I have just learned of the passing of Bert Mann, and I am so very sad. Bert was one of those rare individuals who you just thought would always be there. Still, he made it to age 97 when he really had no right to do so.
I had the honour of writing about Bert‘s life with his daughter, my friend, Frankie Picasso. The book, “For Want Of 40 Pounds” covers the astonishing story of a young Austrian lad, Berthold Skurmann (who would eventually become Bert Mann). In 1938 he enlisted his best friend Erich to join him with a plan to walk across Europe. His vision was of making it to England, where surely the two young Jewish lads would find someone to help them avoid Hitler’s henchmen. Between them, the boys had no money, no food, no English language skills and only the clothes on their backs. But they eventually set off, possessing a sense of adventure and extraordinary courage in the face of danger. Young Berthold’s fortitude drove them to complete and accomplish their mission. Over several months, they literally walked all the way through Austria, all the way through Germany (mostly at night to avoid detection) and all the way through Holland to Amsterdam, where on the waterfront, they managed to hide as stowaways on a ship making its way to England.
"It was stupidity," Bert said as he described this astonishing adventure to me while we sat at the wonderful home he shared with his wife Irma in Mexico. "If I were older or smarter, I never would have attempted it. It was really just a kid’s imagination. And as I look at it today, yes, we were crazy.”
Bert went on to recall, “We were young and ambitious and very naive. Little did we know what we were going to encounter on our journey. But we were determined to get to England and hopefully save our respective families.”
That was only after they’d packed their rucksacks with all of their worldly belongings. And that wasn’t much.
“We started walking towards Holland,” Bert said. “We knew enough geography to recognize we had to cross a body of water in order to get to England, but no idea how we were going to do that. I believe it was a mixture of fear and naivety that motivated us to escape from Vienna, notwithstanding the fact that the Nazi’s were really scary. If you can imagine being of Jewish decent, that was negative to start with. Then, it didn’t help being a fighter. I had no opportunity to attend school or earn any money, and I mean even small change.”
But get to England they did, alright, in May of 1939.
“I remembered hearing that the world belongs to the courageous,” Bert told me, “and I believed it, because I had the courage to look for a new life. So off we went, full of valour, ready to take the world by storm!”
And take the world by storm Bert Mann did!
But, sadly, Bert’s raging storm has ceased.
Farewell noble soldier: it was an honour and pleasure to know you.
There's so much more I could tell you about Bert’s astonishing life. I encourage you to read about him here: