I was born Hans Reiner Bernd in 1929 in Koblenz, Germany, the youngest of three children. I grew up almost as an only child, because my brother and sister were respectively fourteen and thirteen years older, and rarely at home. My parents both came from old, established German Jewish families. My father was a doctor who had served as a medical officer in the first world war and had been wounded and decorated. Like many enlightened” German Jews, my parents attempted to integrate totally into German society, and I don’t think they ever went to the synagogue, nor did we keep any of the Jewish festivals or customs at home.
Our town of Koblenz was beautiful, situated where the Rhine and the Moselle meet. I used to love watching the ships and barges sail up and down the Rhine, and it was especially exciting when I was taken for a trip on one of the paddle-steamers up the Rhine Gorge, where the vineyards climbed up the steep cliffs and one romantic ruined castle followed another. I also liked going for walks in the cool green woods above the town.
As I reached school age, however, I became increasingly aware that my Jewishness made me different from other children. Many shops put signs in their windows saying, JEWS FORBIDDEN!, and one night organized gangs smashed the windows of Jewish shops and houses, looting the contents. Fortunately our house was left alone, perhaps because we lived on an important road—and just opposite the Nazi leader in the town!
Nobody dared criticize the Nazis, even at home, because we were afraid of the secret police. One day my father was taken away by plain-clothes policemen and we all felt very scared. However, he came back after a few days, only for the same thing to happen again later. I had to attend school but I hated it, because I experienced bullying and ostracism on the part of “Aryan” children, and sometimes even at the hands of staff. I remember one physical education teacher who mocked me and made the class laugh at my expense.
Whenever I left home for school, especially on dark winter mornings, it was with fear for I was often attacked on my way there or back, just because I was Jewish. Therefore I was only too glad when, eventually, Jewish children were banned from schools. By this time, my brother and sister had been able to escape from Germany, and were living with relations in America and England. My parents were either unable or unwilling to leave Koblenz, but just before war broke out in 1939 they put me on a “children’s transport” train to England. There were tears because, I think, they knew they would never see me again. I felt confused and frightened, leaving my family and going alone to a strange country. At the Dutch border German police and customs officers went through the train; we were petrified that they would round us up and take us away. But eventually, to our relief, the train moved on into free Holland.
The identity card issued to Hans Bernd by the Nazi government for the children’s transport to England. The name “Israel” was added to the names of all Jewish males. Females were given the name “Sarah.” The large “J” was in red and indicated he was Jewish.
I can’t remember much about the long channel crossing, but I do remember arriving in London. It was raining. It was cold and dark. And the station was dirty and gloomy. One by one our names were called and we were handed over to the person who had agreed to look after us. I was to be taken by a Quaker family. The mother had come to get me, and it was fortunate that she knew a little German because I knew no English and was tired, hungry and confused. When we arrived home no one else was there. I sampled my first English food—cold breakfast cereal, even though it was nighttime! The house, though, was a very beautiful house with a large garden. I was there when war broke out and it was then that I realized how completely I was separated from my parents. I received only occasional Red Cross letters from them until 1943, when they were deported to Auschwitz and killed.
In England everything was strange and different and I didn’t know anybody. My nerves were shattered. The Quaker family did their best to help me settle down, and later sent me to a boarding school. Fortunately, the people at the school understood what I had been through and were very kind, so I quickly picked up the language. But when I reached the age for secondary school, I was sent to another boarding school, which had very strict rules and harsh discipline, reminding me at first of my experiences in Germany. I hated it. There were so many rules—and punishments if one failed to keep them. Junior boys had to do menial jobs for older boys, who treated us like slaves. They were even allowed to beat us with canes if we did something wrong. However, as I progressed up the ranks, life naturally got much easier and slowly I settled down, despite occasional nights in the cellars due to air-raids from German bombers.
The school was a church school, but the religion was very formal, and even though I learned a lot about religion, I certainly did not understand what it all meant. I did love the music though and enjoyed singing in the choir, which was just as well, since we had to go to services in the school chapel twice every Sunday!
When I was about sixteen, during the summer holidays, I went to a Christian camp partly for a holiday and partly to help getting in the harvest because the men were at war. I thoroughly enjoyed this. More important, it changed the whole course of my life. In the evenings we played all kinds of games, but the Christian “Good News” was also explained step by step, and what to me had previously been obscure suddenly became clear. Christianity was not some code of observance and behavior, but a personal relationship with the living Messiah Jesus. I could enter this relationship by repenting of what I had done wrong and putting my trust in the fact that Jesus died for me, as foretold in the Jewish Scriptures.
That summer I asked Yeshua into my life to be my Messiah. When I asked Him to take over my life my whole outlook on life changed radically and permanently. Even the colors of the trees and the sky seemed brighter, and my life began to make sense. Jesus became the center of my life. I regularly went to Bible classes and on the holidays helped to run Christian camps like the one where I met Yeshua.
I was very good at French and Spanish, so it was decided that I should study these at university. I didn’t have any choice about where to go, but I’m sure God led me to the right place. When I arrived I immediately joined the Christian Union (in England that is the group for Christian students). Older Christian students looked after me very carefully and so did Christian friends in the town, so that I was very happy there and gained the confidence to become one of the leaders. I didn’t know what to do with my life when I finished my studies, but I prayed about it, and God led me to teach in the West Indies. After that I went to West Africa to start a mission school in the bush.
Here I met my wife, who was teaching in the capital town and in the course of time we had two sons. Apart from my sister, who many years later had come quite independently to faith in Yeshua, I knew of no other Jewish believers in Jesus in the entire world.
My wife of course was also a believer in Jesus. My younger son, Simon, accepted Yeshua in due course, and at the age of twenty-two so did my elder son, Jonathan. Within a few months of Jonathan’s faith experience the whole family had met several other Jewish believers in Jesus, and I began to pay more serious attention to my Jewish roots.
My journey from Koblenz to England to faith in the Jewish Messiah brought me home. It was with much joy that I was able to finally resolve a hidden conflict of identity, for I discovered once and for all how Jewish it is to believe in Jesus the Jewish Messiah.