I can’t remember liking my German grandfather. ‘Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you adored him when you were a baby.’ That was in the incredible time when things were right, when my grandparents still lived together. But then my grandfather wanted to marry another woman and – my mother told us – had my poor, fragile, religiously-obsessed Omi locked up in a mental hospital. Now she lived like a ghost in our house. She didn’t speak English, hid from visitors and only went out to go to church: she’d walk three miles into Nottingham, to go to the Polish Mass in the cathedral because it reminded her of Silesia. Her eyes were faded and sad. Opa, a respected senior police officer in retirement, lived with his new wife in Wirtschaftswunder prosperity and we could never tell Omi we saw them, because she couldn’t bear to know that she was divorced.

My father didn’t get on with my grandfather, so my mother, my brother and I would go without him to stay in the small Rhineland house at the edge of the forest. The house was full of good smells: cigars, fresh coffee, Badedas soap. But Opa’s eyes were always policing us, waiting for us to offend. Then he’d shout at us and, worse, at our mother: ‘How dare your children cheek me?’ ‘What’s this filthy mess?’ ‘What rubbish have they been wasting their money on?’ We usually went at Easter, and at night you could hear the stags rutting, ramming each other’s antlers. The sound echoed like gunfire and downstairs our mother was on her own with him and his wife and he’d probably make her cry again. I hated him for it. The night after he died, I lay awake for four hours, neither sad nor glad, but amazed that such a menacing presence could pass from our lives.

Bernhard Alfred Rösel was a postman’s son from the mountains of Lower Silesia: his family was poor and proud, descended from a group of Tyroleans who were expelled from Zillertal in 1837 for obstinate Protestantism and given sanctuary by the King of Prussia. In the only photograph I have of his family, my great-grandfather Gustav stands straight and Prussian-cropped in his shabby uniform. (Gustav died when I was four and he was ninety: he had every tooth in his head, white and without cavities – thanks, it was said, to his diet of harsh rye bread and raw garlic.) My great-grandmother Maria holds the bibbed baby Erich; Aunt Lenchen, whom I never met, is beside her. Maria’s ears stick out at right angles to her head, as do all her children’s. On the other side of Gustav are Martin and Bernhard. I know nothing about Martin; maybe he died in the First World War like my grandmother’s brother Leo Kolodziej, whose head was blown off at Verdun.

Bernhard, too, fought in the war: he put on his first uniform when he was only 15 and remained in one for the whole of his working life. No doubt he demonstrated from the start the energy, initiative and ‘zest for responsibility’ for which his superiors were later to praise him. He was made an NCO, and in 1919 joined the police force in the grubby industrial conurbation that comprised Gleiwitz (today’s Gliwice) and Zabrze-Hindenburg in Upper Silesia. Bernhard was a small man, but he always stood so straight he seemed taller. He impressed his bosses, and by 1924 could afford to marry pretty Gertrud Kolodziej, the daughter of a mine manager and property owner – a step up in the world for Bernhard. In their wedding photograph his hair is fiercely clipped, his ears stick out even more than they did in childhood; he has beetling brows, an exaggeratedly thin, straight nose, a square jaw and an interrogatory stare.

It didn’t bother him, despite his family history, that Gertrud was Catholic and that his children were to be brought up Catholics – I don’t think he was ever very religious. In fact, there was only one child, a girl. This was a mistake: she was supposed to have been a boy called Peter, and although she was baptised Gerda Erika Maria, her father never called her anything but Peter.

Appearances mattered to the young Rösels. My mother has told me that my grandmother went hungry so that she could afford to buy her nice clothes, and though Bernhard, for his part, allowed himself no luxuries (‘Not one beer, not one cigarette,’ he wrote years later to my mother), he bought, in 1930, a Steinway upright piano. My mother, who was delicate, certainly didn’t go hungry. Every day she was taken to a patisserie in the town and given a huge bowl of whipped cream to build her up. For Christmas she always got a book, usually one of Else Ury’s girls’ stories. Ury, who was gassed at Auschwitz, had been the Enid Blyton of prewar Germany.

Bernhard rose steadily through the densely calibrated grades of the German police force. He was popular with his colleagues, who respected his straightforwardness and reliability. But when they invited him to join their political associations, he refused – even when a very senior officer offered to make him treasurer of the republican Reichsbanner. Bernhard joined the police’s professional association, the Schrader League, which had trade-union and Social Democratic connections – the Prussian force was dominated by the Social Democrats – but even though it damaged his prospects, he didn’t join the Party. And when, in 1930, First Lieutenant Goede asked him to join a Nazi grouping called the Police Officers’ Association, he refused him, too. He was a good Prussian civil servant – politically neutral, willing to do the Government’s bidding, no matter what its political colour. ‘I’ve always hated party politics,’ he said, considering it an abuse of his position as a policeman to be tougher on one side than another. In Upper Silesia, the police were toughest on the Nazis. On one occasion, they broke up a local Nazi meeting, hunted the participants into a blind alley almost a kilometre away, chased them into the houses where they took refuge and beat them up. Bernhard got his own men together and told them this was ‘a filthy way to behave when you’re breaking up a meeting. A squadron leader has to be able to rely on his deputy leaders. If I find any deputy leader not doing his duty in this respect in future, he’s finished for me, whether he’s a sergeant or an upper sergeant. The police are only there to disperse the crowd. It’s out of order to beat fugitives with your truncheons.’

