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December 18, 2012 > A small act of kindness

A small act of kindness

By Doris Nikolaidis


He was employed at the Fireworks factory and part of his job was to direct and set off fireworks. The government put on a yearly New Year's Eve firework display on the Alster River for which my father was responsible. The Alster widened into a large lake in the middle of Hamburg. He stored the fireworks the night before in a small boat that was anchored at the shore of the Alster Lake and draped a large tarp over the boat to keep the fireworks dry. For safety, he navigated the boat the next day into the middle of the lake and set off the fireworks.

The evening of December 30, 1942, he left home on his motorcycle and drove to the Fireworks factory to meet with his team of assistants. They were planning the sequence of setting off the fireworks the next day and reviewed safety procedures. Before driving back home, he went to the Alster River to check on the boat where the fireworks were stored for the New Year's Eve celebration the next day.

When he lifted the tarp, he found a couple with a young child huddled in the boat. He angrily told them to get off his boat. It was dangerous, he said. They begged him to let them stay the night. They were Jewish, they said, and had arranged for a pick-up in Hamburg to take them to Switzerland. They insisted they would be killed if the Nazis found them.

My father had heard rumors of concentration camps but he could not imagine that any government, even this Hitler regime he disliked so intensely himself, could do the things they were rumored to have done. My father attributed it to propaganda by foreign governments fighting against Germany. He tried to assure the family that they would merely be deported to England or some other country that took in Jewish refugees from Hitler's Reich. The couple would not be calmed and my father could see the terror in their eyes. He reluctantly agreed to let them stay the night on the boat, hidden under the tarp. He gave them the sandwich and the two apples my mother had packed for him and instructed them that under no circumstances were they to use a match or any other open flame, as the fireworks could blow up.

He drove home and told my mother about the family in his boat. When my mother heard that there was a child with the couple, she immediately insisted that my father had to go back early the next morning and bring them some food. They themselves could make do with a little less food, she insisted.

The next morning, when my father went to check on the family, they were gone. There was no sign of any struggle and he hoped they made it to Switzerland. Only after the war, when he heard from the Allied forces about the horrors of concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau, did he remember the little family and hoped that he had been instrumental in helping them get away.

My father realized that sometimes a small act of kindness can have unexpected, prodigious consequences and he insisted that at least once a year during the holidays all his children do a personal act of charity for someone else.

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