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Authors: Leonard Gross

The Last Jews in Berlin

BOOK: The Last Jews in Berlin

The Last Jews in Berlin

Leonard Gross

In memory of my father

Benjamin Gross


on which much of this book is based were actually begun a decade before I became involved. In 1967 Eric Lasher, an editor and writer, journeyed to Berlin in the hope of finding Jews who had spent the entire war in that city, for much of that time hiding from the Nazis. From reports he had read, Lasher knew such people existed. But their story had never been fully told.

Lasher advertised in a Jewish community newspaper published in Berlin. Eighteen men and women responded. He interviewed all of them, as well as other survivors to whom their stories led him. All the interviews were extensive, and all of them were taped. But Lasher was unable to continue work on the book because of personal reasons, one being that he found the material so upsetting he had developed a stammer. He reluctantly but realistically dropped the project and put the transcripts of his interviews, as well as many files of allied material, in storage.

In the early 1970s Lasher and I both moved to California with our families and settled a few miles apart on the west side of Los Angeles. We had known of one another professionally; now, as our friendship ripened, he told me of the project and of his great disappointment that it had never been completed. I wondered if I might not take on the project, and, after reading through the transcripts, volunteered to do so.

The transcripts raised more questions than they answered, but they—and corollary material I subsequently acquired—proved beyond doubt that several thousand Jews in Berlin alone had undertaken to save themselves from extinction by the Nazis.

My task, as I saw it, was to choose several representative stories from Lasher's material and develop them in great detail.

In the summer of 1978 my wife, Jacquelyn, and I flew to Berlin to try to make contact with the survivors. I was filled with foreboding. Would they still be alive, and could they be located? They had told their stories once before; would they be willing to go through that ordeal again? I proposed to lead them into emotionally charged areas that had not been developed in the initial interviews; would they agree to follow? Eleven years had passed since they had been interviewed by Eric Lasher; would their memories of those years of horror still be good, or would they be vague and distorted?

Normally, in the reconstruction of current history based primarily on eyewitness accounts, there are second and even third sources to verify the facts. But in this case, many of the events involved only the individuals themselves and were known only to them.

As I met the survivors and began to explore their stories with them, I realized that while many of the safeguards of conventional reportage might be unavailable, there were other tests of credence that could be applied. The first was plausibility: did the story I was being told ring true and did it jibe with the accounts of others who had confronted the same dangers and difficulties? The second was consistency: did the story hold together, retain its form and adhere to the same facts in the face of persistent questioning? The third was comprehensiveness: was the story large in scope and vividly recalled, and did it accord with the historical record?

As a reporter I am satisfied that I have done everything I could possibly have done to authenticate these stories. If I have used my own reason to resolve certain inconsistencies, it has always been in accord with the canons of historical reconstruction, where there was overwhelming probability that the event occurred in the manner I recounted it. And if, in certain rare instances, I have given the benefit of the doubt to what, after all the above tests had been met, still seemed like a too miraculous account of personal survival, it was because I had learned in the course of writing this book that nothing could be more miraculous than the survival of a Jew in Berlin during the last years of World War II.

Leonard Gross

Bear Valley, California

November 1981


took power in Germany at noon on January 30, 1933, some 160,000 Jews were living in Berlin, approximately one-third of a German-Jewish population of 500,000 persons who, by and large, considered themselves at least as German as they were Jewish. During World War I there had been no more loyal German subjects than the Jews, but by September 1, 1939, when World War II began, the Jewish population had been cut in half. Mostly this was a result of the emigration of Jews fleeing the physical and economic abuses that had become endemic in the Third Reich, but to some extent it was a consequence of the suicides, disappearances and murders that were the harbingers of destruction not only for the Jews remaining in Germany but for somewhere between 4,000,000 and 5,500,000 other Jews inhabiting lands overrun by the German blitzkrieg.

Exactly how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust may never be known, but the Nazis' genocide itself is the best documented crime in history. The manner in which they proposed to exterminate these Jews had evolved over several years through a series of orders and experiments, culminating in a conference held in January 1942, in a suburb of Berlin called Wannsee, to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies involved. The conference, convened by Hitler, was presided over by Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Service and deputy chief of the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, the Secret State Police. The minutes of the meeting, attended by second-level state and party functionaries, were written by Karl Adolf Eichmann, who served under Heydrich as supervisor of the Reich Center for Jewish Emigration. At the meeting Heydrich reviewed the essentials of Nazi policy, carefully avoiding such words as “killing” or “extermination” or “liquidation.” The Jews would continue to be “resettled” in slave-labor camps in conquered lands, principally Poland, where the weak among them would be eliminated immediately and the stronger would be worked until they dropped, at which point they too would be eliminated. The only Jews to receive special treatment would be those born in Germany who were now over sixty-five, those who had received the highest honors for service in World War I, invalids, Jewish officials, and Jews so prominent that their disappearance might somehow compromise the Reich. These “privileged” Jews could be sent to Theresienstadt, an old Bohemian town, where a model ghetto had been constructed to contain them as well as demonstrate Germany's “humanity” to the outside world. As things worked out, Theresienstadt proved too small to contain all the Jews who were shipped there, and many were ultimately sent to Auschwitz and their deaths.

