TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)
92-year-old Robert Middelmann uncovered a secret about himself when he was very young. Keeping it was a matter of life and death. But, after many years, Robert decided to share that secret, along with the rest of his extraordinary life story, online. It all started in Nazi Germany…
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: You're 92. Are you afraid of dying?
Robert Middelmann: Ohhh not at all. I'm ready. I'm so ready. If it comes tonight or tomorrow or sooner or later, it doesn't really matter. It's fine with me. I feel relaxed.
Ben: This might seem like a strange question to start with. But the man whose story we are bringing you today has spent most of his life not ready to die.
Amory Sivertson: He’s come close many times. But he’s always managed to avoid it. Now that he’s finally telling his life story, he seems ready for his life story to end. So we're getting that story from him. One piece at a time.
Ben: Hello, Robert.
Robert: Hello there.
Amory: This is Robert Middelmann.
Robert: M-I-D-D-E-L-M-A-N-N. I was born July 10th, 1927 in Germany in the Ruhr Valley.
Ben: Robert lives in British Columbia, outside of Vancouver.
Robert: Out in the sticks, they say.
Amory: Robert’s come a long way, literally and figuratively, to get to the "sticks" of British Columbia. But it’s the earlier years of Robert’s life — in Germany — that we wanted to know about.
Ben: What kinds of things did your family need to do to survive?
Robert: We put the swastika flag out on holidays to blend in with the rest of the people. And also say, "Heil Hitler," when you go into the store and greet people. Anywhere, in the street, "Heil Hitler," you raise your hand, "Heil Hitler," from morning to night, "Heil Hitler." There was no more good morning and afternoon and good evening. It was all "Heil Hitler."
Amory: We learned part of Robert’s story on Reddit. Robert himself? Not a Redditor. He barely uses the internet.
Robert: I'm still slow in that.
Ben: But his granddaughter is on Reddit. And she encouraged him to do an AMA, an “Ask Me Anything,” about his life.
Amory: Robert’s AMA post took off. Because his story involves growing up in the Hitler Youth, being forced to join the German Army, and keeping a secret to stay alive.
Robert: I don't want to tell the whole thing. I want to take a shortcut. Unless you want to hear the — the whole story?
Ben: I think we want to hear the whole story.
Robert: You want to hear the whole story?
Ben: I'm Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I'm Amory Sivertson. And you're listening to Endless Thread.
Ben: The show featuring stories found in that vast ecosystem of communities called Reddit.
Amory: We're coming to you from WBUR, Boston's NPR station. Today’s episode…
Ben: Double Life.
Ben: The story we’re about to tell you, Robert’s story, is a reminder of something that is often left out of the fictional or dramatized accounts of war that we hear over and over. Dramatized war is often black and white. Real war isn’t. People in wartime don’t make the expected choices over and over. Sometimes they do what’s right. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, it’s hard to even tell what’s right.
Amory: Robert’s war story is a reminder that things can be much more complicated at the individual level. And Robert agreed to tell us everything with a small caveat before we got started.
Robert: Okay, one more thing I'm waiting for my hearing aid. I'm hard of hearing. So if you could crank it up a little bit and talk slow.
Ben: At 92, Robert might be hard of hearing, but his memory is incredibly sharp.
Robert: I have a clear memory when I was three and a half about a shocking experience.
Amory: The experience Robert remembers from when he was three and a half is part of the larger story of what was happening in Germany in the early 1930s. The Nazi Party was cracking down on communism. Robert’s parents supported the communists, and put themselves — and Robert — in danger to help them.
Robert: I woke up and someone climbed into bed with me and held me tight and heavy breathing. I could feel his heartbeat and I recognized quick who he was...
Ben: A family friend, Bruno.
Robert: And he was hiding from the SS because the SS were hunting him. He was a leader in the Communist Party and he ran into our house for refuge. And my mother came up quick with a solution and said jump into bed with Robert. And they couldn’t make out who was in bed with me. That was something, you know, it is like it happened yesterday. That's how clear it was.
