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19/01/2015

Not Without Risk

Phyllida Scrivens

The story of an unlikely friendship, based on the unpublished memoirs of Leslie Linsay.

On the night of 20th September 1944, visibility on the Belgian-Dutch border was poor. Darkness combined with pungent swirling fog and the stench of sulphur, blood and urine fermenting with damp and sweaty khaki. Allied troops were tasked with manoeuvring their tanks over the already secured Meuse-Escaut canal, occupying the wooded marshy ground beyond and regaining the Belgian town of Hamont. At 0300 hours the exhausted soldiers of the East Yorkshires were relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Royal Suffolk Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Walter Craddock.

First to approach the bridge was the Commander’s jeep, bouncing precariously over the heavily pitted ground, cracked and crumbling after last evening’s incessant heavy bombardment from Allied twenty five-pounders, each blast bright enough to permeate even closed eyelids. Mercifully tonight the guns were silenced. Craddock and his batman were driven by Private Leslie Linsay. Just turned twenty, German-born Leslie was still getting used to his anglicised name, given by the Army just before his deployment to Europe a month earlier. His role was far more specific than that of the average Tommy. Leslie was the interpreter, fluent in both German and Dutch.

As the tyres rumbled off the bridge, fog amplified nearby enemy voices. Leslie instinctively focused; they were planning a counterattack. After rapidly radioing Brigade Headquarters, they were ordered to continue to Hamont, entering the main street at 0600 hours. Despite the good deal of shooting and a steady stream of prisoners, and due in part to the information supplied by Leslie, Hamont was designated as little more than a skirmish. But a few German soldiers had lost their lives and sadly two of Leslie’s comrades were killed by shellfire. At first light, the townspeople emerged with Allied colours to drape from windows and brightly coloured flowers and ribbons to adorn the tanks. Jubilant crowds waved and wept, showering Leslie and his comrades with gifts of peaches, apples, wine and gratitude.

Eight months later the War in Europe was over and Leslie’s battalion was billeted in the Hanover town of Enger. Following receipt of a letter from the Red Cross, Leslie borrowed a jeep and drove the one hundred and fifty miles to his family home in Hamburg, now in the occupied British Zone. It was his first return visit since boarding the Kindertransport for England in May 1939. Whatever horrors Leslie had experienced in ten months of combat, nothing could have prepared the young man for arrival in his childhood city.

Negotiating the potholes, he would have encountered convoys of celebrating Allied troops, but he had little reason to share their jubilation. For over a year Hamburg had resembled a scene from Hell. The skyline of this once magnificent medieval port was now a forest of hollow skeletal buildings, the soul sucked from them, the ground littered with piles of rocks, bricks and twisted metal. Coils of barbed wire, sandbags spilling into pools of stagnant water, decaying putrid rubbish, abandoned bicycles and burnt-out vehicles. And, most painful of all, queues of displaced people, their dead-fish eyes betraying exhaustion and disbelief as they waited silently for bread. During the summer of 1943, Operation Gomorrah, a joint British-American firebombing campaign, had reduced sixty per cent of the city to the contents of an incinerator along with 40,000 of its citizens.

Drawing closer to his home suburb of Rotherbaum, Leslie’s mood may have lifted. The villas of this select residential area appeared to be intact. Driving down the elegant Neuer Jungfernsteig alongside the Alster Lake, he may have recalled his Jewish childhood, when, as Leopold Lievendag, affectionately known as Werner, he regularly enjoyed the sailboats and canoes on the gently lapping water.

About 1880, as a young man, my paternal grandfather was unable to find work in his native Holland. He settled in Hamburg and being an extremely good shoemaker he prospered. Nearly half of his large family followed him to what was regarded as a haven.’

Drawing up at his old apartment at Halleplatz 8, Leslie was relieved to find his home of eight years still standing. The Red Cross letter had made it plain that Mutti and Papa would not be there. One November day in 1941 Samuel and Clara were deported to the Minsk Ghetto in Russia, joining 80,000 other Jews and dissenters. They would die there in the most appalling conditions. On entering the building, Leslie was confronted by a couple, once Nazi Party members, who were given possession of the apartment and all its contents after the previous occupants left. They nervously allowed the young British soldier to look around. His heart breaking, he was horrified to find no trace of his father’s many canvasses. Samuel Lievendag had been an accomplished artist, making a good living before the Nazi regime had stripped him of his livelihood. After knocking on many doors, Leslie found just one pen and ink drawing of the Hamburg Waterfront in the apartment of a particularly unpleasant character. When confronted, the man swore he was looking after it on behalf of the rightful owners. Leslie walked away clutching this precious memento of his past.

There was one more visit to make in Rotherbaum. On approaching the nearby villa belonging to his old friends the Sprenger family, Leslie could see people gathered inside. He was now taller and more mature than when he had escaped Nazi Germany as a fourteen year old. Would Herbert recognise him? He may well have straightened his army beret before standing to attention and knocking assertively. The door opened and a stranger informed him that Herr Sprenger had joined the Wehrmacht at the start of the War and been killed in action at Hamont in Belgium during September 1944. Surely not Hamont? Leslie did not wait to face Frau Sprenger. He had killed her husband! Driving away past the tennis club in Hallestrasse, his thoughts would have turned to how he first met Herbert Sprenger.

