Alfred Czech was Adolf Hitler’s "youngest hero". He was just 12 when German newsreel cameras famously filmed him having his cheeks pinched by the Führer at his Berlin bunker after he was ceremoniously awarded the Iron Cross medal for outstanding bravery.
Today, Mr Czech, now 72 and living in the Rhineland, still vividly remembers those moments, 60 years ago, when he met Hitler for the first and only time. "I was only 12, but the Führer shook my hand, then he pinched my left cheek. He told me, ‘Keep it up!’," Mr Czech said. "I certainly had the feeling that I had done something remarkable."
Alfred Czech was then in the Jungvolk, a movement set up in 1936 for the German boys who were too young to join the Hitler Youth movement. The Jungvolk’s members were aged 10 to 14. Thousands of them were pitched into battle against the invading Red Army in early 1945, and thousands were fallen for the Fatherland.
On 20 March 1945, 19 Jungvolk boys, summoned from throughout the Greater German Reich, were paraded in front of Hitler outside his bunker under his Chancellory. They were ordered to form up in line and receive Hitler’s personal congratulations for their bravery in defending the Fatherland.
Mr Czech’s act of heroism had come a few weeks earlier. His home in the Silesian village of Goldenau, now in Poland, was on the front line. Seeing a group of German soldiers under fire and wounded in a Red Army grenade attack, the young Alfred jumped on to his father’s farm-cart and rode to the rescue.
On his first foray, he brought back eight wounded men. On his second he rescued four more. "Even at 12, I was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler," Mr Czech said. But, he added: "I got the soldiers away from enemy fire more out of a sense of duty to my fellow men. I didn’t do it for Hitler. I would have saved Russians or Poles in a similar situation." A few days later, a German general appeared at the Czechs’ family farm. He told the parents to get their son ready for a trip to Berlin.
"My mother was dead against the idea," he said. "She was afraid I might come to harm on the journey, but my father was in favour so I went." The boy from the country was put on a military plane to Berlin.
After touchdown, the young Alfred was introduced to other Jungvolk children and teenagers who had performed acts of bravery in the belief that a final victory for Germany was only weeks away. The boys were given a shower and a hearty breakfast then ordered to put on new uniforms. Inside the Reich Chancellory garden, they formed a line and waited for Hitler. They were told by Arthur Axmann, the Reich Youth Leader, that when the Führer arrived they should neither stand rigidly to attention nor greet him with the NS salute. A posse of cameramen and a propaganda team from the German Wochenschau newsreel unit got their equipment ready.
The Führer appeared. The newsreel shows him with his collar uncharacteristically turned up, his moustache already grey and his, by then, uncontrollably twitching left arm, held fast against his back. Hitler was too infirm to pin the Iron Crosses on the boys’ tunics himself. The job had to be done by Axmann. When Hitler walked along the line of boys and reached Alfred, he asked him: "So you are the youngest of all? Weren’t you afraid when you rescued the soldiers?". Mr Czech remembers saying only: "No, my Führer!"
In the newsreel shown in the Berlin cinemas, the Wochenschau carried one of Hitler’s last messages to the German people to accompany the images of Alfred Czech and his young comrades. Hitler said: "You know that we are faced with a battle which will result in either the survival or extinction of the German people. Despite the gravity of these times, I remain firmly convinced that we will achieve victory in this battle, and above all for Germany’s youth and you, my boys."
After the ceremony, the boys, with their new Iron Crosses pinned to their tunics, were told to accompany the Nazi leader into his bunker. There, they were given a meal while Hitler questioned them about their war experiences. Each boy was asked whether he wanted to go home or to the battle-front. Alfred Czech, like all the others, gave the required answer: "To the front, my Führer!"
Alfred Czech was taken away for emergency training in the use of rifles and Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, some bigger than himself. But before being dispatched to the front, he was allowed one wish. He asked for an accordion and was presented with one a few hours later.
Even if he had secretly wanted to, the young Alfred could not go home. By that time, Goldenau had already been taken by the Soviet troops. He was left with no option but to follow orders and go to Freudenthal in German-annexed Sudetenland to fight on in what is now the Czech Republic.
"All the regular soldiers had to salute me because of my Iron Cross," he said. But many of the battle-worn and utterly dispirited soldiers of the regular Wehrmacht he encountered simply told him to go home. But Hitler’s youngest hero stayed on.
Yet in mid-April 1945, the war ended for Alfred Czech. He was shot and wounded in the lung while serving at the front. He still suffers from the effects of the wound today. He managed to survive the rigours of a prisoner-of-war camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. Only in 1947 was he released and allowed to return home. The ill-fed 14-year-old boy walked all the way from Prague to his parent’s farm-house in Goldenau which by then had become part of Poland.
When he got there, he learnt that his father was missing. In a fanatical, last-ditch attempt to hold back the Red Army’s advance, the Nazi leadership had pitched not only boys like Alfred Czech into battle, but also seasoned First World War veterans to form a last line of resistance. Mr Czech’s father was among them. In the last days of the war, he was forced to join the Volkssturm, the People’s Storm defence force, the equivalent of Britain’s Home Guard, and thrown into battle against seasoned Soviet troops. Three months after the end of the war, his father’s body was found with a bullet hole in the neck.
The young Alfred Czech now became haunted by the Iron Cross of which he was once, if albeit briefly, so proud. The Wochenschau pictures of him being presented with the award and being pinched on the cheek by Hitler made him easily identifiable to the Soviet occupying forces in Poland. The police had a warrant for his arrest. When Red Army soldiers discovered a photo of the Iron Cross-awarding ceremony in the family home, they ordered his sister to rip it up and eat the pieces. Yet, in the event, Alfred was merely questioned by police and allowed to go free.
From then on, Alfred Czech was a member of Communist Poland’s rapidly dwindling German minority. Thousands of Germans had already fled Silesia to escape the Red Army. By then, their homes and farmsteads were being occupied by Poles who were dispatched there by Stalin from eastern Polish territories then annexed by the Soviet Union. The Germans were not liked by their new Polish masters. The rump population that was left during the Cold War era was still being discriminated against in the 1980s.
Yet Alfred Czech felt that he had little choice but to stay on. He became a miner, married and sent countless applications to the authorities seeking permission to emigrate to West Germany. The Poles finally let him go after he took the advice of a friend and joined the Polish Communist party.
Alfred Czech emigrated in 1964. He settled in the Rhineland and earned his living as a building labourer. Nowadays he lives off his pension and is the father of 10 children and grandfather to no less than 20 grandchildren. He threw away his Iron Cross before he was captured in Czecho-slovakia in 1945. A junk dealer sold him the one he uses nowadays to pose for "historical photos". Yet he still has "that picture" of himself as Hitler’s youngest hero. It sits, neatly framed, above a budgerigar cage in his living-room.
"As a small boy, I didn’t reflect much, I just wanted to do something for my people," he said. "I didn’t think it was insane to send children into battle. It was war."
Comrade Alfred Czech died on 13 June 2011 in Hückelhoven, Germany.