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War hero, spy and fugitive Jewish German: A man’s search for his father’s past.

Second world war

War hero, spy and fugitive Jewish German: A man's search for his father's past

Reclaiming his family's German citizenship this month is the last chapter in a Toronto man's 20-year quest to rediscover his father's enigmatic, adventurous youth.

In hindsight, there was something odd about Marc Stevens' childhood in 1960s Ottawa and Toronto.

His father, Peter Stevens, was a decorated Second World War aviator who had immigrated to Canada. He knew people all over Europe yet said little about his past and didn't keep contact with any blood relatives.

His two boys, Marc and Peter Jr., had been told their father was actually born in Germany but adopted by an English couple. However, they were instructed never to share that with anyone.

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A copy stand photograph of Peter Stevens in Toronto, Friday August 4, 2017. Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

"I idolized him and was happy to go along with it," Marc recalled.

It was only after Peter's death in 1979 that Marc began a two-decade-long effort to understand his father's mysterious past.

Marc's journey comes full circle later this month when, in addition to his Canadian and British citizenships, the 60-year-old Toronto sales director will also become a German citizen.

That's because his father, who spoke with an Oxford accent and attended Anglican church, had begun life as the second son of a Jewish family in the old Prussian city of Hanover.

"The case is absolutely unique. He is actually a German Jew … who enlisted in the RAF," said a 1946 Air Ministry letter that Marc found in British archives.

Under the German constitution, Marc was therefore entitled to re-apply for the citizenship that the Third Reich stripped from Jews like his father.

Marc Stevens poses with a portrait of his father, Peter Stevens, a Royal Air Force officer who was in fact a German-born Jew named Georg Hein, sent by his mother to England because of the Nazi takeover.

Marc's quest started in 1986, when he heard that the author Charles Rollings was looking for stories about the Great Escape, the famous tunnel breakout by Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp.

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Since his father had been held there, Marc contacted Mr. Rollings. He learned that his father was well-known among aviators who had tried to escape.

He began visiting the British National Archives to look for his father's former comrades, who had taken part in the RAF's earlier campaign to bomb Germany.

Marc had his father's logbook. He cross-referenced it with microfiched mission debriefing notes, and discovered the heroism behind the logbook's laconic entries.

For example, for Aug. 6-7, 1941, the logbook just said, "Crashed upon return." Marc learned that after a night raid over Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany, his father evaded two German fighter planes. Despite injured crew members and damaged controls, he managed to return to England and made a belly landing.

Marc also found an RCAF veteran, Mike Lewis, who described how he and Peter had made their first escape attempt together, jumping out of a train carrying prisoners. They were recaptured after two days.

Mr. Lewis also told Marc that his father was Jewish. "I told him in no uncertain terms he didn't know what he was talking about. I thought he was dead wrong," Marc said.

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He was sure there had been a misunderstanding. His father had never mentioned to Marc that he was Jewish.

The turning point was in 1996 when he saw that the Toronto Reference Library housed foreign phone books. He checked to see if he could find a number for Trude Hein, his father's estranged sister, who lived in Britain.

There was a listing. He called. It was her.

To his surprise, she didn't know Peter had died. The second shock was that she confirmed Peter was Jewish. "It was a very emotional phone call," Marc said.

Beach July 1924: Peter Stevens’ family in 1924, when he was known as Georg Hein in Germany. Front row, from left: Georg, Trude and Erich Hein. Back: Unknown woman, Henni and Victor Hein.

Marc learned that his father's original name was Georg Franz Hein and that he was born in 1919, the middle of three children.

Georg's parents, Victor and Henni, owned a trade magazine and led a comfortable life in Hanover until Victor died in 1926. Struggling with three kids, Henni placed seven-year-old Georg in a boarding school.

When Adolf Hitler rose to power, Henni sent her children to study in London. Once there, Georg turned into a rebellious youth, dropping out of university, clashing with his elder brother, Erich, and squandering the money sent by their mother. By the time he was 20, he had been jailed for petty theft and refused to let Erich visit him.

Back in Nazi Germany, their widowed mother, with few assets left and most of her relatives dead or departed, killed herself just before war started in Europe.

Oflag XXI B Szubin: Peter Stevens (far right) with other captured allied aviators at Oflag XXI-B prisoner-of-war camp, in Szubin, occupied Poland. Mr. Stevens was held there from September 1942 to April 1943.

There were more surprises. In 2006, Marc discovered that there was a classified archival file about his father. He made a Freedom of Information request to get it unsealed.

He learned that his father had been released from jail on Sept. 1, 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland to begin the war – with an order to report to a police station in London. He never did, and became a fugitive alien.

"Despite exhaustive inquiries, he was not located," said a police letter in the file.

The letter said that police finally found in October 1941 that Georg Hein had enlisted in the RAF under a false identity. By then, he was already a prisoner of war.

Another letter, a commendation for the Military Cross, detailed Peter's repeated attempts to escape from German captivity.

He jumped from a train with Mr. Lewis. He disguised himself as a guard and tried to shepherd other prisoners out of the camp. He was involved in several tunnelling plans and, because he spoke German, helped in forging false papers for escapees.

"Although on several occasions he had been severely punished for attempted escapes, his tenacity and courage never failed," the letter said.

The heroics didn't end with the war. He became an aide to Air Vice Marshal Sir Alexander Davidson. A 1946 letter credits him with saving Sir Alexander's life when he took control of an aircraft after the pilot became agitated.

Another set of letters showed that from 1947 to 1952, Peter worked as an intelligence officer in Allied-occupied Germany.

"It never occurred to me until long after his death just how brave my father had been," Marc said. He eventually wrote a book about his father, Escape, Evasion and Revenge, which was published in Britain in 2009.

In their own ways, each of Peter's sons have reconnected with their father's roots. Peter Jr., married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism. Their children now live in Israel.

And on Aug. 22, Marc will go to the German consulate in Toronto to acquire the citizenship his father lost under the Nazis. "This is the one thing stolen from my family that I am able to recover," he said.

1961 Dad and Sons: Peter Stevens with his two sons when they lived in Ottawa in 1961. Marc Stevens is on the left, his elder brother Peter Jr. on the right.

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