*

During the stifling summer heat of 1938 the privileged elite of Hamburg were more interested in tennis than politics. Am Rotherbaum Tennis Club was considered by many to be as prestigious as The All England Club in London. This was the home of the German Open, won the previous year by national hero Henner Henkel. The precisely raked clay courts resounded to the thump of tennis balls and polite applause from society spectators. Uniformed officers of the SS shared bottles of Rudesheimer with pretty Frauleins in wide brimmed hats while the Nazi flag rippled proudly over the club house. At thirty, popular club member Herbert Sprenger was enjoying a comfortable life with his wife and young family, paid for by his thriving floristry business. He could afford the exorbitant club fees and while staff looked after the shop, Herbert indulged in a few sets almost every day. That summer the courts were fully booked from early morning to dusk, but there weren’t enough ball boys to go round.

‘By 1938 all restaurants, sports clubs, etc., displayed notices saying “Dogs and Jews Not Wanted”. Some of my father’s clients refused to pay him and he was unable legally to recover his debts owed by Aryan citizens.’

            Under the unremitting strain, both Werner’s parents fell ill, unable to earn enough money to pay the rent or even buy food. At fourteen he would have to find paid employment. The Tennis Club secretary didn’t ask if he was a Jew so he didn’t mention it. The other ball boys seemed to be there only to make enough pfennigs for cigarettes. Club members quickly learned that Werner was reliable. Herbert Sprenger admired the boy’s conscientiousness and started asking for him by name, rewarding him with generous tips. These, on top of his standard rates of pay from the Club, meant that Samuel soon cleared his debts. But the other boys became jealous and, on discovering Werner was Jewish, club members stopped using him. Only Herbert remained loyal, even increasing his gratuities, until the Club was forbidden to employ Werner any longer. Instead, Herbert gave him a bicycle and the chance to work for him after school, delivering bouquets and floral tributes. In addition, Frau Sprenger cooked a daily meal for the growing boy. Werner would have looked forward to his visits to the Sprenger home, this formative relationship helping to shape Werner’s views on humanity. Here was a well-liked and respected Aryan showing rare kindness to a Jewish family. But not without risk. The penalties for fraternizing with enemies of the Third Reich were increasingly severe, with deportation, public hangings and on-the-spot shootings becoming commonplace. Werner’s father asked Herbert why he continued to help the family, especially when he knew the dangers. Herbert replied that it had nothing to do with religion or politics. He just acted as any decent person should do – particularly a German one.

On the night of 10th November 1938 over 1,000 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses throughout Germany and Austria were systematically destroyed by marauding gangs, encouraged by the Nazi hierarchy. This defining event became known as Kristallnacht. Alongside the frenzy of violence, Gestapo officers forcibly arrested every Jewish man and boy over sixteen, sending them to concentration camps to face an uncertain future.

That evening, Werner was staying overnight with his elderly uncle and aunt in another part of the city. Setting off to school the following morning, he was alarmed and confused by the mounds of shattered glass littering the streets. At the Talmud Torah School Gestapo officers were rounding up the male teachers and older boys. At fourteen Werner was spared and sent home. But his apartment was empty. He was again forced to negotiate the dangers of the streets, suffering beatings from Brown Shirts and others brandishing sticks and heavily buckled belts. Arriving back at his uncle’s house the old man and young Werner were instantly arrested. Fortunately, a friend of his uncle, despite being a Party Member of very long standing, disagreed with this outrage and obtained their release. After three days in hiding, Samuel and Clara slipped back unnoticed into their apartment, having been secreted in the home of Christian friends, successfully evading Samuel’s arrest. Despite the worsening situation, Herbert Sprenger continued to defy the authorities, even after Werner had left for England, secretly employing Samuel to design posters for his shop. That is, until the couple’s deportation to Minsk.

*

In 1970, still struggling emotionally over the circumstances of Herbert’s death, Leslie took his English wife Joan and eldest son David to Hamburg, looking for Frau Sprenger. The whole area had been rebuilt and the florist’s shop gone. On the return journey through Belgium they visited Hamont, hoping to find Herbert’s grave. He was not there. They asked at the local convent where the nuns suggested they enquire at the German War Cemetery in nearby Lommel.

The archivist proved most helpful, informing Leslie that Obergefreiter Sprenger had been killed on 8th September 1944 at The Battle of Hechtel, some twelve days before the Battle of Hamont. The two towns are separated by only thirteen miles and by the time the 1st Suffolks had entered Hamont, Herbert was already dead.

‘For twenty-five years I suffered a guilt complex convinced I was instrumental in causing the death of a person to whom I owed nothing but gratitude. This destroyed almost everything in which I believed’.

Unlike the British, the German troops did not bury their battle dead and Herbert’s body most probably remained where it fell until some days later when the Resistance would have taken the bodies for burial at Lommel, two soldiers to each grave. His conscience clear, Leslie could at last visit his friend and thank him for the kindness and compassion shown to his family. He may even have whispered the Mourner’s Kaddish for Herbert’s soul.

Leslie never did trace Frau Sprenger.

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