Amory: Robert grew up an only child. But he was a handful.
Robert: Oh, yeah, yeah. I was a bad kid, you know? I was mischievous and curious, which is beneficial. That's the way to learn. But I wouldn't say that my family enjoyed it very much, what I was doing.
Ben: His parents, meanwhile, were running a business.
Robert: Candies. Candy manufacturing. Healthy candies, malt, eucalyptus, menthol, anisette.
Amory: Business was good, until the Great Depression.
Robert: No one had money for candies.
Amory: Let alone food. By 1933, more than a third of Germans were out of work.
Robert: So we rented out one half of the factory to Russian Orthodox Jews for the synagogue and the left side to communist families for low cost living quarters. And you could hold meetings in there. And upstairs in the house was seven rooms we rented out to eight lovely, beautiful looking prostitutes. Those were my aunties. And that helped us to keep the boat afloat. We didn't go under.
Ben: Another way Robert’s parents kept the boat afloat, was smuggling goods on the black market for their tenants and neighbors. Everything from food to stockings.
Amory: And from black market deals to the Jewish services, Communist meetings and maybe prostitution taking place on his parents’ property, it was clear Robert would have to join the other family business: the business of keeping secrets.
Robert: I was told by my family, if you say anything that’s spoken in the house, the whole family will be taken to Town Square and executed. I took that to heart. And it was not a lie, it happened.
Ben: When did you start to realize that Germany was headed for war?
Robert: At age 10, we all had to join the Hitler Youth and that was a one-way street as far as education goes. Germany. Germany. Germany. Hitler was the solution. It's sad, but they believed that he was sent from God.
Amory: The Treaty of Versailles, which, in addition to bringing an end to World War I, brought the hammer down hard on Germany. Requiring it to accept responsibility for war damages and pay hefty reparations.
Ben: Which, led many Germans to view Hitler as a new source of hope and pride and strength. Someone who would make the rest of the world respect Germany again.
Robert: People felt like revenge. You could read between the lines. He wouldn't say war, but the fact is that I was always among adults, not children. I grew up with adults. And what they were talking was there’s a war coming. He will have a war. Definitely.
Amory: But as a 10 year-old in the Hitler Youth, Robert’s role as a cog in Hitler’s war machine wasn’t as obvious. At least, not at first…
Robert: I tell you what I liked in the Hitler Youth first — the activities, camping, sports. And I love sports. Camaraderie, discipline. But the other side, the songs, for instance, I have to really control myself to not get sick, but feeling bad about it. It was, in German, we sing...(Robert sings in German)...which means, “When the Jewish blood runs off our swords, things are going twice as good.” I still feel the cold running down my spine right now. I do. This was a hard thing to swallow. But I had to. I couldn't speak up for my own safety.
Amory: For anyone to speak out against the teachings of the Hitler Youth would be dangerous. But it was especially so for Robert. Because of all the secrets he had to keep as a child, the heaviest, was his own.
Robert: How I found out? That's maybe interesting.
Ben: It started as one of many conversations Robert overheard as a child that he probably shouldn’t have.
Robert: I was four years old and I was playing in the kitchen in my little corner. My mother was having tea or coffee with her closest friend, believing that it was safe to talk. And my ears were always like radar, you know? As I said before, I'm very curious. And the lady said to my mother, well what is going to happen when Robert finds out that Leo is his father. When will you tell him?
Amory: “Leo?” Robert thought, “But my father’s name is Otto.”
Robert: And then my mother seemed to be, “Oh, shh,” like really lowered her voice and whispered. And I could hear that she was frightened.
Ben: Leo, or "Uncle Leo" as Robert called him growing up, helped his parents with their candy business. He was at their house every day. Tall, handsome, charismatic, and an outspoken critic of the Nazis.
Amory: Something else Robert knew about Leo: He was Jewish.
Robert: I'm half Jewish. And the time was when the Jews were on the list, you know, next to the communists. Communists first, Jews second, gypsies third, and homosexuals fourth, and Jehovah’s Witnesses last, and there was no one left, so to speak.