Numbers of extermination methods had been tried, but the one the Nazis finally settled on had been developed between December 1939 and August 1941, when some 50,000 mentally deficient or disturbed Germans were gassed to death in rooms designed as public showers. Those deaths had aroused much anguish among the public, although the only outcry was contained in bitter allusions that appeared in death notices in the press. The same men who had conducted the “mercy killings” program in Germany were sent to the east to build the mass extermination facilities, and the gassings in the east began soon after they had ended in Germany.

One feature of the “Final Solution”—the Nazis' euphemism for extermination of the Jews—was paramount and underlay the discussions at Wannsee. The actual killing of the Jews was to be top secret, in order to avoid, or at least minimize, resistance among the victims and objections by the German people, as well as by neutral nations. One measure of the Nazis' success in disguising their intentions was the response of the Jews themselves. Many being “resettled” followed the Nazis' suggestions and brought their remaining valuables with them, which the Nazis of course confiscated after the owners had been put to death.

While the Final Solution envisioned the annihilation of Jews throughout Europe, a special, proprietary interest was reserved for the Jews of Germany. None of the German Jews were targeted with greater enthusiasm than the Jews of Berlin, whose political, economic, artistic, social and simple physical presence had for so long been anathema to the ranking Nazis.

By 1941 almost half the Jews remaining in Germany were congregated in Berlin, to some extent as a consequence of local “actions” that had ousted them from smaller communities, but principally because of their desire to seek strength in numbers and anonymity in the largest of Germany's cities. The metropolitan area of Berlin contained nearly four million people. Geographically the city was as complex as it was spacious. It contained two distinct centers, the official one at the Unter den Linden, with its government buildings, triumphal arch, museums, opera house and embassies, and the commercial one at the head of the Kurfürstendamm, where hotels, shops, cafes and theaters were clustered around the Memorial Church. Within the city's boundaries were dozens of distinctive neighborhoods and commercial areas, as well as manufacturing centers. Rivers and canals wound throughout the city, connecting with many lakes. There were parks throughout the city and forests along its edges—all in all, a promising area for anyone who wished to lose himself or herself in the terrain or the crowd.

But to the Jews who inhabited Berlin during the Nazi era the city was more than a place. It was a state of mind—more civilized and sophisticated, and less swayed by the Nazis than any other municipality. On balance, Berlin was politically liberal; since 1900 it had voted Social Democratic in every election in which it had been free to do so. Culturally, the Berliners' position in the national consciousness was akin to that of New Yorkers in the United States. They tended to view the rest of the country as a suburb of Berlin. Out-of-towners, in turn, thought the Berliners arrogant and perverse; they resented their argumentativeness and independence, their proximity to power, their tolerance of bohemian life-styles. To Hitler, Berlin was “that sinful Babel.” He despised it, a fact he never tried to hide, and it made him uncomfortable as well. Whenever he visited the city in the days before he took power, he always brought his bodyguards, the Schutzstaffel, or S.S., with him. Above all, Hitler resented the city's relative lack of ardor for his cause. Joseph Goebbels was said to have been so disturbed by this that he would order storm troopers to disguise themselves as civilians and cheer his own procession through the city's streets. There was certainly no visible enthusiasm among the city's population in September 1939, when World War II began.

As for the Jews, for all of the evil that had emanated from Berlin's ruling legions, the city was not the center of their hell during the first years of the Third Reich. Persecutions—including random and quasi-official acts of violence and even murder—had begun much earlier and had been much more severe in Germany's towns than they had been in the larger cities. Partly this was due to the presence of more varied and sophisticated populations in the larger cities. Partly it was because the Nazis themselves had to be more circumspect in the large cities lest they call attention, particularly in the foreign press, to their acts against the Jews. This was especially true of Berlin, the nation's capital, where the diplomatic corps and foreign press were assembled.

But by late 1941, when only friendly observers remained, the Nazis could operate more openly. By then the Jews of Germany had been forced like cattle from the outlying regions into city tenements that were the equivalent of stock pens. The shipment of Jews to slaughterhouses in the east was the penultimate step in the extermination process.

Although there had been one instance in October of 1940 when hundreds of Berlin Jews had been arrested and sent off to Poland, full-scale systematic deportations did not occur until exactly one year later. On October 18, 1941, the first transport of 1,000 Jews from Berlin was dispatched to Auschwitz. Over the next ten weeks another twenty-five transports left the city, each carrying about 1,000 Jews. By the spring of 1942 the dispatch of Jews, conducted with the same brisk efficiency that had characterized Germany's conquest of most of Europe, had reduced Berlin's Jewish population to a quarter of its original number. The process would have gone even faster but for the army, which insisted that those Jews employed in war work should remain on their jobs until adequate replacements could be found. For one member of the Nazi hierarchy, however, the continued presence of Jews in the capital of the Third Reich was insufferable.

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