I had a delightful time last year visiting with Bert Mann and his wife Irma at their lovely seaside home in Mexico. I had gone there with Bert's daughter, my friend Frankie Picasso, in search of facts about Bert's life for the book we are writing: "For want Of 40 Pounds" (forwantof40pounds.com).
At the time, Bert was 92 years old. But this vibrant, well spoken gentleman looks, sounds and acts at least 20 years younger. As for Irma, she was 59 when we visited.
So, why write a book about Bert Mann? Well, let's start with the fact that he was born Berthold Skurman in Vienna, Austria. The year was 1925. Thirteen years later, as the young Austrian lad began maturing, World War II was looming. Adolf Hitler and his band of Nazis had begun their annexation program. By March of 1938, Hitler had become more aggressive and the Vienna-based government folded. The Nazi occupation of Austria was marked by an outbreak of anti-Jewish violence. Vienna was home to about 180,000 Jews. One of these was young Berthold's father.
"Throughout the country, Jewish men and women were grabbed at random by Nazis," Bert told me. "They were forced to use sacred Hebrew prayer cloths to scrub walls, sidewalks, toilets and latrines. Thousands were jailed for no reason. Authorities permitted the looting of Jewish homes and businesses. It was devastating."
And so began the amazing tale of Berthold's youth, a narrative that showcases courage and pushes the boundaries like few others, thus earning him a chapter in my new book "Pushing The Boundaries" (pushingtheboundaries.life).
Listen to this. "I didn't see much hope for myself," he recalled, noting that his father had already been taken away to a concentration camp, leaving Berthold, his mother and his brother Paul behind. "The stores I was doing deliveries for were all closed. So I said to my mother, 'I'm going to go to England and I'm going to see what I can do to save you and Paul.'"
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. I was determined to find a way."
Bert told me his buddy Erich's father had also been sent to a camp so he suggested Erich join him in going to England. "Let's walk to Amsterdam," he said.
"Like that was just a walk in the park?" I asked in amazement. "How did you plan to walk to Amsterdam?"
"With a backpack that had all my belonging," he replied.
Not really what I was looking for with that question.
"OK Bert, but surely this was pushing the limits. To think two young teenage boys – Jews, after all – could simply walk from Vienna to Holland and then get to England?"
"It was stupidity, Peter," he confessed. "If I were older or smarter, I never would have attempted it. It was really just kids' imagination. And as I look at it today, yes, we were crazy. But I remembered hearing that the world belongs to the courageous, so off we went, full of courage, ready to take the world by storm!"
"How long did this take," I enquired.
"Oh, months," Bert replied matter-of-factly. "You see, we got rides from time to time – the odd farmer was kind enough to let us hop on a hay wagon. But we survived. Mind you, as we went through Germany, we had to be very careful. Had we been picked up, that would have been the end. We'd hide during the day and walk all night."
"But how did you know where you were going?"
"We had a compass," he explained with the same ease you'd have today in saying "We had Google maps!" "I'd learned a bit about geography," he added, "and Erich was a pretty smart kid too: he knew even more about geography than I did."
As he was telling me this, Bert paused, looked off. You could almost see his mind drifting back to what must have been a demanding, challenging, frightening time.
"We found our way," he said simply in summation, but then added, "The hard part was finding enough food to eat."
"Did you have any money?" I asked.
"We had no money. So it was a matter of stealing. We'd walk past a store with groceries on display and grab something. And we had no clean clothes, so at night, walking past farms, we'd steal something off the clothesline. All these kinds of 'fun' things: steal food, steal clothes... we'd walk past an orchard and wow! We'd load up with apples, apricots or whatever was growing."
Almost as a "let's put this in a nut shell" kind of comment, Bert summed up: "Little by little, we got to Amsterdam."
Just like that. Done deal.
When you realize that Berthold and Erich should have been living a calm life at home, preparing to celebrate the Jewish coming of age ritual of bar mitzvah... but instead they are hundreds of miles away facing a very unsure, very risky future... well, it just makes you appreciate the precariousness and uncertainty of life that they were enduring, all of it so unfathomable when viewed from today's world.
"Now, you were still a long way from England, right?" I said as we continued Bert's narrative.
"Yes. But we finally made it to the docks in Amsterdam! Nice accomplishment. And we're standing, staring at a ship, when a young sailor, speaking German, asks, 'What are you guys doing here?' He wanted to know why and how. So I told him the facts. And he says, 'Well, you can't go on this boat. It's a freight boat. You need a passenger boat.'"
Bert explained they had no money. To which the sailor, looking around furtively, suggested they might want to come back around midnight. They did so, not knowing what to expect, and the sailor smuggled them onto the freighter.
"In the morning, we were in England," Bert said. "It was just crossing the channel."
Bert looked off again, temporarily lost in thought. "I often think back," he said finally. "There must be a God. Because how do these things happen? How do these people help you? Divine intervention? I mean, not everyone got saved, but..."
His voice trailed off as he left the rest to speculation.
There's so much more I could tell you about this absolutely amazing man, including how he eventually made a fortune working to the top of the commercial elevator business (this with virtually no education). But for all the facts, you'll have to read the book.
During my time there, I suggested to Bert that, as I learned more about his incredible life, it was clear he had pushed boundaries regularly to get ahead. He didn't see it that way, being humble and convinced he wasn't special in any way. But as my hosts provided a lift to the airport for the trip home from Mexico, Bert offered this: "You know Peter, your questions have got me thinking. I guess I really have pushed some boundaries over my lifetime. But the last five years: they've been the happiest! Not only that, I have Irma who is so beautiful and intelligent. She has the spirit that I and everybody else loves."
And you know what? If I get to live to be 92 and look back on a lifetime, I sure hope I can say something sensational just like that. Let's face it: you don't have to push the boundaries to be happy.