Ben: Learning that Leo was his dad, was a big revelation for Robert. Not only was he dealing with the fact that the man he thought was his father was not, But all of a sudden, he had a new identity. One that put his life in danger.
Amory: It also put his parents in danger. For instance, the woman Robert overheard asking his mother about Leo, his mother’s so-called “closest friend,” was actually blackmailing Robert’s family during this conversation. Robert’s mother gave the woman pork roasts, chocolates, things from the black market, anything in exchange for her silence.
Ben: Robert had many questions, but he was afraid to let his mother know what he had overheard.
Amory: In the meantime, he kept his radar-like ears out for further clues.
Robert: I could feel it that I was on the right track. But one day, I remember this well, second cousin of my mother came and visited. And he was, well, I wouldn't say drunk, but he was feeling good. And and he looked down, “Oh, how is the little Jew doing?”
Amory: Any other young child probably wouldn’t have known what to make of this comment. But curious Robert set out to learn more about the infectiously likable Polish Jew that he now knew was his father.
Robert: He was interesting. He had everything, he had all the qualities a person could ask for. So I was very interested in what he had to say and I asked questions. The Jewish culture, the background and why the Jews were persecuted and so forth. And he put me straight.
Ben: But Leo never acknowledged Robert as his son. Leo was married to a German Protestant woman and had two half-Jewish children of his own.
Robert: His two children were saved. He was able to get them out of Germany in early 1938 through Poland into Palestine. And received a letter when he came into the house one day. He was cheering. He was “Oh man!” He was dancing. He said, “Look,” he said. He showed me the picture. Benjamin was 16 and Ruth was 14 in khaki uniforms in the Kibbutz in Palestine. He says, those are the ones the Nazis will never get.
Amory: Robert’s fate would be different than that of his half-siblings. And their father.
Robert: He was a tough guy. He was ready to sacrifice his life and let people know what he was thinking, who he was.
Ben: On November 9th, 1938, the night that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” the Nazis destroyed Jewish-owned businesses, homes and synagogues. More than 30,000 Jews were arrested that night and taken to concentration camps. Leo was one of them.
Robert: Later, his wife received the ashes and was told that he committed suicide in the central prison of Bochum. Now couldn't prove it, but it was too obvious. He didn't commit suicide. He was he was murdered and he was not the only one.
Amory: As things escalated in Germany, Robert’s parents and their tenants added another resource to the list of things they were involved in smuggling, information. They tuned out the propaganda that flooded the German airwaves and instead, listened to Radio Moscow and Luxembourg, BBC London. It was an activity Robert says could get you sent to the concentration camps, if you were caught.
Robert: We kept listening during the war to BBC London at night. It went like the morse code: dee-dee-dee-dah. It sounded like notes in the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven. Yeah, It stands for V.
(Beethoven's Fifth Symphony plays)
Ben: V, the British signal for victory. The opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s broadcast opening to listeners in Europe. The briefest of anthems for the allied forces, and, as Winston Churchill called it, “the symbol of the unconquerable will of the people of the occupied territories.”
Robert: Dee dee dee dah. That's another thing I learned in the Hitler Youth. The morse code. That was beneficial. Heh.
Amory: But Robert was about to go from Hitler’s Youth, to Hitler’s army.
Ben: More in a minute.
Amory: Robert Middelmann was just a pre-teen when World War II broke out, but he was a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth. A secretly half-Jewish member of the Hitler Youth. And he was finding it more and more difficult to stay silent about the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. Especially because his peers in the Hitler Youth seemed like they were all-in.
Robert: Most of them were all in favor. Yes. Oh, they couldn't wait. Oh, yeah, they were just enthusiastic about this. And it’s sad, children of that age, you know. But I was really by myself with my thoughts.
Ben: As the war carried on and Robert got older, people in his life started to disappear. Jewish neighbors and family friends taken off to concentration camps. Some were gunned down in the street.
