.
It was beyond liberating to finally feel like my true self. At the time, we didn’t have the internet like we do now, so it was not that easy to meet people.
I came out to my children when I was around 55 – in 1991. They were in their teenage years and they were supportive but somewhat shocked that I had led a secret life for many years, especially my daughter who has always felt very close to me.
My kids and my grandkids are a huge source of joy for me (Picture: Sacha Kester)
My ex-wife has re-married. Now, she and I have a good relationship and I can truly count her as one of my best friends.
Since coming out, I’ve been in several long-term relationships with a few guys – including one with a younger man. We eventually lived and worked together, but things broke down after about seven years. We’re still friends today.
After I retired when I was about 65, I was talking to a friend of mine about what to do with my life and he recommended I join the London Gay Men’s Chorus because I liked singing and it would be a good place to meet people.
I was intrigued so I went along for a choir practice and almost 20 years later, I’m still a part of the group. In fact, I’m one of the longest-running members. I get such a strong sense of family from it, but also fun and friendship.
One of the most moving moments of my time with the choir was after the Orlando gay nightclub massacre in 2016 where 49 people died.
As a group, we gathered in Soho and after a minute’s silence to honour the victims, we broke out into an impromptu rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
When I look back on my life, I feel lucky to have been spared the horrible fate of millions of oppressed people – including Jews, but also gay men. If I was just a little bit older and openly gay during the Second World War, I may not be alive today to tell my story.
I was lucky to have had the opportunity of making a new life in a country that respected human rights, tolerance, and diversity. I was also lucky to have been adopted into a loving family that helped me to flourish.
Today, even though I don’t have a partner, I take comfort in my family life – my kids and my grandkids are a huge source of joy for me. Even though my brother Albert and I live in different countries, we’re still close and we’re forever bonded by what we went through together.
At the age of 90, he’s an avid singer and actually is currently taking lessons to do solo performances!
It’s important for me to share our story because I fear that history could repeat itself. Even in this country, we’re edging closer and closer to fascism and I know all too well the consequences of that.
For all those who have never experienced crimes against humanity such as those that occurred in the Holocaust, I want my life story to act as testimony in the hope we can prevent such things from ever happening again.
Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email [email protected]
Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride
This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.
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