At U of T's annual Soldiers' Tower ceremony, one man shares his story about living, working, and surviving in Nazi Germany.
On a grey, gloomy day last Friday, the bells in U of T’s Soldiers’ Tower rang out across downtown city blocks. Veterans and citizens of all ages gathered before the ornate stone and stained glass for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. Not a single jacket or lapel was without a poppy as speakers gave speeches, organizations placed wreaths, and the university choir sang hymns.
Among the crowd, 84-year-old Gary Knopf stood with a green beret on his head and medals on his chest.
As a teenager in Nazi Germany, being in school allowed Knopf to avoid forced labour. He survived bombing raids and the Battle of Berlin, the final battle that ended the war in Europe in May 1945.
Knopf’s father was Jewish, so when Nazis began rounding up Jewish people and shipping them off to concentration camps, he left the family and fled to Shanghai with some 100,000 other refugees—the only place that would take them. Knopt lost family and friends to the death camps and saw them taken away on rail cars.
His mother was Christian, so Knopf was able to avoid captivity on that basis. The Nazis pressed her to file for a divorce but she refused, nor would she run away to Britain, fearing it would tear the family apart even more. They stayed the course in Germany, hoping to one day be reunited.
In 1942 Knopf was forced to leave school by laws which limited the amount of time he could spend there. He took a job at a factory as an electrical engineer, where he worked 60 hours a week repairing the engines and machines of the Third Reich.
When the Allies started bombing Berlin in 1943, Knopf spent a lot of time in shelters. The Allies dropped incendiaries, fiery explosives that burned entire swaths of the city to ashes and cinder.
During the war Nazis blocked foreign radio stations, so the only thing anyone could catch on the airwaves were the propaganda broadcasts from home. Even still, he and his mother would secretly listen at certain times when it was possible to get the BBC.
“When they dropped the jamming we put a blanket over ourselves so nobody could hear,” he said. “There’d be a death penalty if they caught you, and we could only do it for a short while because we had to be down in the air raid shelter.”
He still remembers his first time through a bomb raid. It was around the time of the Dresden bombing. “We were out on a Saturday, there was a beautiful blue sky, and we could see the Americans coming. We could see the bombs falling. So we took off into an air raid shelter,” he said. “When I came out there were no air raid sirens anymore. From a beautiful clear sky it was all dark because of fires and smoke.”
During the Battle of Berlin, Knopf spent two weeks holed up inside a shelter. “Where we lived it was kind of the epicentre of the battle. We were getting a lot of artillery fire and [rockets],” he recalls. “It sounded like a big train was coming through, but it was these rockets. They blew out the windows and it was really something else.”
“I went up to the street, then artillery shells came through the tops of the houses. Then, just as I came into our street, there was a guy who just got shrapnel in his throat. He died right there.”
When the battle finally ended, news came down the line that Hitler had committed suicide. Knopf isn’t sure how the message got around—there were no radio broadcasts or newspapers at that time—but it was a huge relief to know that the fighting was over.
Knopf’s father—who had been transferred to California after the Japanese invaded Shanghai—was unable to return to Germany; the Russians had set up a blockade and were only letting in planes carrying food or coal. Berlin was a ruin, and the Jewish community told him there was no life to return to.
Estranged, distraught, and with no way of seeing his family again, Knopf’s father took his own life.
When Knopf came to Canada after the war he completed his electrical engineering education at U of T. Subsequently, he joined the Army Reserve’s 8th Signal Battalion.