On 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Bernhard, now a lieutenant, stuck to his principles. When a local Nazi newspaper complained that a Communist meeting held in the area should have been banned, Bernhard responded by telling colleagues that the Communist meeting had been authorised and if the Nazis ever tried to disturb a legal meeting the police would have to use their truncheons against them. Now that Hitler was in power, however, the Nazis didn’t bother too much about lawful authority, and even before the Reichstag fire the SA had started to arrest political opponents without reference to the police, and to put them in ‘wild’ concentration camps. After the Reichstag fire, a law was drafted to exclude politically unreliable people from the civil service. The Schrader League, to which Bernhard still belonged, was disbanded. The Nazis now ruled over the police. Some of them were Bernhard’s friends and well-wishers, but First Lieutenant Goede had never forgiven him for refusing to join the Officers’ Association.

In the middle of all this, Bernhard took Goede to one side at manoeuvres and warned him to watch out for a leftist police sergeant called Josef Kullik. He said he’d been talking to Kullik, who had said that if any Nazi policemen tried to take illegal control of the police precinct, he’d be delighted to put a bullet in Goede’s belly.

Kullik was the same age as Bernhard, but he hadn’t been promoted to lieutenant because he had a record of insubordinate behaviour. Apparently, he envied my grandfather’s success. When I discovered that my grandfather had informed on him, I was ashamed. Was he ashamed of himself? Maybe not: at home there was little Peterle, and Gertrud, and the Steinway and the promise of everything that was supposed to come, all on a knife-edge now. Besides, it seems that Bernhard merely got in with his denunciation first: Kullik, interrogated by Goede, informed him that Bernhard Rösel had spoken contemptuously about him and couldn’t understand how he could belong to the Nazi Party.

Despite Kullik’s testimony, Bernhard was again invited to apply to join the Officers’ Association. This time, he did so: after all, the Nazis were now something more than a political party. Despite Goede’s opposition, he was voted in. Not to be outdone, on 25 April 1933, Goede denounced Bernhard for ‘lack of national feeling’, and demanded his transfer to another police station. He gave as his reason Bernhard’s earlier refusal to join the ‘despised’ Officers’ Association.

The new Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was designed to purge ‘non-Aryans’ and ‘officials who because of their previous political activity do not offer security that they will act at all times and without reservation in the interests of the national state’. Section 5, which applied to Bernhard’s case, said: ‘Every official must allow himself to be transferred to another office in the same or equivalent career, even to one carrying a lower rank or regular salary.’ Hermann Goering called the process ‘weeding out’, and warned those invoking the law that they must bear in mind that their signature was ‘often equivalent to a death sentence’.

During this period neighbours belonging to the Nazi women’s organisations would visit Gertrud, inspect everything – especially the books – and say to her: ‘You’re scum. You’ll end up in a concentration camp.’ I think they also taunted her for having ‘Jewish-looking’ auburn hair, because she retained a belief that she looked Jewish and when she first came to England was afraid of going out onto the street in case she’d be ‘picked out’ as Jewish. Maybe there was some hushed up Jewish blood in her ancestry. Peterle noticed that her mother was always in tears and had begun to suffer terrible headaches.

A three-man commission dealt with Bernhard’s case: Goede was one of them. The commission summoned Kullik, who had by this time been suspended from his job. When he came out of the hearing, he said: ‘Rösel has broken my back, but I’ll make sure it costs him his neck.’

Three weeks later, Bernhard was summoned to the commission. He knew that the new law provided for sanctions against people who made malicious accusations, so he dismissed as ‘deliberate lies Kullik’s deposition that he had made “contemptuous remarks” about Goede. Kullik is accusing me because I spoke out against him.’ He didn’t try to pretend he’d always been a secret Nazi, but stuck to his apolitical guns, cited his refusal to become treasurer of the Reichsbanner, the even-handedness of his interventions in civil disturbances, his dislike of party politics. He said he’d been a member of the Schrader League purely for financial reasons – maybe he meant it increased his chances of promotion. He said that people had misread his personal loyalty to colleagues he’d known for years, assuming he shared their political opinions. He suggested that the commission should approach his commanding officer, who’d known him for years and to whom he’d confided his political views. He finished with the words: ‘I strongly assure you that I am completely and unreservedly behind the present Government.’