Amory: Robert says he started becoming more daring with his acts of resistance, and this is when his double life really started. He snuck food and information to Jewish families. When he was 15, he formed a youth resistance group. They hung posters in the streets that read “Neider mit Hitler!” — “Down with Hitler!” One night, Robert and another half-Jewish friend burned down a Hitler Youth office.
Ben: They didn’t get caught. But within a year, Robert would find himself caught, in a different sense. During school one day, 16-year-old Robert’s class was interrupted.
Robert: All of a sudden, our principal came in and said, “Okay, Grade Ten, those born 1927 and 1928 be sent home and you'll report to the anti-aircraft garrison in Bochum.
Amory: Robert was assigned to the anti-aircraft division, part of Germany’s Air Force. It was early 1944, and the Nazis were losing ground. Every able-bodied German male was called to action.
Ben: Non-Germans, too. Half of Robert’s eight-person cannon team were Russian prisoners-of-war, which freed up more German soldiers to fight on the frontlines.
Amory: Robert’s unit was in charge of guarding an ammunition factory. They were instructed to shoot down any Allied warplanes that approached.
Robert: You sit there and just follow the radar on the screen. I was responsible for the vertical and the other one for the horizontal and so forth. And the Russians were the ammunition carriers and loading the cannon.
Ben: As the power dynamic of the war was shifting, so were the marching orders in Germany. Robert was discharged from the anti-aircraft unit at age 17 and sent straight to the German army.
Robert: Boot camp and so forth. And I was picked, I don't know why, but I was picked for special commander’s, tank destroyers. And I knew what that meant. That it is a suicide mission. And there was no way out. I tried to escape, like in my mind. And if you didn't have the proper proof I.D. where you're going and what you're doing, they hang you right there, you know, it happened. And put a big sign on your back, “I was a coward.” And they hang you. They hung teenagers in the trees right on the country road.
Amory: Robert estimated that he had about a month before the Allied Forces made it to the German border. The reality started sinking in that he’d have to come face-to-face in combat with the side he was secretly rooting for. He decided he had to do something drastic.
Ben: So he started casting about for a drastic idea. One day, before shipping off to combat, he found one. A drastic idea, shaped like a boulder.
Robert: We were out in the bush and there was an outhouse, a latrine. And before we get to the latrine, there was a ditch and the boulder was hanging. I noticed that I was thinking of anything, anything. And at nighttime, I pretended I'm going to the outhouse and I got into the ditch, loosened up the boulder, smashed my foot and screamed. And told ‘em that I slipped into the ditch and the boulder fell and hit my foot.
Ben: Smashing your own foot with a boulder, is a desperate move. But the move paid off.
Robert: Because I was never sent to the front. The others had to. And by the way, I never saw any of the others in my life again or heard of them.
Amory: Robert spent the next couple of months in the field hospital. He made friends there.
Robert: Three of them. And they were from Poland. They were forced into the German army and were not very in favor of Hitler, believe me. And I could tell that we were on the same level. So I was, I felt very good. We have a little secret group.
Ben: This secret group formed a secret plan. They were going to desert the German army.
Robert: So we thought, well, what can we do?
Amory: One night, when the explosions in the distance suddenly seemed not so distant, Robert limped from the hospital to the main road. There were a bunch of people in uniform running around, shouting...
Robert: “Go, go, go, go. The Tommies are right behind us. Just a kilometer away.” The Tommies means the British.
Ben: Robert hobbled back to the hospital and told his friends the news.
Robert: And at the same time our medic came in. “I got orders. Quick, get packed! We have to leave!”
Amory: A truck was waiting outside to take the wounded soldiers to safety. Robert and his friend, never got on the truck. They hung a bedsheet out of their window as a white flag, and went to bed.
Ben: The next morning, Robert was woken up by one of his friends.
Robert: “Robert!” he said, “Wake up! Look out the window!”
Ben: Down below, Robert saw the red berets of the British soldiers.
Robert: He said, “Can you believe it? Boy, it’s over! Oh they’re cheering!”
