‘I’ve been very lucky’, says 92-year-old Sheffield man who escaped Nazi Germany thanks to hero dad
At times, Rolf Heymann’s story seems almost too far-fetched to be believed.
The 92-year-old Bolsterstone man was born in 1928 into a family of wealthy German Jewish horse breeders, the son of a war hero who won the Iron Cross for saving a fellow soldier's life in the Battle of Ypres.
Then, as the continent of Europe hurtled towards the horrors of World War Two, he survived Kristallnacht to escape Germany on the Kindertransport, arriving in Sheffield in 1939.
Later he was evacuated to a Nottinghamshire farm where he learned English, eventually meeting an English girl at Sheffield City Hall dance and living happily ever after in a South Yorkshire ‘log cabin’ for the next 70 years.
Rolf greets me on the road after I get lost in the country lanes around his house, waving me towards a parking space and then leading me inside with an energy that belies his years.
The house looks like it might have been imported from Central Europe along with him, a Hansel and Gretel style wooden cottage complete with a tree house guest room and heated swimming pool.
He has lived in the same house since 1951, but says the bijou property is a far cry from the life of luxury he experienced as a child.
Rolf grew up about 10 miles from the city of Cologne, in a village called Kerpen now more famous as the birthplace of racing drivers Michael and Ralf Schumacher.
His family’s great wealth afforded them a 16-room house in the village, along with a thousand acres of land for their horses and two large orchards.
But his idyllic early childhood was not to last, as the Nazis seized power in 1933 and the country began its long descent into tyranny.
He has memories of getting beaten up by members of the Hitler Youth as a child, but nothing could have prepared him for the terrible events of November 9, 1938.
Kristallnacht saw hundreds of Jewish synagogues, businesses and properties destroyed while thousands of Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.
It was the beginning of the Holocaust.
“At about 12 midnight we heard a big bang as they put an axe through the front door,” he says.
“I was so scared they were going to come and kill me."
Fortunately, a farrier who lived next door stepped in to alter the course of Rolf’s young life, sparing his family the fate that befell the other Jews in his village and giving him time to escape.
But for their neighbour telling the crowd of his father’s First World War heroism, he says his family would undoubtedly have perished.
“Were it not for that man I would not be talking to you today,” he says.
“Only later did we realise what he had done. He saved our lives.”
Rolf’s father Philipp Heymann fought in the First World War and was awarded the Iron Cross for saving the life of a fellow soldier whose legs had been blown off.
He was then sent to the Eastern Front where he was shot and lost his leg, with the injuries eventually leading to his premature death at the age of just 44.
Rolf still has his dad’s Iron Cross to this day, along with a piece of shrapnel pulled out of his back and the bullet he was hit by in Russia.
He says he remembers his dad’s body still being pockmarked with specks of black from the bomb which hit the trench he was sheltering in and blew another soldier 20 metres clear of it.
That soldier lost both his legs but survived, with Phlipp dragging him back to the relative safety of a crater and applying tourniquets to his mangled lower limbs.
And many years later, Philipp’s bravery in the First World War would also save his family’s life as a Nazi mob sent to destroy their property turned their attentions to others.
After the horrors of Kristallnacht, it was obvious that Germany was no longer a safe place for anyone of the Jewish faith.
Hitler decreed that no Jews could own gold, robbing the family of the wealth they had accumulated over generations, while other members of the family were shipped off to concentration camps.
After Rolf’s mother Herta learned that a Kindertransport train from Austria was due to come through Cologne, she vowed to get her son on it.
From there he travelled to Rotterdam before catching a ferry to Harwich, being met off the boat by a cousin who had left Germany two years earlier to settle in Sheffield.
When his mother followed the year after, they lived at Embassy Court on Duke Street, with Rolf attending the tough Park School before being evacuated to a Nottinghamshire farm for four years.
“People were very welcoming but I could only speak three words of English at the beginning,” he says.
“I was one of 250 children evacuated to a place called Farnsfield in Nottinghamshire. I was taught to speak English by the farmers.”
After the war, Rolf met his wife Jacqueline at a dance at Sheffield City Hall, but he has been on his own in Bolsterstone for the last year after she sadly passed away last Christmas Day.
The house still has pictures of her looking impossibly glamorous all over its walls, but Rolf says he is not looking forward to the anniversary of her death.
He has suffered health problems as well in the last two decades, after being diagnosed with three different types of cancer, but isn’t one for complaining.
“I have been very lucky,” he says.
“My attitude to life is no matter what happens it will never get as bad as it was before.”