I think he grew increasingly afraid from this time on. He probably found out that the commission hadn’t approached his commanding officer, or the three colleagues whose names he had given as witnesses. He sent them a handwritten sheet with the names of four more policemen who’d vouch for him. Again, they ignored him. On 28 July – two days after Peterle’s eighth birthday – he was practising at the shooting range when a policeman came for him and took him to the commission by motorbike.

The chairman of the commission read him the details of a second deposition given by Kullik, who had said something very damaging to Bernhard: ‘I have always assumed that Police Lieutenant Rösel sympathised with the Social Democrats.’ Kullik went on to claim that Bernhard had policed the Communist gathering the Nazi paper had complained about early in 1933, and that before the Nazis came to power he had boasted about a political argument he’d had with a National Socialist police lieutenant, Von Lany, when ‘he’d told him where to get off.’

The commission read my grandfather their judgment: ‘Police Lieutenant Rösel belonged to the Schrader League right up to February 1933, though senior comrades advised him to join the Officers’ Association. Financial considerations are not accepted as sufficient justification for his adherence to the Schrader League. Examinations of police officers who are undoubted Marxists reveal that he had a negative attitude towards the National Socialist movement.’ His transfer was approved.

I was reading Bernhard’s file in the German Federal Archive and when I got to this point I was on his side for the first time in my life – even though he denounced Kullik, even though ‘salvation’ for him meant only that he would be absorbed into a hateful system. He was being victimised and I wanted him to survive. And he fought for his survival. When he went away he thought of all the things he should have said and hadn’t. He wrote to other police officers and NCOs, asking them to send him statements for the commission. He typed an appeal. In my mind I’m standing behind him. I can see the stubborn, dog-at-bay set of his neck, his round head bent over the clicking typewriter keys.

‘I draw your attention to the fact that I’m a professional soldier,’ he wrote in his appeal, ‘that I’ve been in uniform since my 15th year of life. Minister President Goering has said that such a man must be bound up with the state and the nation and can never be a Marxist ... My view is that neither the police nor the Army should vote. It could be said that my entrance into the NSDAP in April contradicts the opinions I’ve just set down. But I’d reply that the NSDAP is no longer a party, but a people’s movement.’

His friends and colleagues liked him enough to take a risk and write letters on his behalf. They assured the commission that he had the correct ‘national’ sentiments. They said he’d been furious when he’d been invited to be treasurer of the Reichsbanner. Only one attributed Nazi sentiments to him, saying he’d always believed he was ‘a secret comrade in arms’. The rest based their defence on his apolitical stance. Von Lany, who’d already written to the commission, wrote Bernhard a second letter to add to his appeal: ‘I can’t remember ever having a political argument with you.’

But the commission didn’t change its decision; none of the letters did any good. The documents went up to police headquarters at Breslau, and the decision was approved there.

I wonder who suggested to my grandfather that he should shoot himself. Perhaps it was a friendly thought on the part of one of the commissioners. Or perhaps the well-disposed commanding officer had suggested it as the only way to escape the concentration camp. Peterle heard her mother’s cry of horror, the thump of a heavy object on the floor, her father’s voice: ‘He told me it was the only way.’ She went into the room and saw his revolver lying there. Later, Gertrud appealed to a Party official on his behalf. (I always imagine her wearing the little black hat and veil that I used for dressing up because she never wore them.) I don’t know who she saw, but it made a difference. When the documents went to the Prussian Interior Ministry for final confirmation, everything changed. The officers in Berlin poured scorn on the commission’s recommendations, rubbished the witnesses, and rejected the application for Bernhard’s transfer. It was January before the final decision went through, but Lieutenant Rösel’s career and life had been saved.

In the end it was Gertrud who had a nervous breakdown and took an overdose. Bernhard went with her to the hospital, and when he came back he sat down at the dining-table and said to Peterle: ‘You’re all I’ve got, now.’

When my grandmother came back from the hospital she had changed for ever. In photographs her face is drawn and sorrowful, she suffered from agonies of anxiety and a sense of sin that could only be alleviated through hours of prayer. Bernhard meanwhile carried out his duties as a faithful servant of the state. In 1934 he was promoted to first lieutenant, and on the Führer’s birthday in 1937, became a captain. He was sent to Austria at the Anschluss in 1938, and assisted in the occupation of Czechoslovakia, where he was given charge of a squadron – he ‘acquitted himself magnificently’. He went to the Ukraine and was promoted to major. The results of routine checks on his political reliability – carried out by the secret police, and by the Nazi Party in Munich – were satisfactory.

After the war, he was arrested and interned by the Americans. He had been in Police Regiment II, one of whose battalions was involved in genocide. The last document in the file is a telegram complaining that he hasn’t come back to the regiment after a training course. The postwar investigator seems to have attached special significance to this: I presume that it proves my grandfather wasn’t with the regiment at the date of the crime they were investigating.

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