Canadian Shocked to Discover British War Hero Father Was German Jew Whose Story Inspired Book, Movie ‘The Great Escape’
A Canadian researching his late father’s past was stunned to discover that his dad was actually a German Jew whose battle against the Nazis inspired a famous World War II book and subsequent film, the UK’s Daily Mail reported.
Marc Stevens said all he knew prior to his digging was that his father, Peter Stevens, who he said spoke with a “highly cultured” British accent, had been born as Georg Franz Hein in Hanover, Germany to Christian parents. Peter fled Germany for England before WWII and the fact that he served as a Royal Air Force bomber pilot in the war against the Nazis, and then later in the British Secret Intelligence Service — known as MI6 — only helped reinforce his father’s “cover story,” according to Marc.
Before joining the RAF, Peter stopped using his German name and adopted that of a friend in England who had passed away. He married Marc’s mother — a French-Canadian Catholic — and passed himself off as an Englishman once he moved to Canada in 1952.
After Peter’s death in 1979, Marc, who was 22 at the time, wanted to find out more about his father’s war experiences, so he focused on obtaining secret files, testimonies and debriefings from his dad’s record.
“What I didn’t know, and only discovered in 1996, was that my father had been born Jewish,” Marc said. “It all began with a lot of letter writing. Initially to an author of POW escape books in England. He was the first to tell me that my father was actually Jewish, but I thought he was dead wrong about that…In 1996, I finally tracked down and contacted my late father’s little sister, who finally confirmed the rumors that my father was actually a Jew.”
Marc also discovered that his father served time at the infamous Stalag Luft 3 prisoner of war camp, after being captured in September 1941. His stint at the POW camp inspired the famous 1963 World War II movie (based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name) The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen and other Hollywood greats.
“Dad became one of only two Allied prisoners authorized by the Escape Committee to trade with the Germans at the massive Stalag Luft 3, home of The Great Escape,” Marc said. “Fans of the movie will recognize the James Garner character as ‘The Scrounger,’ a job partly filled by my father. In fact, dad is named in the official history of Stalag Luft 3 as the Head of Contacts for the ‘X’ Organization in East compound of that massive POW camp.”
Peter attempted more than once to escape the camp, including two separate incidents in December 1941 when he dressed up as a German guard and tried to lead a group of 10 British prisoners out the camp’s gate.
Marc said, “Both times they had to turn back, but after the war in 1946, an English newspaper called it ‘The Boldest Escape Attempt of the War.'”
This daring escape attempt later earned him Britain’s Military Cross for valor, according to the Daily Mail. Peter was one of just 69 members of the RAF to receive the high honor.
Among the discoveries Marc made was that some 10-15 family members perished in the Holocaust. The revelations he uncovered inspired him to publish the book: Escape, Evasion and Revenge.
Talking about his father’s decision to keep his Jewish heritage a secret, Marc said: “Since I only discovered dad was Jewish 17 years after his death, I can only guess as to his motives for not sharing it.”
“Firstly, dad never practiced the faith of his family after the age of six, when his father died and he was sent away to boarding school,” he said. “According to his sister, he was never bar mitzvahed. So I don’t know if he really even felt any affinity to his religion. Secondly, he emigrated from the UK to a very Catholic Quebec in 1952, and he was likely worried about latent discrimination, which was still very much in evidence in that society.”
Marc said that after he found out about his father’s Jewish identity, he asked his mother if she would have married him knowing he was Jewish. Marc said his mother, who had close Jewish friends and was never antisemitic in any way, replied that she probably would not have married Peter.
“That was no reflection on her, but rather on the societal norms of the day, in a place where even the government bowed to the Church,” Marc explained. “Today, I am very proud to be the son of one of the bravest men I ever met. I only wish that I’d known all this while he was still alive, so that I could tell my father how proud I am of what he did during the war.”