Amory: Robert was the only one of them who spoke English. So he grabbed his cane and crossed the road to talk to a British soldier, who was sitting in a windowsill.
Robert: They could see I was a harmless person. And I told him there are three more upstairs, we would like to surrender to you. “Alright,” he said, “The war's over for you.” And he jumped out the window, pulled his handgun, loaded it. He said, “Sorry he said, these are orders.” Yeah. Don't feel bad. And he pointed it at me. “You go first. I follow you.”
Ben: Picture this for a second, Robert has just surrendered to the British. He’s walking back to the hospital to get his friends, with a loaded gun pointed at his back.
Amory: Robert and the others are in German uniforms, and the British soldier knows nothing about their backstories. Their lives are potentially in great danger in this moment. And the British soldier says to them…
Robert: “How about a spot of tea, eh?” So I did, I thought, ohhhhh, I'm dreaming.
Ben: Robert and his friends drank tea with the British soldiers, smoked cigarettes, talked sports, and showed each other pictures of their families.
Robert: I felt like I won the jackpot, so nothing could happen to me anymore.
Amory: And for a little while, nothing did. Robert was taken to a British camp near the Dutch border. He became a prisoner-of-war. But life as a prisoner was surprisingly peaceful.
Robert: There was singing and joking and and optimistic and happy and made friends with the guards. It was really pleasant. Very pleasant. The British were nice, I must say.
Ben: But Robert wouldn’t be there for long. This is another thing that is easy to forget about war. Even after the Allies pushed the Germans back, the areas given up were in chaos. People like Robert who surrendered happily had a long road ahead, even after having tea with British soldiers.
Amory: Robert wasn’t headed home. Far from it. He was headed to a coal mine in Belgium. Where POWs faced backbreaking work with no end in sight.
Robert: And rumors were you stay here till the last penny has been paid by Germany for all the damage they did to the other countries. I thought, well, one lifetime wouldn't be enough for that. I knew about the damage. And I don't want no part of this. So I escaped.
Amory: Robert hopped a freight train that took him to southern Belgium. Civilians there wanted him lynched, but some American soldiers in the town brought him to the police station. He had some unpopular company in there, SS officers who had been picked up on the Russian front.
Robert: And they were really beaten up and so forth, and the door was open to anyone to come in and let your frustrations out on them. At least I was innocent. I was not one of them, but American soldiers, two of them, came in and I recognized that one was Jewish. He asked me if I was a member of the Hitler Youth. And I was trying to explain my situation, that really I’m half Jewish and I had to hide it. I couldn't, I had to join the Hitler Youth. Well I didn't get that far. He'd grabbed — he was furious, so he grabbed me and smashed me against the wall. Broke my jaw.
Ben: The beatings continued, and Robert couldn’t see a way out.
Robert: Tortured and starved. And we were thirsty and it was bad. I thought, okay, now suicide is painless. My chin wasn't up anymore. I thought not before they torture you to death. I do it myself to escape more. If I would have found anything like a sharp thing would have cut my wrists. Definitely. To finish me off.
Ben: He was in a desperate state of mind, but his days in that prison would soon be over. He was sent back to the coal mine in Belgium. The work hadn’t changed, but the war itself, was about to.
Amory: In May of 1945, Germany surrendered. There was celebrating in the streets.
Robert: I could see all the flags hanging out the windows. There was American flags, British flags, Russian flags, Belgian flags, French flags. No Germans.
Amory: When Robert got back to Germany, he was in rough shape.
Robert: I suffered liver damage and was starved, I was skin and bones. Yellow all over, I had hepatitis.
Ben: Germany’s economy was in even rougher shape after the war. Its people had to get creative to survive.
Robert: Everybody, I mean, everybody, without exception, had to trade to get food. And the place to go was on the farms. They traded for food.
Amory: But Robert had connections, and he started working them on the black market, smuggling goods into France. Medications, cigarette papers, Chanel perfume.
Ben: Robert says his family’s history of smuggling helped him live high on the hog. He was making money off of the black market while other people were on the verge of starvation. But, he says, he did try to make a difference.
Robert: I helped a lot of people, believe me, without making a profit. And I felt good about it.
Amory: How did you help people?
Robert: By giving them food. The less the less fortunate. They were old people and some more timid. I was a risk taker. And I paid for it dearly. I was imprisoned several times.
Amory: Were you able to reconnect with any of the people your family had helped or any of your friends from before the war?
Robert: Yes, most of them. Most of-- One person — this is great — Bruno Betanatski.
Ben: Bruno, the Communist leader who had evaded the SS by hiding in Robert’s bed when he was 4 years old.
Amory: Robert was also eventually reunited with some of the people he’d seen taken away to concentration camps.
Robert: And Jewish people who survived. A few. A handful, believe me. Just a handful.
Ben: Some of these people he wouldn’t find until decades later.
Robert: It was something that money can’t buy. My heart was cheering. Still is. I have tears in my eyes right now. It was great. Yeah. That was wonderful.
Ben: A number of people might read your story and say that they would have been braver in the circumstances. Like, for instance, not hide their identity or refuse to take part in the Hitler Youth training or join the Nazi army. What would you say to those people?
Robert: Well, would you volunteer to go to the gallows?
Ben: Robert doesn’t have to hide his secret any more. But he’s been hiding it anyway. He says he still keeps quiet about the fact that he’s half-Jewish.
Robert: I still have that in me. Keep quiet, you know. Because antisemitism is really a global thing. Everyone has it.
Ben: Robert says he did teach his children what he knew about Judaism, just as his biological father had done for him. His own personal beliefs aside.
Robert: I'm an agnostic, spiritually, religiously spoken. I don't know. I’ll find out when I get there.
Amory: Whenever Robert gets there, perhaps his final act will be the memoir he’s just published. It’s called Fearless: A Jewish Boy in Nazi Germany.
Robert: There’s an old like it sounds like a cliche. Those who don't want to learn from history, are condemned to repeat it.
Ben: And yet, for most of Robert’s life, he didn’t feel ready to share his own full history. For years he was fearful of repercussions.
Robert: At age 90, I thought, oh, look, I don't have to fear anything. What can they do with a 90-year-old one, what I put down? You know, the governments, like not only one, several governments that I ripped them off and all these things. What can they do, huh? Big deal, you know? So I thought I'm brave enough. Furthermore, I add to historical facts that should be told and should be noticed because it did happen. And as things are today, and in general, the world, details. We all know what's going on. It's not nice, you know. So it's high time to to start thinking about it, eh?
Ben: Are you talking about the rise in antisemitism that's happening in the U.S. and elsewhere?
Robert: That's one thing. Yes. And not only antisemitism, also anti other minorities. You know, Jews are not the only people who are hated and persecuted.
Amory: Robert’s story, is just that. One account. It cannot shed light on what tens of millions of people had to endure during the Holocaust. But by sharing it, he’s attempting to offer his one piece.
Robert: When I'm by myself, I live in the past, but with a positive attitude not regret. I'm quite happy about what I was able to achieve.
Ben: Do you feel regrets from the war or pre-war period of your life? Do you wish you had handled anything differently?
Robert: Well... I don't regret nothing. You know? It happened and I can't undo it. But what I did, I did my best to my best ability. And I couldn't do any different. But with knowledge of today, if I had to relive it over again, which is impossible, it's just a dream, I would do things totally different. Yeah. I would’ve left Germany before it all got worse. You know, I would have found a way to get out. But easy to say after the game is over. After the game is over, you see where you went wrong, eh? Hmm.
Amory: Robert left Germany for good in 1955. He went to Canada, where he raised his family. His entrepreneurial spirit carried over into a variety of jobs. He worked as a miner, a wood plant operator, a jewelry salesman, and even sold home-brewed kombucha. He married his third wife, Dorothy, in 2014, and she helped him put his life story on paper. He calls himself “the luckiest of men.”
Ben: Robert, thank you so much for telling us your story.
Robert: Well thank you very much for giving me the opportunity.